“Judge not, lest you also be judged.” These are very well known words, even by people who do not know Jesus spoke them or that they are found in the Bible. Well known, but at the same time very much misunderstood. What is it that Jesus is telling us here? Does this mean that if you commit a crime and appear in court, you can quote these words to the judge and expect to be let go? Does this mean that as your pastor, I can commit what ever sins I want and you will never attempt to call me on that or even get upset? If we don’t take this that literally, does mean on the other extreme that we should compile files on each other and have detailed records of each other’s sins so that we can be equipped to condemn? Probably not. So what do we make of this? The apostle Paul may be helpful for us on this. In his letter to the Romans, he touches on this issue. However, he has a very specific context that we must keep in mind before we generalize to our own situation. The church at Rome included Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. There was some conflict between them as each thought they had an advantage over the other when it came to their relationship with God. In this particular passage, Paul is addressing the Jewish Christians and their attitude toward the Gentiles of being lawless sinners. What Paul does here is admit that it is wonderful that the Jews had the law but that was not the final word. What about Jews who have the law and don’t keep it and non-Jews who are without the law and by instinct keep it. Paul makes it clear that we are judged by God based on what we have done and not whether or not we had the law. The question is: how do we take this controversy over the law and apply it to our experience? We will do that by looking in general at how Paul deals with judging and then look for the principles that apply to us.
In this passage, Paul warns the Jewish Christians not to judge their Gentile brothers and sisters. Our temptation, especially in our society, is to grab that and say that this is all about unconditional tolerance. We should celebrate every lifestyle and encourage every behavior, withholding any criticism. But is that really what Paul is saying? We need to remember that chapters and verses are artificial divisions and that we cannot separate what Paul says here from what he says else where, especially surrounding this passage. What does Paul do in the previous chapter? Paul condemns idolatry. Paul condemns homosexuality. Paul condemns “gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:29–31 ESV) That sounds rather judgmental. Writing to the the Corinthians, Paul says this about judging sin: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”” (1 Corinthians 5:11–13 ESV) Paul is actually expecting a certain level of judgment to take place in the church. The church is not just an organization or a collection of people with similar beliefs. The church is meant to be the earthly body of Christ. For us to allow sin to reign within the body of Christ is unacceptable. Times in church history where there has been reformation and revival are because Christians have looked at where we were and have judged us to have fallen from God’s standard. When we see our friends struggling with sin, is it really loving to just quietly observe out of a desire to be tolerant? We would not keep quiet if we saw a friend drink poison instead of a healthy beverage, why keep quiet when we see people we care about damaging themselves spiritually? Of course we have to be careful how we do that, but we must identify dangerous behavior and not approve it, even for the sake of tolerance.
So Paul not only tolerates judging, he expects judging. But Paul at the same time gives a strong warning against judging. The problem Paul is responding to is unjust judging. It is not that the Jewish Christians saw some dangerous behaviors among the Gentiles and they wanted to warn them. Rather, the Jewish Christians were motivated by self-righteous attitudes and they were looking for a reason to make themselves look better. They were not interested in the actual behavior of the Gentiles, nor did they take into account their own behavior. The truth was that the Jewish Christians were no more righteous than the Gentiles. This is often the motivation of judgment, People are aware of their own shortcomings and want to distract themselves by pointing to the faults of others. Often times, the judges have the same problems as the judged. This is the point of what Jesus taught. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1–5 ESV) How do you know if you are judging in a bad way? First look for signs of hypocrisy. If the thing you see in someone else is something you struggle with or perhaps are even worse at, it probably is a good idea to withhold judgment. Secondly, what is your motivation? Is the judgment coming out of love for the person or out of your own feeling of inadequacy? Tearing down another person is no solution to your own insecurity. Finally, what is the object of your judgment? Is it behavior or is it the person? We are welcome to judge behaviors as being good or bad. We must be much more careful when judging a person. Remember, a person is much more than the sum of their actions. When we are tempted to judge a person, we should recall that they too were created in the image of God.
Paul’s main line of argument and the real reason we must be very careful in judging is very simple: God is the ultimate Judge. This really should put things in their proper perspective. When we sit in our self-righteous attitude casting condemning glances, we might feel very much in control. The truth is that we too sit under God’s judgment. We judge by what we see, what we guess and what we want to believe. God judges in full knowledge. God knows all of our actions, knows our deepest thoughts and knows the intentions of our heart. God’s judgment is thorough. God does not skip over some parts and dwell on others. God’s judgment is based on holiness and truth. There is no place for God to be having a bad day and taking that out on creation through harsh judgment. God does not get an emotional boost by judging. God’s judgment is universal. It is not for the unchurched only or for people only of a particular denomination. The most religious people and the least religious people, the most righteous people and the most wicked, are all judged by God. Christians may find this very uncomfortable. I thought the whole point of Jesus is that we escape judgment. That is not true. Through Jesus, we escape condemnation but we do not escape judgment. We will all have to stand before God one day and answer for all we have done and left undone. For those who have called upon Jesus and received his salvation, there is no fear of punishment. But we are still responsible for what we do. How does this affect us? When we are tempted to judge another person, we should be reminded that there is a righteous and all-knowing God that judges us. He knows if we are hypocrites and will not let us get away with it. God knows our secret intentions. Knowing that God is judge should remind us that final authority rests with God and that should help us keep the proper balance in judgment.
As human beings, we are going to have two tendencies: one is to judge others, second is to condemn people who judge. This is a serious issue. If we judge in the wrong way or fail to judge at the right time, there will be terrible consequences. The Bible does not ban outright all forms of judging. Where the Bible is clear on the sinful nature of certain activities, we are welcome to judge such actions as wrong. When it comes to moving beyond generalities and moving to individuals, we must be very careful. We should care about the spiritual health of the body of Christ. We should care about the consequences of the actions of our friends. When it comes to things like substance abuse, this judgment is accepted and is known as intervention. We cannot control the decisions or actions of others, but we can speak the truth in love and help people to make better decisions. But judgment must be done with much fear and trembling. What is your motivation? Are you attempting to build your self-esteem by tearing down others around you? Are you trying to distract yourself from your own sins? Are you doing the very things that you are judging others for? Be very, very careful. You are not the final judge. God is the ultimate Judge. He is the only one who can judge with full knowledge, justice, wisdom and truth. Knowing God as Judge should not fill us with fear if we are in Christ, but it should fill us with humility in our dealings with others.