“Do not judge.” The Greek word translated “judge” is krinō (#2919 κρίνω), and basically it means to make a selection, or express an opinion about something. It is used in many contexts, including meaning to separate, to select, to approve, to be of the opinion of, to determine, to judge, to rule, to contend together (of warriors and combatants), to dispute, or in a forensic sense to have a lawsuit with. So whether “judging” is a good thing or a bad thing, or even just a part of life, must be determined from the context in which the word is used. For example, in Romans 14:5, a person “judges” what days he considers special (we, for example, might judge Christmas Day to be a special day, but many people would not).
Here in Matthew 7:1, krinō means to pass an unjust judgment upon someone or something. Not just an unfavorable judgment, but an unjust judgment. We can tell that from the context of pointing out the sin of others, and also from Luke 6:37, a parallel verse. There are times when an unfavorable judgment is a righteous judgment. For example, in this verse, “Do not judge so that you are not judged,” the last “judged” is a judgment from God, and His judgment, even if it declares someone unrighteous, is a righteous judgment. God is not unrighteous for judging us, or even condemning the unrighteous.
Krinō can also refer to judging that we do that is a righteous judgment. In fact, no one can live wisely without making judgments, and Christians are called to make correct judgments about others. If we do not make judgments about others, the Devil will take advantage of our weakness or indecisiveness and wreak havoc on the Church. In John 7:24, Jesus called upon us to “judge with righteous judgment.”
In 1 Corinthians 5:12, Paul told the Corinthians that it was their responsibility to judge other Christians. The Corinthians in Corinth had been blind and weak, too affected by the culture around them, which was very sexual. Corinth was a center of sexual profligacy in the Roman world, so much so that a common Latin slang term for a prostitute was a “Corinthian girl.” The Corinthians had allowed egregious adultery in their congregation—a man having sex with his father’s wife. Paul told them he had judged that person (1 Cor. 5:3), and they were to throw him out of the Church.
Other uses of “judge” in the NT that show it is something we have to do include: in Luke 7:43, Jesus praised Peter for making a correct judgment about what he was teaching, and in Luke 12:54-56 he reproved the religious leaders for correctly judging the weather, but not making a correct judgment about the times of the Messiah in which they lived. In Acts 20:16 Paul made a judgment while traveling not to stop at Ephesus. We are to judge the things of this life (1 Cor. 6:3). We are to judge what we hear people say (1 Cor. 10:15).
In the wider context of living life, we can see that it is impossible to live wisely without making judgments. We make judgments about everything we do and everyone we are with all day long. The judgments we make are expressed in words such as “test,” and “determine.” In 2 Corinthians 13:5 we are to test ourselves; in 1 John 4:1 we are to test the spirits, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 we are to “test everything. Hold fast to that which is good.”
Considering the wide range of meaning of “judge,” and the fact that Christians are called upon to judge others in the Church to keep the congregation godly, it is amazing that the Adversary has been so effective at using the phrase, “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged,” to keep people from standing against evil. In the first place, the context of this verse is verse 2, that we will be judged by the same standard we use to judge. We should correctly judge others because we want God to correctly (and graciously) judge us. But what if we will not make any judgments against others? Can we “opt out” of judging? No, we cannot. Opting out of judging was what the people of Corinth were trying to do in 1 Corinthians 5. There was evil in their midst, but rather than make a difficult judgment, they allowed the evil. Christians must accept the fact that living wisely means making judgments, and all judgment against evil is difficult and distasteful; no one wants to do it, even though it has to be done. Was it a blessing for the people in Corinth to be able to go before God and say, “Even though there was sin in our church, at least we did not judge anyone.”? No, instead they were reproved by God for their lack of making the kind of difficult judgment that protected the Church—a judgment Paul ended up having to make for them.
When Christ said for us not to judge here in Matthew 7:1 and in Luke 6:37, we can tell from the context that he meant for us not to condemn others unrighteously, like the religious leaders around Jesus were doing when they judged (condemned) him for healing on the Sabbath or telling someone his sins were forgiven. As Christians, we not only have to judge just so we can function in day-to-day life, but God expects us to judge others so our lives, and the Church, are not destroyed by the Devil.
It should go without saying, however, that Christians should not make judgments about people based on information they cannot know. For example, sometimes you will hear a Christian say of another person, “That guy is not saved.” That is an unrighteous and fleshly judgment. Perhaps the person is behaving badly or sinning, but that does not mean the person is not saved. Maybe they aren’t, but maybe they are; we humans cannot know that, so to make that judgment about someone is ungodly and should not be done.