The verses at which we have now arrived begin a new section of our Lord's Sermon, and that it is by no means one of the simplest appears from the diverse treatment which it has received at the hands of the commentators. They are almost unanimous in allowing that our Lord's prohibition "Judge not" cannot be understood in its widest possible latitude, yet as to how far and wherein it is to be modified there is little agreement. That Christ's forbidding us to exercise and pass judgment upon others cannot be taken absolutely, few if any who are acquainted with the general tenor of God's Word would deny, yet as soon as they attempted to define its limitations a considerable variety of opinions would be expressed. This should at once warn us against coming to any hasty conclusion as to the meaning of Matthew 7:1, and guard us against being misled by the mere sound of its words. Yea, it should drive us to our knees, begging God graciously to subdue the prejudices of our hearts and enlighten our minds, and then diligently search the Scriptures for other passages which throw light upon the one now before us.
Not only is it very necessary for our own personal good that we spare no pains in endeavoring to arrive at a right understanding of these verses, for it is to our own loss that we misapprehend any portion of Holy Writ, as it will be to our own condemnation if we transgress this Divine commandment, but unless its meaning be opened unto us we shall be at a loss to repel those who would bring us into bondage by the corrupt use they make of it. There are few verses quoted more frequently than the opening one of Matthew 7, and few less understood by those who are so ready to cite it and hurl it at the heads of those whom they ignorantly or maliciously suppose are contravening it. Let the servant of God denounce a man who is promulgating serious error, and there are those-boasting of their broadmindedness-who will say to him, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Let the saint faithfully rebuke an offender for some sin, and he is likely to have the same text quoted against him.
"Judge not, that ye be not judged." The word which is here rendered "judge" is one that occurs frequently in the New Testament, and it is used in quite a variety of senses. It is the one found in "I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say" (1 Cor. 10:15), and in "judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?" (1 Cor. 11:13), where "judge" means weigh carefully and form an opinion or consideration. It occurs in "thou [Simon, whom Christ asked, "Which of them will love Him most?"] hast rightly judged" (Luke 7:43), where it signifies inferred or drawn a conclusion. It occurs in "If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord" (Acts 16:15), that is, "if you regard or account me so." "Take ye Him and judge Him according to your law" (John 18:31) means, "put Him on trial before your court." In Romans 14:3, "judge" has the force of despise, as is clear from the first member of the antithesis. "Doth our law judge any man before it hear him?" (John 7:51), where "judge" signifies condemn-its commonest signification. Which or how many of these meanings the word "judge" has in our text must be carefully ascertained and not hastily or arbitrarily assumed.
Now the first thing to do when prayerfully studying a passage on which opinions vary is to examine its context, first the remote and then the immediate. In this instance the "remote" would be the particular portion of the Word in which it occurs, namely the Sermon on the Mount. As we pass from one section to another in this Sermon, it is very important that we bear in mind our Lord's dominant object and design therein, which was to show that He requires in the character and conduct of His disciples something radically different from and far superior to that religion which obtained among the Jews, the highest form of which they regarded the scribes and Pharisees as possessing. The keynote was struck by Christ when He told His hearers, "except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (v. 20). That which precedes and all that follows to the end of His discourse is to be pondered and interpreted in the light of that statement.
In the earlier chapters we called attention frequently to what has last been pointed out, and it must not be lost sight of as we enter upon the present division of our Lord's address. That which pre-eminently characterized the Pharisees was the very high regard which they had for themselves and the utter contempt in which they held all who belonged not to their sect. This is evident from the words of Christ in Luke 18:9, where we are told, "He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others"; in what immediately follows we have contrasted the Pharisee and the publican. The Pharisees took it upon them to go up and down passing censorious and unjust judgment upon others, while blind to their own glaring faults. The disciple of Christ is to conduct himself in a manner exactly the reverse: unsparingly judging himself and refusing to invade the office of God where others are concerned.
The "more immediate context" of Matthew 7:1, is the verses which follow it. In order to obtain a right understanding of verse 1, it is important to recognize that the next four verses are inseparably connected with it, that the five together form one complete section treating of the same subject. The contents of verse 2 show plainly that we have a continuation of the theme of verse 1, while the "and" at the beginning of verse 3 and the "or" at the beginning of verse 4 denote the same thing, while verse 5 contains our Lord's application of the whole. The value of preserving the link between the later verses and the opening one lies in noting the threefold mention of "thy brother" in verses 3, 4 and 5, and in observing what is there said of his state and the state of the one who takes him to task. If these details be kept in mind we shall be preserved from making an erroneous interpretation and application of verse I. As we must not too much anticipate what is to come we will leave these suggestions with the reader for him to ponder.
