Jesus on Judgment: What “Do Not Judge” Does and Does Not Mean


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Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1)

Of everything Jesus taught, I wrestle with this passage maybe the most.

It’s just so darn hard for me to obey, partly because I don’t understand it, partly because I don’t want to do it.

I have an analytical mind and a discerning spirit, and both of those things lead me to want to judge.

And those are the good things. I also wrestle with the human desire to compare and to feel superior, and I think maybe that is the real reason I find this command so hard to carry out.

Understanding Jesus on Judgment

Understanding first.

What does Jesus mean by these words? And what does he not mean?

It’s a common complaint among Christians that NON-Christians, people who have never in their lives cracked open a Bible and who treat the names of God as synonyms for “I’m in a foul mood,” can nevertheless quote this verse.

“The Bible says don’t judge.”

That’s true, it does. And yet our natural response is to rise up in righteous indignation and protest, “But that’s not what it MEANS!”

Okay then. What DOES it mean?

Discernment vs Judgment

I draw a distinction, because I think the Bible draws a distinction, between the triumvirate of noticing-understanding-discerning and the act of judgment.

It wasn’t, for example, judgmental of Paul to notice the servant girl following him and Silas through the streets of Philippi, screaming out, “These men are servants of the Most High God!”

He couldn’t NOT notice that, just like we can’t NOT notice the way someone dresses, speaks, acts, carries on, lives their life.

And it wasn’t judgmental of him to understand how her actions were affecting the crowds and hindering (or not) his ministry.

Paul also discerned, spiritually, the cause of her behaviour: she was possessed by a demon.

And eventually, being fed up (which also doesn’t seem to be the same thing as “judging”), he cast the demon out. (See Acts 16-18.)

All of Jesus’s disciples felt free to notice, to understand, and to discern, and they acted on what they noticed, whether by calling one another out on hypocrisy (Paul again, publicly chastising Peter in Antioch in Galatians 2) or calling the entire city of Jerusalem to repent for their complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus (Peter this time, in Acts 2).

Jesus’s words, “Do not judge,” did not hamstring their ability to act as a prophetic voice to their nation or to one another. Nor did it stop them from announcing the superiority of their faith over paganism, nor did it stop them from forming a community that was distinct from “the world” (as they called the surrounding communities).

So “judgment” isn’t any of that. Jesus apparently did NOT mean that we cannot see, understand, discern, and speak out. Elsewhere he said, “ Stop judging according to outward appearances; rather judge according to righteous judgment” (John 7:24).

But “Do not judge” is strong language, and I posit that, rather than trying to find loopholes out of that, we would be well served to take Jesus seriously and to change the general posture of our hearts and minds toward each other.

Judgment is natural. Leaving it behind is hard. But if we are going to be people of grace, it’s essential that we learn how.

Knowing Where to Quit

Perhaps the key to carrying out Jesus’s command here is knowing where to quit.

Another way to say that might be knowing the limits of our jurisdiction, or even more, recognizing the limits of our understanding.

My friend and co-author Mercy Hope uses the analogy of a crime to explain this.

As a civilian you can see someone committing a crime and recognize what you are seeing. You can call the police. You can even personally intervene to stop it. The police, with their higher jurisdiction, may even put the person under arrest.

But either as a citizen or as a police officer, you do not judge, and the law prohibits you from doing so. The judgment must happen in a court of law, through due process, and can only be passed by an individual fully qualified to do so.

Why is this so? Our justice system recognizes that simply because we can see something bad happening does not mean we understand the whole story. What we see may turn out to be something very different under the surface. The crime has many components, including motive and forethought and the presence of accomplices.

It may be better, or far worse, than we initially believed it to be.

There’s another interesting story, in Acts 5, where a man named Ananias decided to lie to the apostles and through them to the Holy Spirit, and after Peter discerned the lie and accused Ananias of it, Ananias dropped dead.

But it’s interesting to see what Peter did and didn’t do in this situation. He recognized the law for what it was, discerned the role of the enemy (“Why has Satan filled your heart?”), and announced the sin.

He didn’t carry out the judgment. Ananias was stricken by God himself, not by Peter.

But more interestingly to me, he didn’t answer his own question.

Why HAD Satan filled Ananias’s heart?

That remained a mystery. Peter doesn’t even venture a guess.

There are things we can see, understand, discern. But along with them there are always other things, things we can’t see, understand, or discern. Truly righteous judgment must deal with these other things.

The limits of our knowledge mean we are not qualified to judge.

Doing What Jesus Said

As easy as it is for us to pull the “It doesn’t mean that; we can still call sin sin” card when people accuse of us of transgressing Jesus’s command by judging them, I am concerned that it’s TOO easy.

That maybe we fall back on that because we ARE judging, and we shouldn’t be, and we don’t want to face what’s in our own hearts.

I can only speak for myself, but I’ve learned I’m not usually alone. There have been times in my life I have judged, been convicted of it, and FOUGHT for the right to keep judging. I could so plainly SEE what was going on! How was I supposed to NOT judge that?

Thankfully, Jesus is pretty clear about this. It doesn’t mean checking our brains, shutting down our discernment, and accepting that everything is fine.

It means not placing ourselves in the judge’s seat. It means not picking up the gavel, not passing sentence, not seating ourselves on the throne of God and pretending we can see all.

In a biblical worldview, ultimate judgment is a fact. It will come, and it will come exactly when it is supposed to, with God (not us) as the judge.

Here’s the thing: God alone knows why Satan filled Ananias’s heart. God alone knows exactly what led this man down that road, what factors and temptations and past history and wounds and hardness all led to that.

And while Ananias suffered a fairly swift consequence for it, in the final judgment, we may find God is more lenient—or more harsh—than we expected.

Not Judging Is a Choice

On some level, seeing, understanding, and discerning are all instinctive and automatic. We do them intuitively.

The same is not true of judgment. We choose to judge others, so we can also choose not to.

We can choose to recognize the limits of our understanding. We can choose to say, “I don’t occupy the judgment seat, and I don’t want to.” We can choose to walk in humility and love toward one another, rather than lifting ourselves up as judge and jury.

We can choose to love mercy, and to love one another more than we love our own views and our own “rightness.”

I think ultimately, that’s what Jesus is saying here. Judgment is inevitable. It will come to all. Let it be God who brings it, not us; let it come in the fullness of time, not prematurely.

Let us love one another while we can, and in the process, what we see clearly now may be changed, transformed—from the final word on a person’s life to a stepping stone along the way to grace.

(This is Part 78 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)



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2 responses to “Jesus on Judgment: What “Do Not Judge” Does and Does Not Mean”

  1. Jacqueline Wallace Avatar

    I’m enjoying your commentaries on Matthew, Rachel. Keep up the good work!

    1. Rachel Thomson Avatar
      Rachel Thomson

      Thanks, Jacqueline! Great to see you here :).

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