Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Eric J. Bargerhuff's new book, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible: Surprising Ways God's Word is Misunderstood (Bethany House Publishers, 2012).

Chapter 2

Judging Others

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”
Matthew 7:1 niv 1984

It is a phrase that has been used countlesss times during contentious conversations or in defensive moments when someone is confronted about their behavior: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” These famous words from Jesus are recited by many but profoundly misunderstood. One could easily argue that Matthew 7:1 is by far the most frequently misapplied verse in the entire Bible, used and abused by both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Those who mishandle this verse often use it as a “shield for sin,” a barrier to keep others at bay, allowing them to justify living as they please without any regard for moral boundaries or accountability. Their objections sound like this: “Aren’t we all sinners? What gives us the right to make moral judgments about someone else? Isn’t that God’s job?”

However, when we take a closer look at the context of Matthew 7 and the teachings of the rest of Scripture, it is clear that this verse cannot be used to substantiate unrestrained moral freedom, autonomy, and independence. This was not Jesus’ intent. He was not advocating a hands-off approach to moral accountability, refusing to allow anyone to make moral judgments in any sense.

Quite the opposite, Jesus was explicitly rebuking the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who were quick to see the sins of others but were blind and unwilling to hold themselves accountable to the same standard they were imposing on everyone else. We’ll unpack this further in a moment.

But first, let’s zero in on Matthew 7:1. It is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the place in the Bible where Jesus teaches what it means to live faithfully as a committed follower of Christ, one who pursues holiness out of reverence for God. Jesus is proclaiming a high moral standard that is consistent with what it means to live as a citizen of the kingdom of God.

In other words, those who repent and place their faith and trust in Jesus alone for their salvation become “children of God,” are adopted into God’s family, and become members of the spiritual kingdom he has established on earth. Believers who live in this kingdom are called to live differently, and Jesus is explaining what that looks like in a very practical sense. His words are not hard to understand as he sets up a strong moral ethic that reflects what it means to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. It is here that Jesus addresses the issue of hypocrisy. For he says:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:1-5 niv 1984)

I can’t but wonder if Jesus was looking right at the Pharisees when he said this. Many times throughout the Gospels, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their blatant hypocrisy and impossible man-made standards. They were notorious for condemning the shortcomings of others when all the while they were the ones who stood condemned because they were doing the very same things.