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To judge or not to judge...

Steven P. Wickstrom

all Scriptures quoted from the NASB

What does it mean to judge? Matt 7:1-5 says “Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or howcan you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is 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.” The gospel of Luke captures this thought in a similar vein in 6:37 which states: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” The same word for “judge” is used in both gospels. In order to understand what Jesus was talking about, we need to understand the word “judge” used in the context of these two verses.

The Greek word for “judge” used in Matthew 7:1-5 and Luke 6:37 is “κρινω - krino” which means “to find fault with, sharp, unjust criticism.”

We could paraphrase Matthew 7:1-5, using our definition of judge to read like this: Do not judge by finding fault with, and sharply, unjustly criticizing others, so that you may not be judged and have your faults exposed and be sharply, unjustly criticized yourselves. For just as you judge by finding fault with, and sharply, unjustly criticizing others, you will be judged and have your faults exposed, and be sharply, unjustly criticized, and in accordance with the measure you [use to] deal this out to others, it will be dealt out again to you. (Steve's version, as yet unpublished.)

The judgment in question is not as to whether or not we should question right and wrong. The Bible is very clear on what is right and what is wrong. Rather, the judgment in question regards punishment or condemnation. Verse two makes this clear when it speaks of the measure we use. The measure in question is the level of condemnation, harshness or punishment that is used. This type of judgment is referring to an unnecessarily harsh and punitive type of condemnation.

Furthermore, it follows that the plank in one’s eye does NOT say not to correct sinners or Christians who are in the wrong. What it is saying in effect, is to first get right with God yourself and understand your own sin. Then, and only then, will you be able to see clearly enough to properly correct your brother. It is impossible to render an evenhanded, constructive criticism if you have not dealt effectively with your own faults and sins.Hence, far from forbidding the correction of a person, the passage actually emphasizes the value of correction by stressing the importance of doing it sincerely, and with humility, and integrity, and a right heart.

Verse five also shows that the warning against judging was aimed at hypocrites. The language used here is almost identical to how Jesus described hypocrites as those "who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24, NASB). The hypocrites were defined as people who focused on the minor and on the external. They focus on the speck rather than on the beam. This warning against judging was directed toward hypocrites who judge with wrong motives. The hypocrite does not seek to correct, forgive, restore, and reconcile brothers and sisters to God. Rather, they intentionally seek to injure others for typically, self-serving reasons, such as making themselves look better.

The Apostle Paul also taught about judging others. Paul also expects us to make judgments, giving guidelines for judging in his epistles. He informs us that: "The spiritual man makes judgments about all things" (1 Corinthians 2:15, NIV). This is different word than used in Matthew and Luke. Paul uses the word “άνακρίνω - anskrino” which means, “to investigate.” (Interrogate – examine thoroughly) This puts judging in a positive light rather than a negative one. Paul does not blow his whistle, hold up his hand and say “Stop! No judging allowed!” Instead he does the exact opposite. He even subjects the revelatory gifts to the spiritual judgment of the church: “And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment” (1 Corinthians 14:29, NASB).

Paul specifically requires us to judge in two specific areas: morality and doctrine. He called upon the Corinthians to pass judgment on a member of the church living in immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul's purpose in judging this man was to preserve the witness of the church and bring the man to repentance. Next, Paul reminded them of their responsibility to judge sin (see verses 9-11). He concluded by asking, “Do you not judge those who are within the church?” (verse 12).

Matthew 7:15-16,22-23 (NIV) “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them... Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” Recognizing and calling out a false prophet is not judging, it is using discernment.

Here is a very good definition of discernment.

It is the ability to make discriminating judgments, to distinguish between, and recognize the moral implications of, different situations and courses of action. It includes the ability to “weigh up” and assess the moral and spiritual status of individuals, groups, and even movements. Thus, while warning us against judgmentalism, Jesus urges us to be discerning and discriminating, lest we cast our pearls before pigs (Matt. 7:1, 6).
— Sinclair Ferguson [1]
In this sense, the definition of discernment involves making value judgments between differing claims, to help us examine what is right or wrong. Discernment involves us in thinking in a specifically Biblical way about the issues that confront us. The Apostle Paul lists "the ability to distinguish between spirits" among the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10, NIV), placing this gift on equal par with tongues, healings, miracles, and prophecy.

