When Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” what does he mean by the word “judge”?
The word for “judge” in Greek is κρίνω which has a range of meaning that touches upon the arenas of moral discernment (knowing good from bad), lawsuits, governmental direction, and final damnation by God. This mirrors the range of meaning for the word “judge” in English, which, has the following dictionary definitions:
- “to form an opinion about through careful weighing of evidence and testing of premises”
- “to hold as an opinion”
- “to form an estimate or evaluation of, especially to form a negative opinion about”
So, knowing the definition of the word is not really enough here. It is incredibly important for this context to know the specific meaning and usage of the word “judge” by Jesus.
Now we know from the immediate context of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus is not exhorting His disciples to avoid using moral discernment. Jesus Himself has used such moral discernment throughout the Sermon, just as He does in other places throughout the gospels. Jesus also encourages His disciples to differentiate between what is good and what is bad, and to seek after and live by a righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law. So, clearly, Jesus does not mean that His disciples should throw out moral judgment or cease to differentiate between good and bad.
It’s also clear Jesus is not referring to lawcourt or governmental settings, even if there are implications for those spheres.
Instead, we see that the focus for Jesus’ instruction here is relational and interpersonal. Because the word “brother” is used later in this teaching, it seems most likely that Jesus is referring to the relationships within the disciple community that He is forming.
And because of that, many scholars and writers have suggested that the best sense of the meaning of “do not judge” is “do not condemn.” Do not condemn. Condemnation is rooted in a skewed view of others, ourselves, and God.
When we condemn people, we reveal a skewed view of others as less than whole people, as somehow irredeemably damaged, or lacking value and worthy of discriminatory treatment.
When we condemn people, we reveal a skewed view of ourselves as somehow better than others, more valuable or good, more intrinsically right in some way.
When we condemn people, we reveal a skewed view of God as either an angry destructive being or less than us and subject to our judgments.
Within all of this are two fatal sins that have been addressed throughout the Sermon on the Mount: pride and anger. Jesus’ disciples cannot live in the way of pride, it is contrary to the way of Christ, which is humility, and blocks us from living the good life with God. Neither can we live in the way of anger, for it too is contrary to the way of Christ, which is love, and also blocks us from encountering the good life.
And this is so easy in our own day, where political divides, media echo chambers, and social media have exacerbated our pride and anger to the point of readily dehumanizing one another. We now ignore injustice and cancel public figures without much more than a thought. We pummel other’s opinions with our opinions, hammer people’s hurts with our own hurt, and make condemnation so much a part of our lives that we’ve ceased to recognize it anymore.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
This is why Jesus’ words in verse two are so important. There He outlines the principle of reciprocity:
- the way you judge, you will be judged
- the way you measure, you will be measured
In the Greek the words come across in groups of three with such force that it’s hard to ignore. “If you do this, then that is what will be done to you. If you take this way, then that’s way you’ll receive it yourself,” Jesus says.
While there’s some debate about whether Jesus is referring to us receiving this back from people or from God, both aspects make sense here.
If we treat people with condemnation and harsh measures, that’s how we should expect them to treat us back.
And if we try to usurp God’s place as the only Judge and measurer of things, then we should beware of facing the final judgment where God will test our hearts, minds, words, and actions.
So, Jesus says: disciples don’t judge or condemn one another. Instead, with discernment and love, they help one another grow.
 Scot McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, The Story of God Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 228.