We live in a culture that is biblically illiterate. Most people have no or very little idea of what is actually in the Bible. Unfortunately, that assessment is true of many Christians as well. Not all believers have a strong, working understanding of their scriptures, and even many less would actually have ever read the book right through, cover to cover.
It is not surprising therefore that in such an environment, when the Bible is appealed to, it is often treated more like a meal at a cafeteria, where people pick and choose those bits they are interested in, and ignore those which they are not. And with such a poor over-all knowledge of Scripture comes some very selective uses of it.
Perhaps one of the favourite passages appealed to – and taken out of context – by non-believers, and some believers, is the statement by Jesus found in Matthew 7:1: “Do not judge lest you also be judged”. It is as if that is the entire extent of the biblical revelation.
Taken by itself, it is an appealing passage for an age that has abandoned any notion of absolute right and wrong, and has welcomed an emasculated notion of tolerance as the sum and substance of morality. Today the only sin is to be intolerant, judgmental, critical of others. And the one great virtue is ‘tolerance’, albeit a wrongly understood notion of tolerance.
Tolerance used to mean – rightly – that one could respect another person while having serious reservations about their ideas, worldviews, philosophies or lifestyles. But today we have twisted the notion to mean that we must accept and embrace every belief, every behaviour, every creed.
But the very notion of tolerance presupposes differences. One doesn’t tolerate someone or something that one agrees with. There has to be a difference of opinion before toleration even comes into play. Thus the biblical and traditional understanding of tolerance is that we tolerate people, but not necessarily their beliefs or behaviours.
Which brings us back to Matt. 7:1. Is Jesus really saying we should not critically assess all beliefs and behaviours? Is he really saying we cannot judge or evaluate any activity or dogma? Hardly. Simply read a bit more of the chapter where Jesus speaks about the need to watch out for false prophets (vv. 15ff). Of course to do so means we must judge, assess, and critically ascertain what a person is saying and teaching.
Jesus goes on to say we must judge people by their fruit. A good tree brings forth good fruit, a bad tree bad fruit. This all involves making moral and spiritual assessments, discerning right from wrong, truth from error. Exercising judgment, in other words.
So what was he speaking about in verse one? In the verses that follow, he explains: he says we should not judge hypocritically. If we judge another person for doing something, all the while doing the very thing ourselves, we stand condemned, says Jesus. This passage certainly does not mean we cannot make moral and theological appraisals and assessments.
Indeed, look carefully through the four Gospels and you will find plenty of verses on judgment which are almost never cited by the moral relativists. Consider John 9:39 for example: “For judgment I have come into this world”. He says this in relation to the unbelieving Jews of his day who would not receive him.
Having just healed a man of blindness, Jesus goes on to make a very judgmental claim about his foes: because they claim to see, when they are really spiritually blind, they are still in their sins. Only those who acknowledge their need, their blindness, will in the end be able to see.
The truth is, Jesus was constantly being intolerant and judgmental. In the previous chapter he referred to his spiritual opponents as being of their father, the devil (8:44). Not exactly very tolerant language that. Or what about in chapter ten when he very intolerantly claims to be the one true shepherd, and all others are thieves and robbers?
But some might appeal to John 3: 17 where Jesus says he comes into the world not to condemn, but to save. There is no contradiction here, however. Keep reading the following verses. His salvific mission is a two-edged sword. Those who receive him and his message obtain forgiveness and mercy; those who reject him and his word bring condemnation onto themselves. Indeed, they are condemned already, because they reject the only means to receive favour with God. Jesus says very clearly in this passage that people love darkness rather than light, so they reject the light. They love the darkness because their deeds are evil, and they hate the light because it exposes their evil deeds.
This is all very judgmental and intolerant by today’s standards. But that is simply because we have given up on notions of truth and universal right and wrong. There is no more black and white, only 99 shades of grey. But Jesus would have none of this wishy-washy relativism.
For example, he stated forthrightly, ‘You are either with me or against me,’ (Luke 11:23). He also warned that the way to the father is a narrow way, and few there be who make it (Matt. 7:14). And it was Jesus of course who spoke more about the realities of a lost eternity for those who rejected him, than any other New Testament writer.
All in all, this Jesus was a very judgmental fellow. But he opens the way for us to get right with the Father. He in fact died on our behalf to make that possible. If we reject the only means available to get right with God, then the certainly of judgment remains. And it is a judgment we have brought upon ourselves. It is we who choose either judgment to come, or acceptance with the Father.
Which is exactly why Jesus could say in another famous passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). Jesus came to rescue sinners from perishing. That is every one of us. Our response to why he came will determine our eternal destiny. Thus it is vital that we take the claims of Jesus very seriously indeed, and not seek to water it down by embracing the relativistic spirit of the age.