Context is Key: “Judge Not . . .”

Have you ever seen a movie ad on TV? Those things always crack me up. Why? Because they’re so misleading! If you were to go by movie trailers, every movie ever made would be “epic,” a “cinematic thrill ride,” and “a masterpiece.” But if you actually read the full review, a lot of times, that one word or phrase looks more like this: “an epic disaster,” “the furthest thing from a cinematic thrill ride,” “this movie is not a masterpiece.”

I think the great lesson we can learn from these movie ads is that a word or phrase, or even a sentence, when taken out of context, can completely lose its meaning and often be spun to mean something entirely different. The same can be said of the Bible.

So many times, people have taken a verse out of context and used it to support their agenda—often for selfish reasons. Sometimes, verses are used as a weapon against others. Sometimes, they’re used as justification for actions. And sometimes, they’re just misinterpreted simply because they’re not read within the proper context.

That’s why we’ve decided to start a monthly series tackling some of the most misused and misinterpreted verses in the Bible. Our heart behind this is that you will not only gain a deeper understanding of some very important biblical principles, but that you would also see the importance of digging into and studying the Word.

The verse we chose to start this series is quite possibly the most misused and misinterpreted verse in the entire Bible:

"Do not judge, so that you won't be judged.”—Matthew 7:1 (HCSB)

I can’t think of a single verse that is more universally known and used out of context. See if this sounds familiar: “Hey, judge not” or “Jesus said don’t judge others!” This verse is quoted by both Christians and non-Christians and is often used—or misused—like a courtroom gavel to bring about an immediate stop to any discussion about another person’s behavior.

The misinterpretation of Christ’s teaching occurs in the belief that we’re not allowed to call attention to any areas in someone’s life that demand correction. And the most ironic part about the way people use this verse is that, by referencing it, they’re actually judging the person they feel is being judgmental. Someone will say, “You’re being judgmental. Jesus said don’t judge.” But by calling someone judgmental, they’re actually judging. Not only that, but if you look closely at the entire passage, you’ll notice that Jesus Himself is actually judging those who judge. Clearly this interpretation of the verse doesn’t make sense.

What Does it Mean to Judge?

Consider first what it means to judge. The Greek word used for judge, which is found 116 times in the New Testament, is krinó (κρίνω) and is defined as “to properly separate or distinguish; to make a determination of right or wrong.” It was a word commonly used when referring to legal issues.

Now, consider the manner in which many people use it. For many—particularly the Pharisees and religious people of Jesus’ day—judgment moves beyond the simple, objective, biblically-based determination of right or wrong and moves into condemnation as we see in Luke 6:37.

American theologian Albert Barnes said it this way: “Christ does not condemn . . . our ‘forming an opinion’ of the conduct of others, for it is impossible ‘not’ to form an opinion of conduct that we know to be evil. But what He refers to is a habit of forming a judgment hastily, harshly, and without an allowance for every palliating circumstance and a habit of ‘expressing’ such an opinion harshly and unnecessarily.”

In John 7:24 (NLT), Jesus calls us to “Look beneath the surface so you can judge correctly.” As Christians, the Bible commands us to exercise judgment, to distinguish between right and wrong. But the Bible is also very clear that it is not our job to condemn others. We have no power or right to condemn, nor should we be declaring others guilty because apart from Jesus, we are also guilty. And if you examine the greater context of Jesus’ statement, He goes on to say, “For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:2–5 HCSB).

In Full View

With this verse now in context, we can see that Jesus isn’t warning us against judging an action or behavior. Instead, He’s warning us against self-righteousness and hypocrisy, which Jesus constantly spoke against. He reminds us that if we choose to condemn someone, then we have to expect to be held to the same standard. If we judge someone harshly, we can expect to be judged harshly. But if we exercise judgment—distinguishing right from wrong according to the truths of God’s Word—with gentleness and compassion, without condemnation, not only are we doing that person a great service, but they’re much more likely to receive it and see their error. Matthew 18:15 (NKJV) says, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.”

Consider this: A speck of sawdust and a log are both of the same wood. The reason for this connection is that Jesus was pointing out the hypocrisy of judging someone for a sin that we are also guilty of. It would be like me self-righteously condemning you for committing fraud while I’m secretly cheating on my taxes.

Here in this passage, Jesus is telling the crowd that they must first overcome the similar sin in their life before they can help their brother, not just simply declare him guilty. In Luke 17:3 (NIV), Jesus commands, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them . . .” He doesn’t say, “If your brother or sister sins against you, you’re not allowed to say anything to him.” And in Matthew 7:5, He doesn’t say “don’t point out your brother’s sin,” nor does he say we shouldn’t help remove the speck, but He does command us to first address this particular issue in our own life, so that we can properly help our brother in love.

I hope this helps to dispel any misconceptions or questions you may have regarding this verse. I would personally recommend going back and reading the entire Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) to get a deeper understanding and fuller context for Jesus’ most famous sermon.

If you have any further questions regarding this topic, please feel free to send us an e-mail.

About the Author

Danny Saavedra

Danny Saavedra is a licensed minister who has served on staff at Calvary since 2012, managing the Calvary Devotional and digital discipleship resources. He has a Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling and Master of Divinity in Pastoral Ministry from Liberty Theological Seminary. His wife Stephanie, son Jude, and daughter Zoe share a love of Star Wars, good food, having friends over for dinner, and studying the Word together as a family.