Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces. Matthew 7:1–6
If people living in blatant disobedience to God have a favorite Bible verse, I think this is it: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (7:1). To them this verse seems to say that no one should ever challenge them about their sinful behavior.
This is a total misunderstanding of what Jesus meant here. He wasn’t saying that we can’t pass any sort of judgment; He was prohibiting us from judging wrongly.
As Jesus addressed this topic of judgment in His sermon, He said, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (7:3–5). Jesus was actually telling us that we can judge others—provided we’ve judged ourselves first. He was definitely forbidding us from passing certain kinds of judgment. In order to understand exactly what Jesus was forbidding, we need to take a broader look at the subject of judging in Scripture.
The bigger picture of Scripture teaches that we are forbidden from judging others beyond what God has declared in His Word. Paul wrote, “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths” (Colossians 2:16). Throughout the long history of the church, many manmade rules have been imposed upon people who have then been condemned for not following those rules. This is one of the types of judgment Jesus is referring to and prohibiting.
Second, we are forbidden to judge according to outward appearance. The religious leaders of His day falsely judged Jesus because He didn’t look like the Messiah that they had envisaged, but He said to them, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We often size people up according to our expectations and make a judgment. I’ve done that, and it’s led to false conclusions about people. We’re not to let a person’s looks, the way they dress, or perhaps the way they talk to affect how we would relate to that person.
Third, we are forbidden to judge self-righteously. Do you remember the story about two men who went to the temple to pray? The Pharisee, standing next to a tax collector, prayed, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortionist, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector” (Luke 18:10–11). In this story, Jesus gives us a vivid example of how self-righteousness can lead to falsely judging someone.
Fourth, we are forbidden from judging mercilessly: “Judgment is without mercy to the one who shows no mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). When somebody wrongs us, we want justice to be served, but we have to keep in mind what Jesus says here: “With what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (7:2). Someday all of us will be judged, and if we have been harsh and merciless in our judgment of others, we’ll be judged by the same standard.
And fifth, we are prohibited from judging finally. In other words, we are not to make a judgment that would place a man beyond the grace of God. Paul wrote, “Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5). We have to be careful never to write someone off; that is not our place. How many believers in the first century church in Jerusalem thought that Saul of Tarsus would get saved? Probably none. I’m sure that some thought his damnation was already sealed. But what happened? The Lord not only saved him but put him into the ministry. We cannot know if a person has gone beyond the point of no return in their sin, only God knows. It is not our place to judge.
Jesus did not teach that we can’t pass judgment on what is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. He was telling us that there is a right way and there is a wrong way.