Jesus said, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Almost everyone is familiar with that statement. Far fewer seem to know that Jesus also said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgement” (John 7:24).
How shall we reconcile these two statements? Simple. There is more than one kind of judging. Or, to put it another way, some judgments are prohibited while others are required.
The term judge has a wide range of meanings, from discerning between things to assessing the value of things to rendering verdicts. (A positive verdict is just as much a judgment as a negative one is, though for some reason we use the term mostly in the negative sense.) Jesus’ disciples must be “judicious” in the sense of discerning. Consider a few examples.
We are to judge moral practices. “Test all things; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22, NKJV). Failure to differentiate righteous and sinful behavior results in participating in conduct which will keep us out of heaven (Galatians 5:22-24).
We are to judge teaching or doctrine. Timothy was to combat “strange doctrines” (1 Timothy 1:3). Men would fall away by following “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). John said, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Indeed, almost every book in the New Testament warns against some kind of doctrinal error. It does make a difference what we believe!
A congregation must judge ungodly members. 1 Corinthians 5 instructs us to withdraw from such, and that requires a judgment on our part that they are so living. Note especially verse 12.
The truth is, numerous obligations that Christians have require us to make some judgments about people: praying for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), restoring a brother caught in a trespass (Galatians 6:1), admonish-ing the unruly, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14), turning a sinner from the error of his way (James 5:20), appointing elders or deacons (Titus 1:5-9), etc.
When Jesus said, “Judge not,” He was clearly not prohibiting all judgments. Neither He nor His apostles ever made any such application. The remainder of the paragraph makes His meaning clear.
Verse 2 speaks of the way we judge and by what standard. The parallel account, Luke 6:36-37, puts being merciful in contrast to judging. Rather than being harsh, self-righteous, and hypercritical, one must be merciful. Rather than having a fault-finding disposition, we ought to give others the benefit-of-the-doubt. And when we do assess that they are in some way in the wrong, rather than gloating about that we must try to help them.
Verses 3-5 address an all-too-common problem: applying some truth to another before applying it to self. And in Jesus’ illustration of the speck versus the log, the problem is far more glaring in me than it is in my brother! If I am humble, introspective, and honest, I will see my own need for improvement. If my focus is typically on others’ faults, however, I will miss it every time.
Here is one application of this principle of seeing fault only in others. When someone resents you thinking of him as lost and therefore accuses you of judging him in the condemned sense, you might remind him that in condemning you for judging him he is judging you.
When Jesus commanded, “Judge with righteous judgment,” what did He mean?
The context of John 7 is judgment about Jesus—another judgment every person must make! Despite His miracles, the Jewish leaders had already dismissed Jesus as a sinner because He did not conform to their traditions about the Sabbath. Jesus was now warning the crowds who had come to Jerusalem for the feast not to blindly accept the conclusions of their leaders or to form their own assessments of Him superficially. Any evaluation we must make—whether of a doctrine, a moral practice, or a person—ought to be made with this warning in mind.
Righteous judgment obviously must be rightly motivated. That always begins with a desire to please God (v. 17). Prejudice—whether with regard to persons, doctrines, or practices—will almost inevitably lead to wrong conclusions. So will self-centeredness.
Righteous judgment requires the right standard, and that is always God’s revealed will. It is truth (John 17:17). What we’ve always thought or what most folks think or what seems right are unreliable. (The Jews misjudged Jesus in part because their Sabbath practices were rooted in tradition, not God’s Law.)
Righteous judgment requires a fair application of the standard: to self first, to doctrines and practices honestly (not rationalizing what we want to believe or do), to all people equally (not excusing our friends or indicting our enemies), and to no one or no thing without sufficient evidence or adequate perspective.
In every circumstance, let us all be keenly aware of our own limitations and the fallibility of our judgments. “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).