The message of Matthew 7:1-5 is about judging others. The opening words “Judge not” (Matt 7:1) are some of the most oft-quoted in the 21st century, and they are used in our culture to justify the abdication of moral discernment and evaluation. “Who are you to judge? Jesus said judge not!”
Context always matters, though, and in this case the verses following Matthew 7:1 show that the prevailing cultural view of Jesus’ words is manifestly wrong. He does give a warning (7:2) and an illustration about ignoring your plank while focusing on another’s speck (7:3-4), but the final verse is the twist in the teaching.
Hearers may have expected that the opening command (“Judge not!”)–which was followed by a warning (7:2) and two rhetorical questions showing the absurdity of judging a speck in someone’s eye (7:3-4)–might lead to a conclusion like this: “Therefore, don’t judge anyone at all! If you’re doing it, stop it! And if you’re not doing it, don’t start!”
But Jesus opens the final verse (7:5) with “You hypocrite.” This address pinpoints the problem in the kind of judging going on. Jesus called out hypocrisy with respect to giving (6:2), praying (6:5), and fasting (6:16), but his use of that word in Matthew 6 wasn’t intended to nullify the practices of giving, praying, and fasting. Rather, Jesus wanted giving, praying, and fasting done in the right way–namely, with the aim to honor the Lord and not for human applause.
The use of “hypocrite” in Matthew 7:5 indicates not that judging itself is wrong but that it isn’t being done correctly. After all, Jesus wouldn’t forbid making judgments right before talking about pigs and dogs (7:6) and true and false teachers (7:15-20). Without making judgments, how could his disciples ever recognize a pig or identify a false teacher? How could the saints ever exercise church discipline? (18:15-20).
The problem Jesus was addressing seems centered on the judge not dealing with his own sin before judging another’s sin. The judge is occupied with another’s speck while there is a plank protruding from his own eye! (Matt 7:3-4). That’s the hypocrisy: ignoring one’s more pressing (and perhaps even worse) sin while simultaneously trying to help a brother out with his speck (perhaps a lesser sin or at least one not so obvious).
Jesus wants his disciples to make moral judgments without this kind of hypocrisy, so he says, “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” (Matt 7:5). Remove the log, then help your brother. More specifically, after removing the log you will be able to see clearly to take out your brother’s speck. The unattended vision problem, then, is the problem. How can we aid someone with their speck when we are so obviously impaired with our log?
If Jesus isn’t prohibiting judging others (discerning and dealing with their sins) per se, what is he prohibiting? Think of it this way: if we aren’t addressing our own sins but are zeroing in on the sins of others, we become self-righteous. We’re either minimizing, excusing, or ignoring our sins, and in the end we’re trying to help someone while being severely impaired. Self-righteousness is not a posture from which to help people.
But what’s the resultant attitude if we deal with our log first? To begin dealing with our log, we must agree we have sin that must be addressed–perhaps even the same sin we’re wanting to help a brother with (see Paul’s words in Rom 2:1)! And if we agree that we have a log, its removal isn’t through any process other than repentance. We must turn from our sin. We must not minimize, excuse, or ignore it. Repentance involves dependence on God’s strength and forgiveness, forsaking and mortifying our fleshly desires. Focusing first on our own sin produces an attitude of humility. We have applied the word of God to our own soul and have been honest about our needy state before him.
We are able to help our brother from a posture of humility. Humility’s friends are Gentleness and Mercy, and we need them too in the process of dealing with a brother’s sin (whether it’s a plank or a speck). Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal 6:1).
When the time comes to deal with the sin of a brother, the way to address the subject humbly is to keep a close and honest eye on our own hearts first. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). When our posture is what it should be, we can be helpful to others and avoid the kind of hypocritical judgment Jesus forbids.