A Misunderstood Biblical Command: “Don’t Judge!”

This is an easy-to-follow word study of key terms in the New Testament and a close look at Matthew 7:1-5. Let’s understand what it really means in context.

I have often heard that imperative or command, and so have you (Matt. 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37-42). It’s supposed to end all debate. It seems at first glance to make Christianity beautiful, but for the thinking person, it falls into disrepute; how the imperative is thrown around seems unrealistic and foolish.

Let’s not be foolish, but interpret the verses in the context of the entire New Testament.

After all, in the future believers will judge the world and even angels (1 Cor. 6:2-3).

But is confusion about the command the full and final story?

Let’s do an old fashioned Bible study to figure things out.

If readers would like to see the verses in various translations, they may go to Biblegateway.com and type in the references.

To begin, we need to guard our own hearts. If we condemn – in some contexts the same Greek verb can function for condemn or judge – but we practice the same vices without realizing it, then we’re really bad off. We’re morally blind to our own sins and faults.

However, we are called to judge in certain contexts.

If you’re a parent, you’re called upon to settle a fight between your kids.

If you’re a boss, you need to evaluate your employees.

If you’re a judge in a court of law, you are definitely called to try the facts and reach a just verdict from all of the evidence.

If you’re a teacher, you have to grade your students’ papers.

If you’re about to marry someone, you must think, consider, prefer, and select him or her.

If you’re about to buy a car, you must reach a decision about the best deal that fits your needs.

According to the Bible, all of these judgments are permitted.

BDAG, considered by many to be the authoritative lexicon of the Greek New Testament, offers these definitions of the common Greek verb krinō (114 times in NT), depending on the context (pp. 567-69).

1. “To make a selection, select, prefer” (Rom. 14:5a);

2.  “To pass judgment upon (and thereby seek to influence) the lives and actions of other people”;

(a) “Judge, pass judgment, express an opinion about” (Mt. 7:1a, Mt. 7:2a; Luke 6:37a; John 7:24a, John 8:15);

(b) “Especially pass an unfavorable judgment up, criticize, find fault with, condemn” (Rom. 2:1abc, Rom. 2:3; Rom. 14:3f, Rom. 14:10, Rom. 14:13a, Rom. 14:22; Col. 2:16; Jas. 4:11, 12; 1 Cor. 4:5. 1 Cor. 10:29);

3. “To make a judgment based on taking various factors in account, judge, think, consider, look upon” (Luke 7:43; Acts 13:46, Acts 16:16, Acts 15:19, Acts 26:8; 1 Cor. 10:15, 1 Cor. 11:13; 2 Cor. 5:14);

4. “To come to a conclusion after a cognitive process, reach a decision, decide, propose, intend” (Acts 3:13, Acts 16:14, Acts 20:16, Acts 21:25, Acts 25:25, Acts 27:1; Rom. 14:13b; 1 Cor. 2:2, 5:3, 7:37; 2 Cor. 2:1; Ti. 3:12);

5. “To engage in a judicial process, judge, decide, hale before a court, condemn, also hand over for judicial punishment”;

 (a) Human court (Luke 12:57; Luke 19:22; John 7:51, John 18:31; Acts 13:27, Acts 23:3, Acts 24:6, Acts 24:21, Acts 25:9, Acts 25:10, Acts 26:6; 1 Cor. 5:12ab);

 (b) Divine tribunal (Matt. 7:1b, 2b; Luke 6:37b; John 5:22, 30, John 8:15b, John 8:16, John 8:50; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 5:13; 2 Tim. 4:1; Jas. 2:12; 1 Pet. 1:17; 4:5; Rev. 6:10, Rev. 11:18, Rev. 20:13); tribunal may be occupied “by those who have been divinely commissioned to judge: the twelve apostles judge the twelve tribes” (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30); the uncircumcised judges the circumcised (Rom. 2:27); believers are judges of cosmos (1 Cor. 6:2ab)

We haven’t even discussed related verbs and nouns: krisis, anakrinō, diakrinō, diakrisis, krima, and kritikos (etc.). All these are permitted in certain contexts. The only one we have to be careful about is katakrinō, which means condemn, and is used almost exclusively (18 times in NT) of God and human judges, but often with injustice on a human level (Matt. 20:18, 27:3; Mark 10:33, 14:64; John 8:10; Rom. 2:1, Rom. 8:34).

