What Did Jesus Mean by "Judge Not"?

Jesus said, “Judge not” (Matthew 7:1). Does this mean we are never to judge others? Is it wrong to have an opinion that someone’s conduct is sinful?

What did Jesus mean when He said, “Judge not”? One of the basic rules of good biblical scholarship is to consider a verse in its context. Look at the context of Matthew 7:1. Verses 3-5 seem to bear out that one should not go around trying to straighten out the faults of others. The message is that we should first work on our own shortcomings—a perspective borne out in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where believers are urged strongly, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith”!

The Greek word for “judge” is krino and can also be translated as “to pronounce an opinion concerning right and wrong,” “condemn,” “to be of opinion,” “deem,” “think” (The King James Version New Testament Greek Lexicon). This certainly seems to confirm that believers should not allow themselves to form or to voice opinions about others.

More than first meets the eye

Yet there is more to Christ’s words in Matthew 7:1 than first meets the eye. The next verse shows something more. Read both verses: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”

This language implies that people will be judging others. But we must take care what we think and say about others, for each of us will be held to the standard we impose upon others. The Moffatt translation renders this verse as “for as you judge so you will be judged, and the measure you deal out to others will be dealt out to yourselves.”

Another fundamental rule of good scholarship is to take a verse in the broader context of what similar verses say on the same topic. In that way, we garner God’s full intent, and we avoid making mistakes by looking at only one dimension of a subject. We are instructed in other verses of the Bible to use judgment (the Greek word is the same one Jesus used) in many matters we experience during our lives.

Paul chided believers in Corinth who went to the judicial system instead of making decisions or forming opinions themselves (1 Corinthians 6:2). He said it was shameful to avoid making judgments in the matters that were before them (verses 4-5).

Christians should judge

Referring to the discernment of spiritual matters, Paul said, “But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one” (1 Corinthians 2:15).

The Greek for “judges” and “judged” is anakrino, which comes from the same root as the word Jesus used in Matthew 7. It means “examine or judge,” “to investigate, examine, enquire into, scrutinise, sift, question,” “specifically in a forensic sense of a judge to hold an investigation,” “to interrogate, examine the accused or witnesses,” “to judge of, estimate, determine (the excellence or defects of any person or thing)” (KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon).

This sheds a different light on the subject of whether a Christian should judge! How do we reconcile the seemingly different implications? A Christian must judge the sinfulness of an act, but a Christian must judge not a person in the sense of condemning him. Investigate, think about, form an opinion about the deed, but leave the judging of the doer up to God.

Only God can judge the heart of others. Only He has this prerogative; only God can determine one’s final judgment, eternal life or death for all eternity. Paul warns against humans attempting to make this kind of judgment in Romans 2:1, and explains that those who condemn another will not escape the judgment of God (verse 3). Thus, if we judge another’s character and condemn him, we are in danger of the lake of fire!

Do not condemn is also the meaning of Christ’s words in Matthew 7:1. This is amplified by the parallel account in Luke 6:37: “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

The word judgment appears again in the King James Version of Philippians 1:9: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment.” A different Greek word is used here to bring out another nuance of the subject.

The New King James Version is clearer: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:9-10).

Judge by God’s standards

The translators chose the word “discernment” to give readers a better picture of the meaning. Paul prayed that believers would have plenty of knowledge and discernment that they might approve things that are excellent.

The word for “approve” is another interesting one, dokimazō, meaning “to test, examine, prove, scrutinise (to see whether a thing is genuine or not), as metals”; “to recognise as genuine after examination, to approve, deem worthy” (KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon). It comes from the word used for men who were experts at spotting genuine coins. It carries a forceful implication that Christians ought to be people who think deeply and critically about all things. Not “critically” as in “criticizing” just for the sake of being negative, but critically in the sense of being careful and exact.

Paul even told the Corinthians to judge (test, discern) what he said (1 Corinthians 10:15)! We say the same. Do not accept what we say at face value, but look up the scriptures we cite. Prove God’s Word, and then put into practice what you know to be true.

What standard should believers use to form opinions? Our own inclinations? Certainly not! Jesus said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment (John 7:24). The only way one can judge with righteous judgment is by regularly studying God’s Word—the standard of righteousness—and by living the Word of God. Paul plainly said the 10 Commandments showed him right from wrong (Romans 7:7).

Right-living people can recognize and should have an opinion about the difference between right and wrong.