A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 7:1-12. A Christian’s relationships: to his brother and father. a). The Christian is not to be a judge.
Next, our Lord’s injunction to ‘judge not’ cannot be understood as a command to suspend our critical faculties in relation to other people, to turn a blind eye to their faults (pretending not to notice them), to eschew all criticism and to refuse to discern between truth and error, goodness and evil. How can we be sure that Jesus was not referring to these things? Partly because it would not be honest to behave like this, but hypocritical, and we know from this and other passages his love of integrity and hatred of hypocrisy. Partly because it would contradict the nature of man whose creation in God’s image includes the ability to make value-judgements. Partly also because much of Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is based on the assumption that we will (indeed should) use our critical powers. For example, we have repeatedly heard his call to be different from the world around us, in that we are to develop a righteousness which exceeds that of the Pharisees, to do ‘more than others’ in the standard of love we adopt, not to be like the hypocrites in our piety or like the heathen in our ambition. But how can we possibly obey all this teaching unless we first evaluate the performance of others and then ensure that ours is different from and higher than theirs? Similarly, in Matthew 7, this very command not to ‘judge’ others is followed almost immediately by two further commands: to avoid giving ‘what is holy’ to dogs or pearls to pigs (6), and to beware of false prophets (15). It would be impossible to obey either of these commands without using our critical judgment. For in order to determine our behaviour towards ‘dogs’, ‘pigs’ and ‘false prophets’ we must first be able to recognize them, and in order to do that we must exercise some critical discernment.
If, then, Jesus was neither abolishing law courts nor forbidding criticism, what did he mean by *Judge not*? In a word ‘censoriousness’. The follower of Jesus is still a ‘critic’ in the sense of using his powers of discernment, but not a ‘judge’ in the sense of being censorious. Censoriousness is a compound sin consisting of several unpleasant ingredients. It does not mean to assess people critically, but to judge them harshly. The censorious critic is a fault-finder who is negative and destructive towards other people and enjoys actively seeking out their failings. He puts the worst possible construction on their motives, pours cold water on their schemes and is ungenerous towards their mistakes.
Worse than that, to be censorious is to set oneself up as a censor, and so claim the competence and authority to sit in judgement upon one’s fellow men. But if I do this, I am casting both myself and my fellows in the wrong role. Since when have they been my servants, responsible to me? And since when have I been their lord and judge? As Paul wrote to the Romans, applying the truth of Matthew 7:1 to their situation: ‘Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls’ (14:4). Paul also applied the same truth to himself when he found himself surrounded by hostile detractors: ‘It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart’. (1 Cor.4:4,5). The simple but vital point which Paul is making in these verses is that man is not God. No human being is qualified to be the judge of his fellow humans, for we cannot read each other’s hearts or assess each other’s motives. To be censorious is to presume arrogantly to anticipate the day of judgement, to usurp the prerogative of the divine Judge, in fact to try to play God.
Not only are we not the judge, but we are among the judged, and shall be judged with the greater strictness ourselves if we dare to judge others. *Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get*. The rationale should be clear. If we pose as judges, we cannot plead ignorance of the law we claim to be able to administer. If we enjoy occupying the bench, we must not be surprised to find ourselves in the dock. As Paul put it, ‘Therefore, you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you the judge are doing the very same things’ (Rom.2:1; cf.Jas.3:1).
To sum up, the command to *judge not* is not a requirement to be blind, but rather a plea to be generous. Jesus does not tell us to cease to be men (by suspending our critical powers which help to distinguish us from animals) but to renounce the presumptuous ambition to be God (by setting ourselves up as judges).
Tomorrow: Matthew 7:3-4. A Christian’s relationships: to his brother and father. b). The Christian is not to be a hypocrite.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.