Jesus taught his disciples principles regarding the right and wrong way to judge others, emphasizing the Golden Rule, exercising spiritual discernment, and judging oneself before others—but he cautioned that only the gospel empowers disciples to avoid hypocrisy and judge wisely.
Introduction – No one wants to be judged by others, but everyone judges other people. All the various positions people take on judging others (even the “nonjudgmental” high road) seem inevitably to lead to moral hypocrisy. Is there a way to judge while not becoming a hypocrite?
I. To Judge or Not to Judge? That is the Question!
A. What most people in our culture think the Bible says about judging (v. 37a)
1. This verse is one of the most often quoted and also misunderstood verses in the Bible. It is also a verse that most people are certain they understand, whether they know much or very little about the Bible. Perhaps you’ve heard people use this verse in conversation. In self-defense: “Don’t judge me! You’re going against the Bible!” On the attack: “Why are Christians so judgmental? Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Do not judge’?” In moral superiority: “I could never say someone is doing wrong or sinning. I don’t judge anyone.”
2. This understanding doesn’t work because it turns out to be harshly judgmental! All people decide to judge according to some kind of standard that makes sense to them—either a traditional objective moral standard, or a personally-constructed subjective moral standard. Conservative and religious folks usually choose traditional morality (e.g., 10 Commandments, “subculture sins” like no drinking, smoking, dancing, dating, gambling, gaming) as their standard for judging others. Progressive and secular-minded folks usually opt for a malleable moral standard that generally reflects the broad cultural consensus. But both the conservatives and progressives, the religious and secular, always seem to end up judging the sins of others to be greater than their own. Sometimes people decide not to judge at all, but they usually end up angrily judging others who they consider judgmental! “Oh, how horrible our sins look when they are committed by someone else!” ~ Chuck Smith
B. What the Bible really says about judging (vv. 37-45)
1. The popular interpretation of this verse is not completely wrong. It rightly understands that Jesus strongly forbids judging. But it misunderstands that Jesus only forbids the wrong kind of judging. In this passage Jesus teaches his followers to not judge, but also to be wise in their judgments, to be gracious in their judgments of others, and to be realistic in judging themselves. In other words, we are to stop judging the wrong way and start judging the right way. We must make good judgments. There are many biblical passages that teach the necessity of right judgment (Jn 7:24; 1 Cor 5:12; Gal 1:8-9; Phil 3:2; 1 Thess 2:14-15; 1 Tim 1:6-7; 3 Jn 9).
2. But now we have a big problem. No one wants to be judged with the measure we use to judge others, because fallen human nature is to judge others harshly. Here is our dilemma: we must judge, and we will be judged according to the measure we use against others (Rom 2:1-3). So the Bible commands us to judge rightly, but so often we don’t, and it is in proportion to our judgments that God will judge us. This is what makes “Judge not and you will not be judged” a “hard saying” of Jesus. So is there a “measure of judgment” we can use that is gracious and right for others but will not in turn condemn us when we stumble and judge others harshly? Jesus shows us the way.
II. How to Exercise Good Judgment
Some of you may have already “judged” this sermon. “There is nothing he can say to convince me there is a good way to judge someone.” If you are going to resist me, fine. But please don’t resist what Jesus says about good judgment. If I explain this passage accurately, then you won’t be resisting me, but Jesus. Others of you may be hoping for some excuse to keep playing the judge. “Preach it, brother! Let’s judge those sinners!” To you I repeat the words of Jesus: “Stop judging!”
A. The principle of spiritual reciprocity (vv. 37-38)
1. Jesus gives 2 negative commands followed by 2 positive commands. The negative commands exhort disciples to not do to others as you would not have them do to you. The positive commands go beyond this and express the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. Both sets of commands exhort disciples to love others (and in context even their enemies) by not judging but forgiving them, expressed in deeds of mercy and generosity. Jesus is commanding his disciples to stop criticizing and finding fault with others, judging and condemning them before God. He forbids a Christian from boosting his status by negation—looking better by criticizing others.
