'Judge Not!' Five of the Most Misunderstood and Misused Verses in the Bible

I have been ministering the Gospel for about 35 years now — ordained as a pastor for 28 years. And over the past few decades I have heard my share of the Bible half-quoted or misquoted to justify some kind of behavior or (in some cases) to shut down a discussion.

The following is just a short list of the ones I’ve heard the most. It is not an exhaustive list; I’m sure you can add quite a few.

1. Matthew 7:1: “Judge not.”

At the top of the list is the famous “Judge not, that you be not judged…” from Matthew 7:1. In almost every instance that this verse has been pulled out as a weapon, I have asked people if they can tell me where it is found in the Bible. No one to date has been able to tell me. Not one. Pretty typical.

Many will quote this verse (or half-quote it, along with other verses) without even knowing who said it, where it is found in the Bible, or the context. And usually it is tossed out like a grenade to end all discussion about truth or morality. The moment you object to a belief or behavior, someone pulls the trigger and out comes Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1.

Usually it is followed up (in angry tones) by “Are you judging me???” And many people just beat a hasty retreat, thinking that Jesus is forbidding ALL judging, ALL condemnation of anything, ALL evaluation, ALL discriminating examination. (I sometimes respond tongue-in-cheek, “Are you judging my judging?”)

But is that what Jesus is telling His audience? No. Read the context. Read the whole Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), but especially the context of 7:1-5. First of all, Jesus does not condemn all judging/discerning/criticism/condemning/evaluating.

Look at John 7:24. There He actually commands His disciples to “judge with righteous judgment.” Ah, there’s a key. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is condemning the hypocritical behavior of the Pharisees and religious leaders of Israel at the time. But He tells His followers to move to a higher standard of behavior. Judge with RIGHTEOUS judgment, not hypocritical judgment.

We can’t live in a world without legitimately judging anyway. We have people in our legal system called “judges” and we need them to judge cases. We judge between right and wrong every day (hopefully). And the Apostles, under the authority of Christ, command us to judge.

In 1 Corinthians 6:5, the Apostle Paul says this about the behavior of some so-called Christians: “I say this to your shame: Is it so that there is not a wise man among you, not even one, who will be able to judge between his brethren?” Paul said that we should have wise people who can judge between good behavior and bad behavior. The epistles are filled with warnings for Christians to note and reject behaviors and beliefs that are immoral or heretical (e.g. Titus 3:8-11). How can we do that unless we judge… righteously?

But back to Matthew 7:1-5. Notice in verse 5 Jesus assumes that we will and must judge in this world: “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and THEN you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” How can you judge someone of adultery if you are lusting and/or sleeping around yourself? How can you say that cheating is wrong if you are cheating on your taxes? How can you tell someone to stop lying when or if you excuse the lying of others…or commit it yourself without blinking an eye? If you don’t want someone to criticize you, be sure you don’t have the same or even greater fault.

What Jesus is saying here is that His followers are not to HYPOCRITICALLY judge like the Pharisees. They condemn people for the very same thing they were doing. As salt and light in this world we ARE to judge, to evaluate, to condemn wrong beliefs and evil behavior, and to point to the right beliefs and behavior. But we gotta examine ourselves, admit our own faults, confess them, and humbly point people to the true standard which is found in Jesus Christ.

2. Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things.”

“I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Does this mean that I now have miraculous power to work miracles? I can pass tests without studying for them or I’ll get a job without looking for it? Does this mean that I can be faster than a speeding locomotive or leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Of course not. At my ripe old age I cannot now become an Olympic track star just because I believe real hard. I cannot reverse the aging process and the curse of death. And if I ever find myself in a persecuted situation like the apostles and millions of other Christians over the past 20 centuries, just thinking positively or declaring or claiming things is not a surefire way to deliver us from the mouth of the lion or the execution squad.

Again, look at the context. Who is writing this? Where is he when he is writing it? What is he trying to convey to his readers? The author is Paul, who was under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before Caesar Nero. (Most conservative Bible scholars believe this was written during his first imprisonment in Rome; 2 Timothy was written after his second imprisonment while he was awaiting execution in the Mamertine dungeon in Rome.) However, Paul is encouraging his friends by telling us in verses 11 and 12 that in every situation he has ever found himself, he was content. He tells us: “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”

So Paul is saying, “Hey, I’ve been in situations like this before. I’ve had life really bad before, and I’ve had life pretty good too. But no matter what situation I’ve been in…. I’ve been at peace. I’m content. There is no need to whine or panic or be scared to death.” And then he concludes in verse 13: “I can do all things” — that is, I can do all these situations. I can handle ALL of life’s situations — whatever the enemy throws at me, I can handle it — because Christ gives me strength.

Notice, Paul never “believes in himself.” I’m sick of this pop-culture lie that says, “just believe in yourself.” I don’t believe in myself! I know what a wretch I am. But like Paul, I believe in CHRIST, and HE gives me strength! And through Him, and only because of Him, I can handle whatever garbage life throws at me.

