Judge With Humility, Not Hypocrisy

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.

Why No Do-Over for Adam and Eve?

God told Adam not to eat any fruit from a certain tree (Gen 2:17), and Eve’s knowledge of the command means Adam conveyed it to his wife also (3:2-3). After Adam and Eve disobeyed by eating anyway, God confronted them (3:8-13), judged them (3:16-19), and exiled them (3:23-24).

No do-over, no second chance. Have you ever found it strange that one act of disobedience meant the end of their stay in Eden? Why couldn’t God just turn a blind eye, throw a flag on the play and restart?

Because God keeps his word. Adam heard the warning: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17b). And die they did–first spiritually, then physically.

But let’s be clear about the alternative scenario. If God promised to judge traitors who then suffered no consequence for disobedience, he would break his own word. He would be unrighteous, unfaithful. And that’s not good news for sinners!

So while giving Adam and Eve a do-over might seem like an appealing notion, reject it outright. God would never act in a way that is beneath what it means to be God. Such a god would be no hope at all and couldn’t  be trusted to offer deliverance if it was ever needed.

God followed through on his promise to judge Adam and Eve because he keeps his word. An unrighteous and unreliable deity is not good news! Who could find lasting refuge in a fickle god? Who could build their lives securely on the shifting foundations of an untrustworthy ruler?

God’s commitment to his own name and glory is essential to his being God. But a righteous God holds sinners accountable, which is bad news for us since we all fall into that category. God breaking his word, then, would be bad news, but God keeping his word is bad news for us in another sense.

The only hope for sinners is that this Righteous and Faithful Judge…is also merciful. Full of compassion. Long-suffering. Our only hope is that the Just Judge is also a Gracious Redeemer. And indeed that is who he is!

Behold God’s revelation to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6).

Bonhoeffer on Why Christians–Not Psychologists–Know the Human Heart

“The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus.  The greatest psychological insight, ability and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is….And so it does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness.  Only the Christian knows this.” 

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, vol. 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 115.

The Earliest New Testament Interpretation of the Cross

I have been persuaded for some time that Galatians was Paul’s earliest letter, written approximately AD 49-50.  This is significant because, according to some conservative scholars, Galatians 1:1-5 contains the earliest written interpretation of the death of Jesus in the New Testament.

The four Gospels were written after Galatians, as were the other letters (with the exception of James), Acts, and Revelation.  So although Acts reports some early church history after the ascension of Jesus and before Paul was every converted, the book was still written after Galatians.

Put another way, Galatians 1:1-5 was the earliest New Testament record of what leaders–Paul in particular–were teaching about the cross (the letter of James does not provide any explicit teaching about Jesus’ death).

“Paul, an apostle–not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead….Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal 1:1, 3-4).

Four observations can be made.  According to the earliest New Testament record of the interpretation of the cross,

(1) Jesus’ death was voluntary (“gave himself”)
(2) Jesus’ death was substitutionary (“for our sins”)
(3) Jesus’ death was planned (“according to the will of our God”)
(4) Jesus’ death was vindicated (“who raised him from the dead”)

The earliest New Testament testimony about the cross is worth our reflection.  In summary, the early church taught, proclaimed, and wrote about a risen Lord who had freely borne our sins on the cross in fulfillment of his Father’s plan.

Christ Was Made Sin…For Us

In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…”  Let’s leave off the rest of the verse for now.

This verse speaks about both Jesus’ life and death.

“Him who had no sin”=Jesus’ life.   “To be sin for us”=Jesus’ death.

Here, Paul first explicitly affirms the sinlessness of Jesus.  Since sin is the necessary fruit of our sinful natures, I think it is right to say that Jesus did not have a sinful nature.  He was human like us (Rom 8:3), but without any inward or outward sin.

His sinless life was crucial for the death he would die.  Because he had no sin of his own to die for, he could fully and perfectly bear the sins of the world upon him.

When we read that “God made him” to be sin for us, we shouldn’t imagine Jesus unwillingly going to the cross (as if the Father at some point had to say, “I’m going to make you hang there on that tree and die for them!”).

In fact, Jesus himself states the opposite in John 10:18a: “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  It was the Father’s plan to send the Son (John 3:16), and the Son went, becoming obedient even to death on a cross (Phil 2:8).

So the sinless Jesus was made “sin.”  This is a crucial acknowledgment for Christians to make, for we hold precious the idea that Jesus bore the penalty for our every iniquity.  God treated Jesus as sin, pouring his wrath on his Son for our salvation.  Jesus did not pay for our sins in part but in full.

“For us” is key in 2 Cor 5:21.  Jesus’ death was substitutionary.  The sinless Son died for us–the sinless for the sinful.

Let’s ask the who, what, when, where, and why questions.

Who?  Jesus

What?  Became sin for us.

When?  2,000 years ago.

Where?  On the cross.

Why?  So that “in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21b).