We all know people who turn criticism into an art form. Everything they say about others has a negative spin. No one escapes their critical eye. They find it easy to judge the way you dress, walk, talk, eat, spend money, spend time, make friends. They might even judge the preacher for preaching too long, too short, too boring. “He’s long-winded.” “He’s not well-prepared.” “He didn’t tell enough stories.” Surely you would never think such things! :-)
2. Verse 38 clarifies the spiritual reciprocity principle. The implication is that God will return the same measure of judgment and condemnation on the one who judges. The measure we use will overflow to us, like grain poured into our lap. If we judge harshly, we will be judged with abundant harshness. If we condemn and show little mercy, we will be condemned and shown no mercy. If we forgive, then we will be showered with forgiveness.
Everyone knows when you buy a package of cereal it is not really full. The label on the box says “contents may settle during shipping” so you won’t think you got ripped off. God does not fill us with blessing in the manner the cereal box is “filled.” Remember the changed heart of Ebenezer Scrooge after the three Christmas ghosts visited him? The next morning he saw the men whom he had insulted for soliciting a donation for the poor. Ebenezer, desiring to show the extent of his joy for receiving a second chance at life, gave the men bags and bags of gold. One bag was generous, but abundantly generous Ebenezer kept giving more and more.
Jesus used the image of the Near East food market where grain was poured into the “pocket” formed by the garment as it drops from the chest over the belt (cf. Ruth 3:15). To those who forgive and give to others, God will respond by giving a good measure (not meagerly), pressed down (filling without holes or gaps left), shaken (so the measure will settle and you will be fully filled), running over your lap (so the measure will be piled high). Human generosity is rewarded with divine generosity. There are many biblical examples of sowing and reaping sparingly (Gen 13:10-11; 14:11-12; 1 Sam 25:10-11, 37-38; Hag 1:6, 9; Jas 5:1-5), and sowing and reaping generously (Gen 13:7-9; 15:1, 18-21; 17:1-8; 44:18-34; 49:8-10; 1 Sam 1:11, 19-20; 3:19; Jer 38:7-13; 39:15-18; Phil 3:7-8; 2 Tim 4:8). Be careful how you judge, because it will come back to you in abundance.
B. The principle of teachers shaping disciples (vv. 39-40)
Be careful who you choose to follow. The blind man in this short parable illustrates one blind to his own faults leading others to fall into a pit. Lesson: don’t follow people who you don’t want to be like. A disciple is necessarily shaped by the character and doctrine of his teacher. A disciple is not above his teacher. This does not mean that a disciple is unable to become greater or more accomplished than his teacher. Jesus means that a teacher, when he has fully trained his disciple in everything he is able to teach him, makes the disciple like himself. But a disciple must not endeavor to surpass or go beyond Jesus as a teacher because Jesus is the Great Teacher. He is a gracious, forgiving, and good teacher; therefore fully training disciples should look like him. Be careful who and what shapes you—authors, radio, television, movies, friends. All will shape you, so surround yourself with those who will help you be shaped like Jesus.
C. The principle of spiritual blindness leading to hypocrisy (vv. 41-42)
1. What does it mean to be a hypocrite? It is not the same as a believer who struggles with sin and doing what is right, often falling in his Christian walk but getting back up. It is not the same as a believer who obeys even when he doesn’t feel like it. Someone who sets aside their contrary desire to do what is necessary and right is mature, not a hypocrite. One who is weak in faith is not a hypocrite. Luke records Jesus’ examples of hypocrites (Lk 11:42; 12:56; 13:15). A hypocrite in the biblical sense is a play actor looking for the praise of men. Jesus is condemning religious hypocrites—those who act out religious behavior to gain attention, acceptance, approval, admiration, or applause from others. Hypocrisy is not just a Pharisaical sin (Lk 12:1, 56; 13:15); it is also a disciple’s sin. Anyone can have a pharisaical disposition, and disciples especially should beware because gospel-less religion tends to create Pharisees. What is the difference between right and hypocritical judgment? A hypocrite is motivated to judge by his pride, so he might build himself up by tearing others down (Lk 18:11-12). Right judgment is motivated by love, for humbly warning people of sin’s danger out of love for them (Gal 6:1; Heb 3:13).