After carefully weighing both the remote and immediate contexts of our verse our next task is to search the Scriptures for all other passages treating of or bearing upon the subject of judging others. It is most essential that we do so if we are to be preserved from many erroneous ideas. Some statements of Holy Writ are presented in a very terse and contracted form, but elsewhere they are amplified and filled out: others are expressed in seemingly absolute terms, but elsewhere are modified and qualified. As an illustration of the latter, take the fourth commandment. The Sabbath day is to be kept holy: "in it thou shalt not do any work"; yet from the teachings of Christ we know that works of piety, of mercy, and of necessity are lawful on that day. So it is with our present text: unless we are very careful in our interpretation of it we shall prohibit what is elsewhere required, and be found censuring that which other passages commend.
"The capacity of judging, of forming an estimate and opinion, is one of our most valuable faculties and the right use of it one of our most important duties. 'Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?' (Luke 12:57) says our Lord; 'judge righteous judgment' (John 7:24). If we do not form judgments as to what is true and false, how can we embrace the one and avoid the other?" (John Brown). It is very necessary that we have our "senses exercised to discern [Greek "thoroughly judge"] both good and evil" (Heb. 5:14) if we are not to be deceived by appearances and taken in by every oily-mouthed impostor we encounter. It must not be thought that our Lord here forbade us to act according to the dictates of common prudence and to form an estimate of everything we meet with in the path of duty, nor even that He prohibited us from judging men's characters and actions according to their avowed principles and visible conduct, for in this very chapter He bids us measure men by this rule, saying, "by their fruits ye shall know them" (verse 20), and many duties to others absolutely require us to form a judgment of men, with respect both to their state and their conduct.
Unless we form estimates and come to a decision of what is good and evil in those we meet with we shall be found rejecting the one and condoning the other. "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves" (Matthew 7:15): how shall we heed this injunction unless we carefully measure every preacher we hear by the Word of God? "Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5:11): in order to obey this we are obliged to exercise a judgment as to what are "works of darkness." "We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly" (2 Thess. 3:6): this compels us to decide who is "walking disorderly." "Mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Rom. 16:17): this requires us to determine who are guilty of such things. Thus it is abundantly clear that our Lord's prohibition in Matthew 7:1, is by no means to be taken absolutely.
There are four kinds of judging which are lawful and required by the Word: two public and two private. First, ecclesiastical judgment. This belongs chiefly to the minister, who in preaching God's Word judges men by admonishing their sins, and in his private dealings he must be faithful to their souls and rebuke where necessary. The judgment of the Church is exercised when it decides upon the credibility of the profession of one applying for membership: so too in the maintenance of discipline and exclusion of those who refuse to heed its reproofs. Second, civil government. This pertains to the magistrate, whose office it is to examine those charged with criminal offences, giving judgment according to the laws of the land, acquitting the innocent, sentencing those proved guilty. Legitimate private judgment is first where one man in a Christian manner reprehends another for his sins, which is required by the Lord (Lev. 19:17) and second where the grosser faults of notorious offenders are condemned and others informed thereof that they may be warned against them.
"Judge not:" that which is here forbidden is unlawful judging of our fellows, of which we will instance a variety of cases. First, officiously or magisterially, which lies outside the prerogative of the private individual: this is assuming such an authority over others as we would not allow them to exercise over us, since our rule is to be "subject one to another and be clothed with humility" (1 Pet. 5:5). We are required both by the law of nature (which includes rationality and prudence) and the Scriptures to judge of things, and persons too, as we meet them in the sphere of duty, but to judge whatever lies outside of our path and province is forbidden. "Study to be quiet and to do your own business" (1 Thess. 4:11): if we give full and proper heed to this Divine precept we shall have little or no leisure left to pry into the affairs of others. That which our text prohibits is the passing beyond our legitimate sphere, that taking upon us to judge that which is not set before us for judgment, intruding into the circle of others: "let none of you suffer. . . as a busybody in other men's matters" (1 Pet. 4:15).
Second, "judge not" presumptuously, which is done when we treat mere suspicions or unconfirmed rumors as though they were authenticated facts, and when we ascribe actions to springs which lie outside the range of our cognizance. To pass judgment on the motives of another, which are open to none save the eye of Omniscience, is highly reprehensible, for it is an intrusion upon the Divine prerogative, an invading of the very office of God. "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth" (Rom. 14:4) places the Divine ban upon such conduct. A notable example of what is here interdicted is recorded in Job 1. When the Lord commended His servant unto Satan, saying "Hast thou considered My servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil?" the evil one answered, "Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not Thou made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands and his substance is increased in the land: but put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse Thee to Thy face" (vv. 8-11), suggesting that Job only served God for the gain thereof. Thus to judge presumptuously the motives of another is devilish!
