The Teachings of Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount

Judging “By Their Fruits…” Matthew 7:1-6, 15-23


Question: Isn’t it unbiblical to judge others? In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus taught, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Doesn’t this mean that Christians should never criticize anyone else’s behavior, especially a Christian’s behavior?




Matthew 7:1-5 The Danger of Being Judgmental


Judging another person calls for humility, grace and perspective. Rabbi Hillel said, “Do not judge your neighbor, until you put yourself in his or her place” (m. Avot [“Ethics of the Fathers”] 2:5). Perhaps building on his audience’s knowledge of this rabbinic teaching, Jesus taught that there is much danger for those possessing a judgmental attitude (7:1a), for they will be called into account by the God whose place they have usurped (7:1b).


Wrongly understood, however, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7:1, KJV) has become the convenient mantra of a generation of Christians who have been indoctrinated with the philosophy of moral relativism, which says that one has no right to judge another person’s beliefs or actions. To those who embrace it, this assertion makes sense for several reasons.


First, if one begins with the axiom that there is no absolute standard for beliefs and actions, then it is logically reasonable to conclude that there is no basis for judging anyone’s beliefs or actions, whatever they may be.


Second, it is emotionally comfortable to accept the notion that other people’s beliefs and actions should not be judged, because that would mean that mine should not be judged—by other people or by a loving, all-forgiving God. The acceptance of this perspective perhaps is most noticeable in the church’s growing tendency to accept all forms of sexual immorality, including homosexuality. As an indication of Christian embrace of moral relativism, George Barna’s research data consistently shows that the beliefs and behaviors of Evangelical Christians in North America differ little from that of non-Christians.


Of course, it soon becomes apparent that this interpretation of Matthew 7:1 is a result of reading the Scriptures through the lens of postmodern culture, rather than letting the Scriptures speak for itself. D.A. Carson notes that “this verse [cannot] forbid all judging of any kind, for the moral distinctions drawn in the Sermon on the Mount require that decisive judgments be made” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 1984, p. 183). In fact, just a few verses later, Jesus instructed his followers, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (7:6). Here Jesus commands us to judge which people metaphorically fall into categories of “dogs” and “pigs.” To obey this command requires that Christians engage in serious evaluation of people’s beliefs and behaviors that would identify them as “dogs” and “pigs.”


In John 7:24 Jesus used twice the same Greek word for “judge” (krino) that is found twice in Matthew 7:1 (NIV), saying, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment (literally, “judge righteous judgment”). Was Jesus contradicting his statement recorded in Matthew 7:1? No, he was telling his followers that they were to judge on the basis of scriptural righteousness, and not as the Jews were doing on the basis of self-righteousness in, for example, condoning those who circumcised children on the Sabbath, while condemning Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath (John 7:22-23).


Consistent with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-17, the Apostle Paul commanded that Christians specifically judge others inside the Church, those who claimed to be Christians but were not conducting their lives in accordance with righteousness: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world…but now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral, or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat” (1 Corinthians 5:9-11).


To obey this command, Christians must be able to decide and evaluate (“judge”) those so-called Christians who demonstrate the kinds of behaviors that Paul listed here as illustrative of conduct inappropriate for followers of Christ. In fact, Paul wrote in the next verses, “Are you not to judge (krino) those inside [the Church]? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you’” (5:12-13). In 1 Cor. 5:1-8 Paul had just reprimanded the Corinthian Christians for their boasting of their tolerance of a church member engaged in sexual immorality, and detailed the procedure that was to be followed by the church to expel from their fellowship this sexually immoral person.


1 Corinthians 6 continues Paul’s teaching on the responsibility of believers to appoint judges to judge (krino) disputes in the church among Christian brothers and sisters. In this context of discussing conduct judged by the church, Paul concluded by asking, “Don’t you know that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral not idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9-11).


So, why would any Bible-believing Christians, committed to the historic Christian Faith, argue that Christians must, for example, embrace and dialogue with those who (a) boast about their sexually immoral lifestyle and (b) demand that we reject the Scriptures that explicitly condemn their belief and behavior? Surely these are the types of people that the Apostle Paul commanded that we judge for their beliefs and behaviors that prevent their participation in the kingdom of God.