2. We should not be so consumed in thinking about other people’s sins that we become blind to our own. Note that we often rationalize our own sins by dwelling on the same sins that appear to be worse in others.
It is easy to try to help a brother with his faults and sins because it allows us to cover up our own sins. This is a great temptation. Parents are tempted to judge their children harshly because they don’t want them to struggle with the same character flaws they gave up trying to change in themselves. It’s even worse when the parent pretends that only his child is flawed in a particular area. Often older brothers and sisters only notice flaws in their siblings, and gleefully point them out with an attitude of superiority. Husbands and wives judge each other, trying to change the other person without allowing their spouse the intimate access to change them. Pastors and counselors are tempted to assume a “higher” plane of righteousness, lording their position as teachers over others without being accountable, vulnerable, and honest themselves. The Bible speaks the truth when it says “there is none righteous, no not one!” (Rom 3:10).
My wife and I play a game with each other when we begin wrongly judging others. The first person to realize he (or she) is being critically judgmental and not lovingly concerned will state his own criticism of others something like this: “It just goes to show that so-and-so is not perfect like me. After all, if everyone listened to me the world would be a better place!” The first person to say it “wins” and thus ends the criticism. If you start playing this game I suggest you don’t keep score. It’s just a record of how often you’ve been a jerk!
If you remember your own sins when you are tempted to judge and condemn others, then you might find you have less to say. “If we must judge, let us first use the mirror on our own wall for practice.” ~ Anonymous. Be careful to remove the plank in your eye before performing eye surgery to remove your brother’s speck.
D. The principle of judging character by words and actions (vv. 43-45)
1. Words and actions are determined by character. A person’s words and actions will always reveal the character of that person’s heart. Reading this verse in the context of Jesus’ entire sermon, a good tree produces love even for enemies, whereas a bad tree produces hate and judgment of others. A tree is “known” by its fruit. A good heart will be revealed by the person’s words and actions; a bad heart will reveal itself in like manner.
2. But take care in judging someone’s spiritual position based on observing his fruit. (1) This principle applies to a person’s established life-pattern, not individual snapshot moments. (2) Some people who confess faith may turn away from God for a time (1 Cor 3:1-3) and thus may not be showing any good fruit. It is proper for you to ask your brothers and sisters to examine themselves whether they are in the faith. A wise and humble person may wonder whether such a person is truly a disciple, but rather than declaring to know the answer, he will encourage the person to honestly examine himself regarding the status of his soul (2 Cor 13:5). (3) Do not give up faith in yourself (or others) if your examination reveals little fruit of salvation. If God began the work of salvation, then he will be faithful to complete it (Phil 1:6). The seed of faith God plants in a new heart will eventually sprout and produce fruit (Rom 8:1-16; Jas 2:14-26), but in varying degrees in different people.
C.S. Lewis has a wonderful illustration about judging others in his book Mere Christianity. He writes: “Human beings judge one another by their external actions. God judges them by their moral choices. When a neurotic who has a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason, it is quite possible that in God’s eyes he has shown more courage than a healthy man may have shown in winning the Victoria Cross. When a man who has been perverted from his youth and taught that cruelty is the right thing, does some tiny little kindness, or refrains from some cruelty he might have committed, and thereby, perhaps, risks being sneered at by his companions, he may, in God’s eyes, be doing more than you and I would do if we gave up life itself for a friend. It is as well to put this the other way round. Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends….That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.” Be careful how you judge someone’s words and actions. You will “know” them, but not to the same degree God “knows” them.
III. Becoming a Person Who Judges Wisely
After Jesus taught his disciples these principles for good judgment, he concluded his sermon by confronting them. Surely some of them were reverently nodding and giving lip service to Jesus, already mentally checking out (like we do near the sermon’s end!). “Yes, Lord. Your teachings are good. We are glad you are speaking these things (for our wives, our kids, our neighbors, our friends, our enemies). I’ve got to get a recording of this sermon for so-and-so to hear!”