3. Exodus 21:24: “An eye for an eye.”

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). Well this gives me an excuse for revenge, right? If they knock out my tooth, I knock out theirs. If they put out my eye, I have theirs put out. That’s how we are to think? Not at all. Look at the context.

Moses (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) is giving instructions about how to deal with physical injuries in court cases. When physical injuries take place, such as the death of an unborn child due to two men fighting (Exodus 21:22-23), then the conflict is to be taken OUT of the hands of individuals and put INTO the hands of a civil court. There the court will decide punishments, if any.

And all this famous passage is saying is that the punishment must fit the crime. One cannot exact a punishment that reaches beyond the offense. “Life for life” he says in verse 23. So if someone murders another human being (in this case, an unborn child), then his life is forfeited. The punishment must match, but not exceed, the damage done. The courts are to determine the punishment; not one’s own personal revenge. And that is all this passage is saying.

4. Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child.”

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). I know that agonizing parents have claimed this passage as an ironclad promise that because they put their child in Sunday school and vacation Bible school, because they took their kids to church every time the doors were open, because they read the Bible every day and prayed together as a family until the stars came down… their kids were guaranteed to grow up as good as gold. Because of the “promise” of this verse.

But there are the examples of a legion of kids raised in godly homes who later grew up to be hellions. In spite of all their sincere parents taught them, they grew up to reject it all and live as pagans. What’s the matter? This “promise” in Proverbs 22:6 isn’t true?

The answer is that Proverbs 22:6 is not a promise. There are plenty of promises in the Bible, but this passage in Proverbs is not one of them. It is not an ironclad contract from God that if you and I do “A” then God will do “B” and little Johnny or Suzy will turn out just fine. Life is pretty messy and unpredictable. You know it and I know it. And Proverbs recognizes it.

The Book of Proverbs is a series of general truths, but not a contract. Look at some of the other proverbs in the book. “A soft answer turns away wrath” (15:1). Now, generally that is often true, right? But always? I know from experience I have given a “soft,” calm, reasonable answer… and I got a storm of hate and rage in return.  Or how about Proverbs 22:15? “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; the rod of correction will drive it far from him.” Generally, that is true. But of course, there are some kids who just will not learn, even if you take a belt to them!

So what do we do with this passage about training up a child? It is generally true that in most instances, in a godly, caring home where child training and instruction begins early — that child will grow up to follow the Lord.  Although we know that there certainly are exceptions to this, it is also true that even a rebellious child… even in his adult years… will not forget what he was taught. And he will not be able to depart from what he saw and heard. The truth will stay with him, no matter how far he runs from it.

5. Matthew 5:39: “Turn the other cheek.”

“Turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39). Supposedly all Christians are supposed to be total pacifists. At least that is what people have told me, while quoting part of this verse to convince me. Fine. But look at the whole passage. What does Jesus tell his disciples here in the Sermon on the Mount?

He says in 5:38, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” Jesus is contrasting the misinterpretation and misbehavior of the Pharisees with His correct view of things. Jesus does not quote Moses in Exodus 21:24 and say that Moses is wrong.

He is telling us that the Pharisees are quoting Moses and misusing his directive on civil law and turning it into a justification for personal revenge and retaliation. And He tells the disciples NOT to resist an evil person. Is that an absolute command? In what way are we not to resist? As I read my New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles are resisting evil people (Herod, Pilate, the Pharisees) all the time. The Apostles are constantly resisting the will of the government in trying to silence them (Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29).

But look at the kind of evil, the kind of injustice, Jesus uses as an illustration. He says if someone slaps you on the “right” cheek, give him the other. He is very specific about which cheek. Why? Most people are right handed. How would I give you a right-handed slap on the right cheek? Turn my hand upside down and strike with the palm? No. That is too awkward. No one slaps like that. But I could hit your right cheek with a right-handed back hand! A back-handed slap.

That is what Jesus is referring to. Now, is that a lethal strike? No, it is not. But it is an insult. Jesus is saying, “In your every day discourse, people are going to back-hand you. They are going to insult you. You can bear with it. Give them the other cheek and keep going.” Jesus did NOT say, “Hey, if someone is invading your home to slaughter everyone inside, let ’em have at it!”

I have discussed this in greater detail in my article “God and Guns: What the Bible Says About Self Defense,” and I hope you will read it in full. God does indeed give us the right to protect ourselves against four-footed and two-footed varmints (in both the Old Testament AND New Testament). Defending the defenseless and protecting the innocent is a godly thing.

Here in Matthew 5:39, Jesus is not talking about throwing away self-defense in the face of a lethal threat (otherwise he would tell us to get rid of our military and police forces and let ISIS or North Korea just have their way with us). He is talking about dealing with personal insults and frustrations of life.