D.A. Carson says somewhere that Matthew 7.1 has replaced John 3.16 as the most famous verse in popular culture. In the age of tolerance that we live in, it would be easy to think that this verse is saying that we should never form an opinion about anything. But a study of the way the Greek word translated “judge” here is used throughout the NT shows that this is not what Jesus is saying. In this very chapter we are encouraged to evaluate others in light of their fruits (Matt 7.16,20). So it is right to discern (judge) that someone is a false prophet and to call him such in order to lovingly warn others away from his false teaching.
In John 7.24 Jesus tells those who are accusing him of breaking the Sabbath to “judge with right judgment.” In 1 Cor. 5.12 Paul tells us to judge those who are inside the church. In 1 Cor. 10.15 Paul commands his readers to judge what he says (also 11:13).
So Matt. 7.1 is not an absolute prohibition of any kind of judging!
What Jesus is referring to is made clear when the rest of his statement is read. When we make judgments about another person’s sinfulness without recognizing our own sinfulness, we are acting as if we have a right to “pronounce” (v. 2) judgment and declare a person guilty on our own authority. That this is hypocritical is seen in the fact that we ourselves are sinners. Paul says the same thing in Romans 2.1-3 … “in passing judgment you condemn yourself!” Judgment belongs to God alone. Only he has authority to pass judgment in this authoritative, declarative sense. This is stated explicitly in 1 Cor. 4.4-5 where Paul states that it is God who judges in this authoritative sense. The same idea is expressed in James 4.11-12, and Rom 14.1-13 where we are encouraged not to judge our brothers, not in the sense that we do not discern anything true about them, but in the sense that we do not make authoritative pronouncements over them.
However, what is often overlooked in this very passage is that Jesus ALSO says, “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.” In other words, there is a place for mutual exhortation and saying, “Hey, brother, this in your life is wrong. We are both sinners. Let us both live in line with God’s holiness.” To take the statement here in Matt. 7.1 as a prohibition of ever challenging others to repent and turn from sin would be to twist Jesus’ meaning and thus deny the clear teaching of the NT. We are told in Matt 18.15 that if our brother sins against us, we are to “tell him his fault.” Gal. 6.1 also implies that in restoring a brother caught in a transgression, we would confront him with that transgression. And even more seriously, in 1 Cor. 5.1-5 Paul tells the church to remove an unrepentant brother from the church and says in v. 3 “I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.” Paul is not in contradiction of what Jesus says here in Matt. 7.1.
Taking all of this information and moving on to the second verse, Jesus shows why we are not to judge in this authoritative manner. When we judge in this way, putting ourselves in the place of God and condemning others for their sin, we are saying by our actions that this is the right way to judge–just pronounce the person guilty! But is that really what we want? Would we ourselves want to be judged by God in this way? Jesus is saying that if we judge this way, and think that this is right, we need to be prepared to be judged ourselves in this same way.
Our only hope to stand in God’s authoritative judgment of us is to receive mercy and grace from the judge. Thankfully, through Jesus’ taking our guilt and sin upon himself, the Judge does offer that mercy and grace to all who will repent and humble themselves before him and seek his favor.
Jesus is warning us that if our heart has this kind of attitude–that we are ready to sit in judgment over others–we show that we are not living by the gospel. And if that is the state of our heart–a gospel-less application of the Law over sinners–then we will also be judged in that way, without mercy and without grace.