Have you noticed how people who never pick up a Bible know all the verses that seem to challenge our Christian faith. We take seriously Jude’s call to, ‘Contend for the faith,’ (Jude 3) only to hear the objection, ‘Didn’t Jesus say do not judge?’
Are we breaking the Lord’s injunction to not judge when we question the sincerely held beliefs of others? In Matthew’s gospel Jesus does say:
‘Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.’ (Mt.7:1-5)
One of the cardinal rules of apologetics ministry is find the context. This chapter ends with Jesus’ famous parable of the man who built his house on sand, and the man who built on a rock. The latter is the wise man, who hears the words of Jesus and obeys them.
Christian ministry is there to help people find and build on the rock. Our own ministry is here to warn people about the sand. The rest of Matthew 7 goes some way, in Jesus’ own words, to explaining the urgency of this.
Immediately following the ‘do not judge’ verses we read:
‘Do not give to dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.’ (v6)
This is a clear call to discernment in judging the character of the people with whom we might share the treasures of heaven. Do we treasure the gospel highly enough to exercise discernment in our witnessing? A practical example is found in the ministry of Paul and Barnabus:
‘And Paul and Barnabus spoke out boldly, saying, ‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles.’ (Acts 13:46)
Later still in Matthew 7 Jesus speaks of the wide and easy way that leads to destruction and the many who find it, and of the narrow and difficult way that leads to eternal life, and the few that find it. (vv 13-14) It is now that Jesus gives a ringing endorsement to ministry that exercises discernment, that sounds the alarm, warning the saints.
‘Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognise them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognise them by their fruits.’ (Mt.715-19)
Not everyone is an honest messenger when it comes to bringing the gospel. There are those who offer the broad and easy way, those who bring a different gospel (Gal.1:8-9), a different Spirit, a different Jesus. Paul writes of those whose, ‘thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ,’ who too readily accept such a false message (2Cor.11:1-5)
It is not possible to overstate the importance of understanding these things. Indeed, peoples’ eternal destiny depends upon a clear message proclaimed and false messages being revealed for what they are. As Paul reminds the Corinthians, ‘if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?‘ (1 Cor.14:8)
Jeremiah vividly describes the burden of the apologist as he declares his anguish over apostate Israel, ‘My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent, for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.’ (Jer.4:19) Do you hear the trumpet? Does it sound clearly? There is a battle for truth in our time, do you hear the alarm of war?
Jesus says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my father who is in Heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”
What, then, of Jesus warning to not judge? A Christian is certainly not to judge harshly, self-righteously, or hypocritically. Verse 5 warns us against hypocrisy. Ultimate judgement is God’s, of course, and we are in no place to bring it.
We are, however, to judge a person’s character, something we do in every day life. Who might I trust, who might I not? This is something we evaluate in light of the what sort of fruit that life bears. We are warned about the company we keep (1 Cor.5:9) about those who masquerade as angels of light (2 Cor.11:4) and false prophets (1 Jn.4:1). Psalm 1 begins:
‘Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers…’
Discernment is a biblical principle, to be exercised wisely to be sure, but Christians are to test everything (1 Thess.5:21). Most importantly, Christians are to use the gift of discernment to warn those who are blinded by error, who are enticed away by false promises, another gospel. We are gifted with light and charged to be that light to the world (Mt.5:14)