Every Bible-believing Christian certainly has the right and the obligation to judge people’s beliefs and behaviors on the basis of Scripture. However, judging (condemning) on the basis of self-righteousness, with a judgmental attitude rather than a generous spirit, is what Jesus warns against in Matthew 7:1, as verses 2-5 make clear.


According to some rabbis, God has two “measures”—mercy and justice. In verse 2, Jesus likely adapted that language for his proverbial saying, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” So, will we judge with the measure of mercy? If not, we cannot expect the measure of mercy to be used for ourselves.


Receiving correction is hard. Rabbi Tarfon asked, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who can accept correction? If someone says, ‘Take the splinter out of your eye,’ the other responds by saying, ‘Take the log out of your own eye’” (b. Arakhin [“Vows of Valuation”] 16b). But giving correction comes much easier! So Jesus taught his followers to be cautious in giving correction. The repeated references to “your brother” (“your brother’s eye”) in verses 3-5 make it clear that it is a judgmental, censorious spirit within the community of believers that Jesus wanted to restrain. It is hypocritical for a person with a “plank” or “log” in his eye to offer to help remove the “speck of sawdust” in the fellow-believer’s eye. But a brother with a gentle, generous, self-aware, self-judging spirit has a responsibility to help his brother remove his speck (Gal. 6:1; 1 Cor. 11:31).


Matthew 7:6 The Danger of Being Undiscerning

Verse 6 brings balance. Jesus’ teaching here guards against Christians being undiscerning and naïve “simpletons.” The “pigs” mentioned in the text were unclean, wild and vicious animals; the “dogs” likewise wild and unclean. (See 2 Peter 2:22.) Looking for food, the pigs trample the pearls, not recognizing their value. Similarly, the dogs, disgusted with being fed “what is sacred” (the Gospel), turn on the giver.


Apparently the “dogs” and the “pigs” refer to people “who have given clear evidence of rejecting the Gospel with vicious scorn and hardened contempt” (Carson, p. 185). Jesus gave such lessons to his disciples in Matt. 10:14 and 15:14. How did they put this teaching into practice? (See Acts 13:44-51; 18:5-6; 28:17-28; Titus 3:10-11.)


Matthew 7:15-20 False Prophets

Jesus’ teaching is based on the assumptions that (a) not all prophets are true, and (b) those that are not true try to conceal their falsity and hostility by passing themselves off as believers (“wolves in sheep’s clothing”). So it is important to be able to recognize them. They may give the appearance of saying the right things, but what they really are eventually will reveal itself in what they do—their fruit. It might be called the “test of time.”


Jesus’ statement, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (vv. 16a and 20), brackets his teaching about how his followers can judge/discern the genuineness of prophets: good trees naturally produce good fruit and bad trees bad fruit (v. 17). In typically Semitic style, Jesus also asserted the impossibility of the reverse (v. 18). He noted that every bad tree (false prophet), identified by bearing bad fruit, will be punished (v. 19).


The Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve) gives instructions to 2nd Century Christians on how to identify false prophets. It rightly notes in 11:8, “But not everyone who speaks in a spirit is a prophet, except he has the behavior of the Lord.” Character matters!


Matthew 7:21-23 False Followers

Some will say the right things (e.g. “Lord, Lord”) and even do some good things (prophesy, exorcise demons, and perform miracles), but not be genuinely in a real, loving, submissive relationship with Jesus (e.g. Judas Iscariot). On the ultimate Day of Judgment, Jesus will identify these false followers and refuse them entrance into his Kingdom. This is conveyed in two ways in verse 23: First, in saying “I never knew you” or “I have nothing to do with you,” Jesus employed the mild rabbinic formula for placing a ban on the false followers; and second, Jesus quoted Psalm 6:8, where Yahweh says, “Away from me, you evildoers.” What does this information contribute to our understanding of the nature of Jesus (Christology)? What does this communicate about our need to practice discernment?


David R. Bundrick, Ph.D.