And there it was. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it, it wouldn’t go away. No matter how many times I glanced away, hoping it would just leave, it didn’t. As my eyes returned, immediately I was fixated upon it. I tried to focus on the conversation. I tried to focus on making eye contact. I tried to focus on how important this moment was. All to no avail. So I tried distraction. If I just pretended to be engaged and silently drifted off into the realm of mental diversion surely that would succeed! But it didn’t work no matter how hard I tried to think about other things…the weather, the book I was reading, the dinner I had the night before, the fly on the wall…all to no avail. This was horrible! It was like being trapped in an episode of Seinfeld! Finally I had to say something! “You have food stuck in your teeth!!!” I practically yelled at the person sitting across from me who had come for counseling. Whoooo. What a relief; I had told them.
While this scenario may be somewhat humorous, I assure you the correlation between this story and the condition of the church who often finds herself in a stalemate concerning sin, is not. In fact, I believe this story serves as a good analogy of the battle that wages in those who see wickedness and are afraid to draw attention to it because it would be unloving and impolite, similar to the struggle we might go through with someone who has food stuck in their teeth.
In the first post of this series, Who Are You to Judge? – Part 1, we found that correcting our neighbors goes hand-in-hand with loving our neighbors. Furthermore, we found the bible teaches that in our reproving, rebuking, exhorting, correcting, and loving, we are prohibited from sinning against our neighbors. More specifically, all injustice, partiality, slander, murder, hatred, sin, vengeance, and grudges are to be avoided when we correct and love others.
In this post, we will dissect a famous passage of scripture that historically has been used against the notion of correcting sinful behavior because it is viewed as judgmental and unloving to do so. What we will actually find is that instead of a command against judging, we are given another strong guideline for biblical correction.
Woe to You Plankeye!
One of the most misquoted, misused, miscontextualized but yet most memorized verses of scripture has to be Matthew 7:1.
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” Matthew 7:1 (NASB95)
Often this piece of wisdom that Jesus spoke during the Sermon on the Mount is misunderstood to mean that we are to do away with any and all attempts at correction as well as anything that even remotely smells like judging a person’s actions. The logic that is used is that if we reprove someone, then we become guilty of judging and therefore, we will in turn become the objects of judgment. Some that hold to this interpretation are just simply misled or have never taken the time to read this verse in it’s context. For others this verse becomes ammunition they use in the battle against the light of truth. This more sinister reason for some who maliciously throw this verse around along with it’s false interpretation is to avoid being confronted with an issue of sin. A person will often throw this up as a smokescreen in hopes of diverting the attention away from themselves, thereby sidetracking the one attempting to do the correcting. And this usually works because, after all, who wants to be judged?
But is this interpretation actually what Jesus was teaching? Or is there more to the story? I believe there is. Let’s read that verse again in context with the rest of the verses connected to it so we can get a complete picture of Jesus’ thought.
“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is in your own 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.” Matthew 7:1-5 (NASB95)
Now that we have the full passage, let’s break this down and get to the interpretation that I believe Jesus intended.
First, He establishes the principle in the first two verses by saying,
“‘Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.'”
The main thought that establishes the principle is found right in the middle of these two sentences in the phrase, “for in the way that you judge, you will be judged.” This in no way implies we are to avoid correcting a neighbor who is in sin. In fact, by the way He mentions it, Jesus seems to be affirming and establishing that the opposite is true. Jesus is not saying don’t judge but rather be careful in the way you judge. If you are not, He warns, then you could find yourself as the recipient of judgment, and, furthermore, it will be dealt out to you in the same graceless measure that you gave it.
Ok, that is pretty serious, tell me more. In what way can our judging turn into something that will in itself condemn us? In the next few verses, He gives a short illustration to explain exactly what He means.
“Why do you look at 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,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?”
Jesus is pretty clear in His illustration. He uses speck and log symbolically to illustrate sin in two different people. He uses speck to illustrate sin in one individual that should not be so obvious but nonetheless has caught the attention of the one with the log sticking out of his eye. Furthermore, it has become the object of this person’s considerations as he desires to remove the speck from his brother’s eye. But this presents a dilemma, because his own eye issues are preventing him from doing so. Why is this such a problem? Because it is hypocrisy. Put in other words, the blind cannot lead the blind.
We find that Jesus is not confronting someone’s attempt to rebuke and correct a brother’s sin but rather what the Son of God is condemning is the practice of judging hypocritically.
