Exegetical errors will abound if you isolate this text and try to give meaning to it; you have to read the text in its context and understand the verses before and after the text you are studying in order to come to a proper conclusion.
For years, John 3:16 was the most popular Bible verse in the world. I’m sure you have part or the entire verse memorized: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But there is another Bible verse that has surpassed John 3:16 in popularity — especially among unbelievers. Which one?
The answer is Matthew 7:1: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”
Matthew 7:1: The Most Popular Bible Verse Among Unbelievers
Admittedly, I’m getting this from D. A. Carson. In his commentary on John, Carson writes:
“In an age when Matthew 7:1 (‘Do not judge or you too will be judged’) has displaced John 3:16 as the only verse in the Bible the man in the street is likely to know, it is perhaps worth adding that Matthew 7:1 forbids judgementalism, not moral discernment.”
Carson argues that Matthew 7:1 has replaced John 3:16 as the Bible verse any random person may know. The thing that’s striking is that Carson’s commentary was published in 1991, back when I was less than two years old. So it’s not like Carson thought this, say, ten years ago when he really started to notice the rise of secularization in the West. No, this was almost three decades ago.
Interestingly, Jesus talks about judging others in at least two places. “Do not judge by appearances,” Jesus says, “but judge with right judgment.” This is John 7:24. But in Matthew 7:1 it seems as if Jesus is universally forbidding all kinds of judgment; in John 7:24, Jesus tells us to make right judgments. Contradiction? No.
What does Jesus mean when he says, “Judge not, that you be not judged”?
Unpacking Matthew 7:1
Let’s look at the text in its context. The context is the Sermon on the Mount. The reason why it’s called the Sermon on the Mount is because Jesus is preaching on a mountain. His primary focus is his disciples, although eaves-droppers are welcomed too. The gist of the sermon on the mount is ethical living. Once we get to Matthew 7:1, the sermon is about done. Jesus already talked about anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, prayer, and other topics that reveal how to live if you want to follow the Messiah.
Then we get to Matthew 7:1. He says, again, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” But as they almost always do, exegetical errors will abound if you isolate this text and try to give meaning to it; you have to read the text in its context and understand the verses before and after the text you are studying in order to come to a proper conclusion. You also have to take into account other texts that talk about judgment.
Here’s what comes after Matthew 7:1:
“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 7:2-5).