A. Heed Christ’s warning of the coming flood (vv. 46-49)
Jesus tells a parable about two men building their homes—one is foolish and one is wise. Both men confess Jesus as “Lord.” The wise one lays a proper foundation by digging. And he digs deeply. Jesus uses two words for “dig,” possibly to show us that there is a “surfacey” way to dig, and there is a deep way to dig. To dig deeply takes costly planning, commitment, effort, and patience. But building on a solid foundation will result in security, permanence, and blessing. The foolish man builds on the surface of the ground. Perhaps he digs a little, but certainly not very deep. His efforts are not nearly as costly, they require less planning because he can “get to work” on his house right away, and they require less commitment because the job will be finished in time for leisure and living.
Why do people build without a solid foundation? From the perspective of the parable, we can surmise several reasons. (1) To save time and avoid hard work. (2) Waterfront scenery is more attractive and affords higher social status. (3) To join friends and family who already live on the sand. (4) Because news of the violent storm has not reached them. (5) Because they have discounted the storm warnings. (6) Because they don’t believe disaster can happen to them. These are a few reasons people believe it is safe (at least for them) to build without a solid foundation on Jesus Christ. Every reason is foolish and shortsighted.
The fool’s house will never withstand the flood when it bursts upon his home. His lack of foundation will render all labor futile, and his life will be a great ruin. Jesus says the wise builder is the one who listens and obeys his teaching, and the foolish builder is the one who merely listens.
B. Build your house on Christ the firm foundation (vv. 47-48)
What will you do with Jesus’ teaching? Some of you may still be unsure. Remember that a firm foundation does not seem necessary or urgent when life is calm. But when crises inevitably come, your foundation will be tested. If you confess Jesus as “Lord” but do not build your life on him, then you are not preparing for crises. When the flood comes (as it does for every professing Christian in the form of trials, temptations, doubts, bereavement, death, and ultimately the final judgment), the lack of a firm foundation will sweep you away to disaster (Ezek 13:8-16). If you don’t lose your faith in Christ altogether, you will be saved but will suffer great loss (1 Cor 3:14-15).
Conclusion – The Sermon on the Plain is subversive and typical of Jesus’ teaching. His lessons are full of hard sayings, stern warnings to religious people, and commands that are hard to hear and seemingly impossible to obey. Those who follow Jesus and his teaching will be blessed by God and rewarded in heaven (Lk 6:20-23), but woe to those who reject Jesus and his teaching (Lk 6:24-26), for they will be destroyed (Lk 6:49). Forgive, speak the truth in love, use good judgment and always on yourself first, follow Jesus and build your life on him. For those who are following Jesus: do not judge or condemn others, remembering that Jesus was judged in your place. The gospel frees you to examine yourself honestly without condemning yourself, because Jesus was condemned so you won’t be. The gospel frees you to stop judging and instead forgive others, covering up their faults with grace, because Jesus forgave you and covered over your sins with his blood. If you’re not sure you are following Jesus, or if you are certain you are not: Jesus is calling you away from a life of judging, a life of hypocrisy, a life of future disaster. I know you hate that you cannot stop yourself from harshly judging others, and you are terrified of the prospect that God might judge you in the same harsh manner. That is what Jesus himself says will happen to you. There is no way to escape judgment except through faith in Jesus. You can see that Jesus is full of both truth and love. Don’t you want that gentle truth and forgiving love in your life? Build your life on him and he will set you free as well.
Prayer of Thomas a Kempis: “Grant me, O Lord, to know what I ought to know, to love what I ought to love, to praise what delights Thee most, to value what is precious in Thy sight, to hate what is offensive to Thee. Do not suffer me to judge according to the sight of my eyes, nor to pass sentence according to the hearing of the ears of ignorant men; but to discern with a true judgment between things visible and spiritual, and above all, always to inquire what is the good pleasure of Thy will.”