Matthew 7:1-5

1 Do not judge, so that you are not judged, 2 for the judgment by which you judge, you shall be judged, and the measure by which you measure, it will be measured to you. 3 Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and don’t perceive the beam in your own eye? 4 Or how will you say to your brother, “Let me take out the speck from your eye,” and look! there’s a beam in your eye? 5 Hypocrite! First take out the beam from your eye and then you will see clearly to take the speck out your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5 my translation)

The whole context is condemning from a superior, yet self-deceived stance. Jesus will go next into hypocritical judgment with the speck and beam hyperbole. So “judge” could be just as easily translated as “condemn” (Olmstead, pp. 140-41). Alternative translations: “Do not condemn so that you will not be condemned.” Or “Do not judge so that you will not be condemned.” Yes, the same Greek word is used in this short verse, but once again a superior and self-deceived judgment is in view. The judge has a beam in his eye. Consider our saying today: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

“you shall be judged”: this is in the passive voice, so Bible interpreters say that this is the divine passive, which means an understated way that God is behind the scenes judging the self-appointed judge. Some commentators say that this verse teaches that God will judge finally and conclusively on the last day (Keener, p. 240; Osborne, comment on 7:1).

This verse is not talking about inspecting and recognizing healthy and rotten fruit (7:15-20). This verse is not about evaluating someone at work when you are the supervisor. This verse is not talking about evaluating your students’ essays, if you are a teacher. It is not about sizing up what your kids did wrong, now that both are crying and accusing each other. We make neutral (and sometimes painful and sometimes positive) judgments / evaluations all the time, and God expects us to do that, when it is our responsibility. Jesus is about to teach not to throw pearls before swine or holy things to dogs (v. 6). However, making judgments and issuing condemnation on people who are not in our jurisdiction is to go down the wrong path.

And for sure we kingdom citizens should not require the state to abolish the legal system. That would be ridiculous.

“What is forbidden is rigid, censorious judgmentalism that scrutinizes others without even a glance at oneself (7:3; cf. Ps. 18:25-26; Rom. 2:1; 14:10; 1 Cor. 5:12; Jas. 4:11-12; 5:9). Such draconian standard will return to haunt the one who condemns others by it (Matt. 7:2; cf. 5:43-47; 6:14-15; 18:12-20, 32-35; cf. 2 Sam. 12:1-15 …) Jesus teaches that honest introspection is absolutely necessary for clear discernment and just moral judgments. Christian interpersonal judgments must be constructive, not retributive, since Jesus’s disciples will not demand an eye for an eye and will love their enemies (Matt. 5:38-48; 18:15-20; cf. Gal. 6:1)” (Turner on 7:1).

Jesus piles on the same “judge” root in Greek, but in context the verse could be translated: “for the standard by which you judge, you shall be condemned” (emphasis added); or “for the standard by which you condemn, you shall be condemned” (emphasis added). And so it goes with measuring people or sizing them up.

The point to these two verses is not to judge people by putting them in permanent categories and shut the prison door. The “judge” words are found most often in a legal context and a divine context. In a legal context, earthly judges are trained to judge crimes and disputes. In the divine context, God is the only one who can judge every molecule in the soul of the whole person from beginning to end, throughout the human’s life, and pass final sentence, with the utmost and perfect accuracy. We cannot—are unable—to do this, because in the next three verses we have a beam in our eyes. Therefore, you have no right to become accuser, tryer of facts, the judge who renders the verdict and passes sentence, and then the jailer.

Here’s Luke’s expanded version, which confirms my interpretation: “Further, don’t judge, and you will not be judged. And don’t condemn, and you will not be condemned. (Luke 6:37). To judge and condemn in Jesus’s teaching in Luke in different contexts are synonyms.

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus now launches into hyperbole (pronounced hy-PER-bo-lee). Recall that this is a rhetorical strategy to get the point across in a startling way. It is extravagant exaggeration done in such a clear way that everyone recognizes it cannot be literally true. Up-to-date example: “The ice cream guy is very generous! He piled on the ice cream a mile high on my cone!” Everyone knows that this cannot be literally true. A beam cannot really stick out of a man’s eye. But the imagery is startling and even humorous.