Third, "judge not" hypocritically. This form of unlawful judgment was particularly before our Lord on this occasion, as appears from the verses which immediately follow. The one who is quick to detect the minor faults of others while blind to or unconcerned about his own graver sins is dishonest, pretending to be very precise while giving free rein to his own lusts. Such two-facedness is most reprehensible in the sight of God, and to all right-minded people too. "Therefore thou art inexcusable O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyseIf; for thou that judgest doest the same things" (Rom. 2:1). No matter what may be his social standing, his educational advantages, his religious profession, the one who is guilty of partiality, who censures in others that which he allows in himself, is inexcusable and self-condemned. That even true, yea, eminent, saints are liable to this grievous sin appears from the case of David, for when Nathan propounded the instance of the rich man sparing his own flock and seizing the one lamb of his poor neighbor's, David's anger was greatly kindled and he adjudged the transgressor as worthy of death, while lying himself under guilt equally heinous (2 Sam. 12:1-11).
Fourth, "judge not" hastily or rashly. Before thinking the worst of any person we must make full investigation and obtain clear proof that our suspicions are well grounded or the report we heard is a reliable one. Before the Most High brought upon the world the confusion of languages it is said that He "came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men builded" (Gen. 11:5), as though He would personally investigate their conduct before He passed sentence upon them. So again, before He destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, He said, "I will go down now, and see whether they have done altogether according to the cry of it, which is come unto Me" (Gen. 18:21). Thus God would teach us that before we pass sentence in our minds upon any offender we must take the trouble of obtaining decisive proof of his guilt. We are expressly commanded "judge not according to the appearance (John 7:24), for appearances are proverbially deceptive. Always go to the transgressor and give him an opportunity to clear himself: "he that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him" (Prov. 18:13).
Fifth, "judge not unwarrantably, which is to go beyond the rule which is set before us. In God's Word certain things are commended, certain things condemned, yet there is another class of things on which the Scriptures pronounce no verdict, which we term "things indifferent," and to condemn anyone for using such things is to be "righteous over much" (Eccl. 7:16). It was for just such offences that the apostle reproved some of the saints at Rome, who were sitting in judgment upon their brethren over different things as "meat and drink." So too he admonished the Colossians who were being brought into bondage by the "Touch not, taste not, handle not of the "commandments and doctrines of men" (2:20-23). The Holy Spirit points out that in such cases to judge a brother is to "speak evil of the law" (Jas. 4:11), which means that he who condemns a brother for anything which God has not proscribed regards the Law as being faulty because it has not prohibited such things. "He who quarrels with his brother and condemns him for the sake of anything not determined in the Word of God, does there by reflect on His Word, as if it were not a perfect rule" (Matthew Henry).
Sixth, "judge not" unjustly or unfairly, ignoring everything that is favorable in another and fixing only on that which is unfavorable. It is often far from being an easy matter to secure all the materials and facts which in any case are necessary to form a judgment, yet to pronounce judgment without them is to run a serious hazard of doing another a cruel injustice. Many a one has rashly condemned another who, had he known all, might have approved or at least pitied him. Again, it is very unjust to censure one who has sincerely done his best simply because his effort falls short of what satisfies us. Much unjust judgment proceeds from a spirit of revenge and a desire to do mischief. When David sent his servants to comfort Hanun, the king of Ammon, upon the death of his father, that king suffered his nobles to persuade him that the servants of David were spies on an evil mission (2 Sam. 10): a horrible war was the outcome-behold how great a fire a little matter kindleth!
Seventh, "judge not" unmercifully. While on the one hand we are certainly not, as far too many today appear to think, obliged to regard one who holds fundamental error or one who is thoroughly worldly as a good Christian, yet on the other hand the law of charity requires us to put the best construction we can on doubtful actions, and never without proof ascribe good ones to evil principles or motives. God does not require us to call darkness light or evil good, nevertheless since we are so full of sin ourselves and so prone to err, we must ever be on our guard lest we call light darkness and good evil. We are not to go about with our eyes closed nor wink at sin when we see it, yet it is equally wrong for us to hunt for something to condemn and seize upon every trifle and magnify molehills into mountains. We are not to make a man an offender for a word, nor harbor suspicions where there is no evidence. Many a one has condemned another, where no ground for judgment existed, out of personal jealousy and ill will, which is doing Satan's work. May the Lord graciously deliver both writer and reader from all these forms of unlawfully judging others.