This issue of hypocrisy is much more serious than what Jesus deals with in these few verses. We see this topic come up again later in Matthew’s gospel as Jesus confronts the scribes and Pharisees, who were part of the religious leaders at that time, by publicly calling out their specific deceptions. Each time He did so, He began by saying “Woe to you…!” For example,
“But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” Matthew 23:13 (NASB95)
Woe is a very strong word used in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is an expression of grief, intense pain, frustration, and condemnation. This is a very serious exclamation by our Lord concerning the state of those who are leading with false virtues.
Now, this brings up another thought about this individual with the log sticking out of his eye. My translation of choice is the New American Standard Bible. In this translation, as we have seen, it refers to the object in this person’s eye as a log. I get the image of a small tree or a large branch that has been cut down. Maybe it has most of its leaves and branches roughly removed but still has its bark and really is just simply a log. But the word that is used in the King James Version is beam and the word used in the New King James Version is plank. Both of these probably represent the original Greek word, δοκός, better which means “a piece of heavy timber such as a beam used in roof construction or to bar a door” (BDAG). The reason I point this out is because the image of a log is something that hasn’t had much energy put into it to shape it into anything other than a log. But if we take the translation to mean something like a roof beam or a plank that would be used to bar a door then we get the image of something that has been carefully shaped for a specific purpose. There has probably been considerable time put into it because it is an essential piece of material in the structure of the building. I don’t want to read too much into it, but the parable is made clearer when the symbolism of a plank is used instead of a log. Here is why. Sin can sometimes become so much a part of our lives that we can be afraid to give it up because it has become a well-crafted staple in the structure of our identity. The removal of our sin should obviously be the first order of business in our lives (as the individual in the story should have recognized) but if we instead find ourselves preoccupied with the specks of others, maybe we should be asking ourselves, is there an unhealthy compassion for this plank in my eye that has prevented me from seeking God to remove it? The danger is outlined for us in the words of Jesus in John’s gospel,
“…and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.” John 3:19b (NASB95)
So, for what it’s worth, I believe the word picture plank rather than log better represents the harmony of scripture in this instance. Back to the dilemma…
What is this person to do who is so distracted by his brother’s speck but is oblivious to his own plank? Jesus explains.
“You hypocrite, first take the log (plank) out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
Our Lord, in typical Jesus fashion with all of the wisdom of the Godhead at His disposal, answers with a very logical answer…remove the plank you hypocrite! But He doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that once the plank has been removed, then you will be able to see clearly so you can assist your brother in removing his speck. Problem solved! If your brother has sin, first make sure you have had your own sin removed in Christ, then you will be able to see clearly to remove your brother’s sin in Christ.
For those who stop reading at verse 1, loudly quoting and proclaiming that Jesus teaches us to never, ever, ever, judge or correct the lifestyle of our neighbor is short-sighted and should humbly continue reading the whole of scripture. Along those lines, let’s look at two real life biblical examples of this principle in practice to help us better understand this.
The first example comes to us from the gospel of John. This passage of scripture is also often used in the argument that we are to avoid correcting someone who is in sin. But actually, I think you will find that it more accurately lines up with the principle we have been laying out in these two posts.
As Jesus came to Jerusalem, He went to the temple where many people came to Him to listen to His teachings. One day as He was in the temple teaching, the scribes and Pharisees came to Him with a woman they had caught in adultery. Of course, their concern was not merely with the sin of this woman but were actually wanting to trip Jesus up in His theology and ethics.
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’ They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?’ She said, ‘No one. Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.'” John 8:3-11 (NASB95)
As we can see, Jesus very arbitrarily answers the Pharisees’ question concerning the commandment to stone those who commit adultery by appealing to the anti-hypocrisy principle laid out in Matthew 7. This adulteress has committed sin and deserves punishment just as the Law prescribes so go ahead and stone her. There’s just one catch…only the man who is without sin can initiate the judgment. And therein lies the rub, so to speak. By saying this, Jesus is quoting another principle from the Law, which authorized that the witnesses of the sin were to be the first ones to put the sinner to death.