The goal here is to throw a glass of cold water in a hypocrite’s face, spiritually speaking, and to help him to see the truth. It is this context that leads scholars to translate the “judge” verbs (and noun) as “condemn.” It is judgment from a self-deceived and falsely superior vantage point. The self-appointed judge cannot really stand astride the situation and look down from his perch on people, with clarity. He thinks he can, but he is wrong. If he does, his judgment will boomerang right back to him. I have heard it said that it is easy to go astray, but much harder to convince someone to leave the path of error. This wise statement leads to the next key word.

“hypocrite”: originally it comes from the Greek play actor on the stage. They wore masks and played roles. There were stock characters, such as the buffoon, the bombastic soldier, or the old miser. The Septuagint (pronounced sep-TOO-ah-gent and abbreviated LXX for the “seventy” scholars who worked on it) is a third to second century translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. It uses the term hypocrite to mean the godless. However, in Matthew’s Gospel (it is used only once in Mark 7:6 and three times in Luke 6:42; 12:56; 13:15), it is more nuanced. Hypocrites appeared one way, but in reality they were different. They appeared outwardly religious, but inwardly they were full of dead men’s bones (Matt. 23:27). They wore religious masks. They actually did many things that the law required, but they failed to understand God’s view of righteousness. They were more self-deceived than deceivers, though in Matt. 23, Jesus denounced the Pharisees and experts in the law for teaching one thing but living another. They are religious show-offs who act out their righteousness to impress others but are out of touch with God’s mercy and love. Eccl. 7:16 says not to be overly righteous, but that is what they were and displayed it publicly. Here is this verse, kingdom citizens can become hypocritical. A bad place to be.

Please note that Jesus does say we can indeed take the speck out of our brother’s or sister’s eye. So a certain measure of judgment has to be allowed in order to see the speck. The conversation can work out like this:

“Oh dear brother! I have a speck in my eye! Can you help me get it out!”

“I can, because God gave me the grace to pull out of my eye a gigantic flaw. I can sympathize with you.” Only then can you see clearly enough to help your brother.

“It is obvious here that once you have dealt with your problems, you will have ‘clear’ sight to help others with their difficulties” (Osborne’s comment on 7:5).

So Jesus did not say not to judge, period. He offers the reason to be careful about judging. Here it is: because or for (v. 2) you too will be judged by your own judgment. So if you judge harshly and wrongly, then expect to be judged harshly and wrongly in return. If you judge correctly (your employee really did do something wrong), then expect to be judged correctly when it is your turn. If you judge wisely and fairly, then expect to be judged wisely and fairly. And remember the divine passive. God will be the one judging you, and you can trust him to judge you correctly, wisely, and fairly. And his judgment does not have to negative. He can judge you to be righteous before humankind and commend you. He will vindicate you before others, because you really did act justly and righteously before others.

Psalm 26:1:

Vindicate me, Lord, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered. (Psalm 26:1, NIV)

Ps. 35:24:

Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God; do not let them gloat over me. (Ps. 35:24)

Psalm 43:1:

Vindicate me, my God, and plead my cause against an unfaithful nation. Rescue me from those who are deceitful and wicked. (Ps. 43:1, NIV)

Psalm 138:8:

The Lord will vindicate me; your love, Lord, endures forever— do not abandon the works of your hands. (Ps. 138:8, NIV)

God loves to support his servants who walk uprightly. He will cause you to win, when you follow him and are dealt with unjust in the business world, for example. Let God take revenge on those who persecute you without cause.

How does this post help me understand God better?

To sum up, we are allowed to judge in certain contexts, but we can’t pass hasty, permanent guilty verdicts on our neighbors, as if their life story has been completed and can never be redeemed.

We can’t pigeon-hole him and keep him there. And it’s about a wrong attitude.

Only then is it appropriate to exclaim, “Don’t judge!”

But in countless other areas we are supposed to judge and even commanded to do so.

Here is what Jesus intended for Matthew 7 and Luke 6:

Do not judge by appearances, but judge with a righteous judgment. (John 7:24)

You may judge, but not superficially. Look for deeply at the fruit. Judge the fruit, but not the root.


Matthew 7

Luke 6

What Does ‘Turn the Other Cheek’ Mean?

Revenge in the Old and New Testaments: Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth


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