The Parable of the wheat and the weeds: Matthew 13:24-30

(24) Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field.
(25) But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away.
(26) But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also.
(27) The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’
(28) And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’
(29) But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them.
(30) Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

Farmers know when wheat is ripe by the color of the plant. When the wheat turns brown it is ripe and ready to be picked. All of the grains, or cereal crops are this way. Farmers don’t harvest wheat, corn, soybeans, etc. until they have turned the golden-brown color that indicates ripeness. Until that time, the plants are green in color.

According to the parable, a farmer sowed wheat seed in his field, and an enemy came in behind and added tares. But the tare was not just any kind of weed. The Greek word used here: ζιζάνιον – zizanion: darnel; a plant which resembles wheat in many ways but has hallucinogenic properties and can be fatal if eaten in high doses.2 Since both are green in color as they grew, no one noticed the darnel. The green darnel, which looked very similar to the wheat, blended in with the green wheat, growing at the same rate. The darnel would not have been noticeable until the wheat began to ripen and turn brown. As the wheat turned golden-brown, the darnel stayed green and became plainly obvious. When the farmers servants noticed, and brought it to the attention of the farmer, it was too late to uproot the obnoxious weed. The roots of the darnel would have entangled themselves with the roots of the wheat. If they pulled up the darnel, they would also uproot the wheat. The Farmer opted to wait until the harvest in order to save his crop. As the wheat was harvested, the darnel could easily be removed without damaging the wheat.

wheat vs tares
wheat on the left, tares (darnel) on the right

So, what exactly does this parable have to do with judging or discernment? The servants discerned that there was darnel among the wheat. As the wheat ripened, and turned brown, they were able to recognize the darnel. While this may seem rather simplistic, that is exactly what discernment is; the ability to assess and recognize the difference the good and the bad. The servants exhibited wisdom in going straight to the farmer for advice. They could have been judgmental, and started uprooting the darnrl, but they did not. Instead, they went to the farmer with the information they had discerned. The farmer told them that it was not yet time to execute judgment on the darnel. The judgment would happen at the harvest, at which point the darnel would be gathered up and destroyed. There are a couple of points that I would really like to make you got.

Point #1 is who discerned the weeds. It was the servants working the fields who discerned there was darnel growing amongst the wheat. It is same with us today. God expects you and I to use discernment when we look at the world around us. This is especially true when it concerns the church. God expects us to be able to discern false teachers and prophets. False teachers can look, act, and speak just like a Christian except their teaching won't line up with the Bible.

Point #2 is that sometimes discernment takes time. Please understand that while the wheat was green and growing, the darnel would have been very difficult to see and distinguish from the wheat. This is what makes wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15) so difficult to see. They look just like the sheep, in the same way the darnel looked just like the wheat. It is only by spending time in God's word, and meditating on it that we will recognize the wolf. If you don't know, and are not familiar with the Bible, you won't know when it's being twisted, manipulated, and being taken out of context.

Point #3 is to know what to do when discernment comes. In the parable, the servants immediately went to the farmer to get advice about what to do about what they discerned. As Christians, we should go to God in prayer about the things we discern. We know from scripture that there are instances where God expects us to judge what we discern, such as morality and doctrine issues within the church (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). But when we discern something and we're not sure whether not we can judge, we should immediately go to God with our concern. Discernment is good. God wants and expects us to use discernment. It is what we do with that discernment that can get us into trouble. What would have happened if the servants had started pulling up the weeds without consulting with the farmer? They would have destroyed the wheat and ruined the harvest. This is an instance where judging would have had catastrophic results. The servants were wise and first went to the farmer. Are we wise enough to do the same?

Point #4 is that the farmer was one who judged the darnel, not the servants. This is a very important point for us to learn. Most of the time we want to be the one who pronounce judgment. The servants knew that judgment needed to be carried out against the darnel; that was obvious to them. However, the farmer in the parable knew that the timing of the judgment was everything.

The wheat was more important than the darnel, so the judgment would have to wait until the harvest. Don't get impatient when you discern evil (or evil people) and want God to judge it (or them) immediately. We don’t realize that the wheat is more important than the weeds in God’s eyes. God is focused on the harvest of souls. God will judge at exactly the right time. Our job is to discern the weeds, and let God destroy them in the judgment. If we try to judge a person, we are usurping God's authority. Discernment and wisdom go hand in hand. We need wisdom to discern, and we need wisdom to know what to do after we discern. We need to be like the servants in the parable and go to God for advice. Will we?

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[1] Ferguson, Sinclair. In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007.
[2] W E. Vine, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words: With Topical Index (Nashville: T. Nelson, 1996), 618.

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