Not a tough question. Most would quickly reply, John 3:16. Would you believe Matthew 7:1? In an interview Bruce Ware said: “While John 3:16 was once the most well-known Bible verse in America, now that honor goes instead to Matthew 7:1, ‘Do not judge lest you be judged.’” Just try to raise the simple matter of accountability to someone and watch how quickly the defenses go up, “Do not judge lest you be judged. No one is qualified to comment on whether a person’s actions are right or wrong” (even when behavior is clearly unbiblical). Too often it is used to ward off anyone with genuine concern who disagrees. While Matthew 7:1 may be the most oft quoted passage it is also most oft misunderstood. What does the verse mean? Remember, there is such thing called context. No passage of Scripture can be isolated from its context and properly understood.
Since Matthew 6:1 Jesus had been focusing on very practical matters. His message can hardly be missed; don’t be like the Pharisees’. They are hypocrites – 6:2, 5, 16. Public display was their ’thing’ and the aim of the public display was to get credit from other people and to enjoy the reputation of being pious people. They were a sad lot. Jesus condemned such activity that is done to gain human applause. Another ill associated with hypocrisy is harsh and condemnatory evaluation . . . and the disciples were guilty of such behavior. The entire sermon was given primarily to them (5:1-2). They have been told by our Lord, especially in 6:1ff, to avoid this or that behavior. Chapter 7 offers more than instruction, there is correction.
Verse 1 The Problem: their (disciples) behavior
Jesus began with a command, “do not judge.” Question . . . was Jesus telling his disciples to “not judge,” i.e., do not do this or was he telling his disciples to “stop judging,” i.e., stop an action (Μὴ κρίνετε)? Jesus was telling his disciples to stop an action (v. 3, 5). Our English word “critic” is from this word. It means to separate, distinguish, discriminate, and we are to do just that (see 1 John 4:1). There is a breath to the word, however, depending on the context it can mean to condemn or avenge (cf. Luke 19:22; John 5:30; Acts 13:27; Rom 2:16). The remainder of verse 1 will help, “so that you might not be judged” (ἵνα μὴ κριθῆτε). Jesus told the disciples to stop. The sense of “judge” here in Matthew is the same in Romans 14:10-13. Don’t assume God’s position (Rom 14:10).
Verse 2 The truth and reason for the statement.
For sure here is wisdom and a warning: “for by what (instrumental dative) sentence/decision (κρίματι) you judge (κρίνετε), the same sentences/decisions will be laid on you, and by what (instrumental dative) measure/amount/capacity (μέτρῳ) you give out/deal out/apportion (μετρεῖτε), the same will be the measure you get (μετρηθήσεται). The thought here is similar to that in Matthew 6:14-15 and James 2:13. The person who judges others very critically will experience a similarly rigorous examination from God. Simply put, the kind of judgment issued out will be returned upon themselves.
Verse 3-4 Rhetorical questions illustrate the foolishness.
“but why do you look at the splinter/speck (a piece of dried wood of chaff, splinter) in the eye of your brother and in your eye you do not notice/observe a beam (a plank of wood such as is used in a weight-bearing capacity in construction)? Or how will you say to your brother ‘allow me to remove the splinter/speck from your eye,’ and behold, the log in your eye?”
The word “notice/observe” (κατανοεῖς) is much more than a casual glance. It means “observe carefully, careful examination, contemplation” (see Acts 27:39). What is involved is scrutiny of an object or observation of a process. Romans 4:19 expresses Abraham’s mental state after God promised that Sarah would have a baby, evidently during or after laughing, “he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb.”
Is there something meaningful implied in the two very different sizes of wood, i.e., a splinter verses a beam? Yes. Marshall wrote, “It should be obvious to us Jesus is using hyperbole to stress the folly of criticizing someone else. Criticizing trivial faults [splinter] in other people while overlooking much greater faults in oneself [beam], that is the point of these verses. So there is inconsistency in applying standards of judgment (I. Howard Marshall, “Who is a Hypocrite,” Bibliotheca Sacra 159/634 (April 2002), 137.). This act reveals a much greater problem in the critic’s life.
Verse 5 Responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“you hypocrite. First remove [urgency] out of your eye the beam, and then you will see/distinguish clearly (διαβλέψεις) to remove the splinter/speck out of the eye of your brother.” This answers verses 3-4! The sequence is plain, “first” (πρῶτον),“then” (τότε) you will see clearly in the future.
The word “see clearly” (διαβλεψεις) is rare in the NT (only here, Luke 6:42 and Mark 8:25). It means “to look through, penetrate” and stands in contrast to “look” (βλεπεις, v. 3). Get the beam out of your eye and you will see clearly how to help others remove the splinter out of their eye. What is this verse saying?
First, it expands the meaning of hypocrisy to include pride and self-deception. Such a person is devoted to careful inspection of others without sincere evaluation of himself. Second, this verse makes clear that there is no problem in seeking to help others in their areas of struggle or failure (the judging in Matt 7 does not rule out the kind of judging in Matt 18). Such help, however, must be based on a realistic assessment of and attention to one’s own situation. There are two extremes to avoid in this matter of spiritual self-examination. The first is the deception of a shallow examination. Sometimes we are so sure of ourselves that we fail to examine our hearts honestly and thoroughly. A quick glance into the mirror of the Word will never reveal the true situation (James 1:22-25). The second extreme is “continuous dissection.” Sometimes we get so wrapped up in self-examination that we become unbalanced. We can actually be wrong if our self-examination cripples us. It is possible for a person to do a good work with a bad motive. It is also possible to fail in a task and yet be very sincerely motivated. Paul himself was not thoroughly convinced of his motives (1 Cor 4:1-4).
Does Matthew 7:1-5 prevent or discourage encouragement to others, admonition to fellow believers, or a response to sin? Absolutely not.