“The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people.” Deuteronomy 17:7
Instead of casting their stones of condemnation at the woman, they individually left the scene. Therefore, one of two things can be surmised by their response. Either the scribes and Pharisees were not witnesses to the act of adultery as they first claimed to be, which would make them guilty of being false witnesses or they themselves were included with the woman in her act of immorality which also would make them guilty of sin, in this case adultery. Either way, Jesus exposes them in their hypocrisy and the hardness of their unrepentant hearts. As they slowly realize their trap has backfired and they become the ones who are ensnared, they one by one slip away, interestingly enough, not to humbly repent and remove the plank from their eyes but instead to continue to plot against the Son of God. Hypocrisy has been exposed and it is ugly.
Now what about the woman? At first glance we see that Jesus doesn’t condemn her. Although He was obviously the only One in that setting without sin and since He is omnipresent and was not ignorant of the sinful act, shouldn’t He have been the One to cast stones at the woman in judgment? But He didn’t. In fact, He had the audacity to tell her she wasn’t condemned at all! This is often the argument that is raised; Jesus didn’t condemn people so why should we? But once again, this is a short-sighted argument and does not harmonize with the rest of scripture.
I believe there are two principles being established here that we need to consider. The first thing we see is an example of Jesus making the transition between old covenant and new covenant, whereby He is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, thus fulfilling the civil laws that condemn adulterers to capital punishment by public stoning. This is similar to when Jesus declared all foods clean in Mark 7.
Secondly, we see this new covenant unfold even further in the act of mercy upon the repentant adulteress. I stress repentant. How do we know she was repentant? Simply by Jesus’ response to her, “Go. From now on sin no more.” This is a familiar phrase that Jesus uses several times in keeping with those who have humbly repented and changed directions from their sin. Since this woman was willing to turn from her sinful lifestyle, there was no need for condemnation. This is a poignant lesson for us in the church who seem to have a great memory when it comes to condemning the past sins of others but somehow become forgetful when it comes to our own history.
So I believe this story fails the test of those who would use it as an example of a time when Jesus avoided judgement. In fact, we see that in His confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, with one plain sentence from the Law He condemned the whole hypocritical group. Then we also see Him providing correction to the adulteress woman by telling her to sin no more. What we see here is the principle laid out in Matthew 7 in action.
The next real life biblical example concerning correction we should consider is found in Galatians.
This story includes two of the great New Testament apostles, Peter and Paul. A situation arises concerning dietary law and fellowship with Gentiles (non-Jews) where Peter recognizes he has freedom in Christ to eat with the Gentiles. But as soon as the Jews start showing up, he piously rejects the fellowship of the Gentiles out of fear of the circumcision. Therefore, when Peter meets up with Paul in Antioch, it says he opposed Peter about his hypocrisy.
“But when Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision. The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in the presence of all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it that you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?'” Galatians 2:11-14 (NASB95)
Interestingly, here we have a person, Paul, who is able to see clearly so as to remove the speck from Peter’s eye and that sinful speck happens to be hypocrisy. As we read this, we find that Peter’s double standard wasn’t the only problem. Actually, it was the root of many problems. First, of all, his actions were a stumbling block to the Gentiles. We can imagine what the Gentiles must have thought and how it probably caused them to struggle when Peter had enjoyed their food and fellowship until the day his Jewish brothers showed up. Not only that but the scripture says that his hypocrisy also led the other Jews to join him in this sinful behavior towards the Gentiles. But even worse yet was the fact that Peter was mishandling and misrepresenting the gospel and for that the great apostle Peter needed correction. So what did Paul do? He confronted him to his face in the presence of all, thus removing the speck and correcting Peter’s sin. This seems harsh and out of line with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 concerning church discipline, but we need to understand that this was a serious breach in the truth of the gospel that had spread like a cancer, therefore, it required serious action to correct the matter. Furthermore, with the privilege of being a teacher comes a greater accountability because it is a massive responsibility.
I wonder if Paul was around today, how many leaders he would publicly confront for hypocritically mishandling the gospel? Furthermore, I wonder how many would be humble enough to listen to reason and how many would simply cry, “Judgmental!” Just a thought.
Removed by the Master Physician
As we have examined the danger of hypocrisy in our corrections towards others, we need to realize something significant. Jesus tells us to first remove the plank from our eye so we can come alongside the ones with specks. But how does someone go about doing that? Very simply, we don’t. We must never forget that planks and specks are only removed by the Master Physician, Jesus Christ as we crucify ourselves daily and follow Him. It is only through the spilled blood of the Lamb that we have remission of our sins. It is only through His resurrection that we have hope for a future glorified existence completely free from the threat of specks and planks. But until that day, we need love and correction.
“It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” – Jesus of Nazareth