Everyone and their mother knows Matthew 7:1, and they use it—often inappropriately. Yet, there’s more to this passage than telling people not to judge. For example, just a few verses later, Jesus warns against false teachers. To dub a person a false teacher, you have to be willing to judge what they teach and how they live (Matt. 7:15–20). Notice what follows: how we judge is how we will be judged (7:2). This critical person sees only the fault in others but none in themselves (7:3–5). We’re to judge righteously (John 7:24). Unrighteous judgment is according to appearance. Righteous judgment, however, is with grace, mercy, and God’s will as the standard. There’s always what we see and reality. Sometimes the two are the same, but sometimes they’re not. When we look for the worst, that’s what we’ll find every time.
In matters of righteousness, we’re to judge our brethren and not outsiders (1 Cor. 5:12). Judgment here isn’t a condemnation but discernment. When a Christian doesn’t bear fruits of the spirit but works of the flesh, unrepentantly, we’re to address the issue. When you read the thought uninterrupted, it flows into the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, which denounced lawsuits among brethren. This matter is one of discipline (cf. Deut. 17:6–7; Matt. 18:15–20).
Next, Jesus urges persistent prayer (7:7–11). Then he gives the golden rule, which was meant to guide interpreting the Law (7:12). The golden rule parallels similar statements from other civilizations.
Watch yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. And what you hate, do not do to anyone. (Tobit 4:14–15; second century BC)
Let us show our generosity in the same manner that we would wish to have it bestowed on us. (Seneca, De Beneficiis 2.1.1; contemporary of Jesus)
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn! (Hillel, b. Sabb. 31a; 70 BC–AD 10)
Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. (Confucius, Analects 15.23)
Anything that might seem as if we should treat another in a certain way must be turned on ourselves and asked whether or not we’d wish to be treated in that way. The two ways of verses 13–14 have parallels in other passages (Deut. 30:15; Ps. 1:1–2).
The false prophets of whom Jesus speaks (7:15–20) must be set in the backdrop of how he said we should regard our enemies. In the decades following Jesus, prophets arose, leading revolts against the occupying Romans. Theudas (AD 44–46) led a band of people massacred by a squadron, the head of Theudas being paraded through Jerusalem. An Egyptian during Felix’s reign (AD 52–60) led several thousand people to the Mount of Olives, where he promised to command the city walls to fall and subsequently be installed as Israel’s king. Hundreds were killed, and hundreds were imprisoned, the Egyptian man having escaped. They could tell who the false prophets were by their fruits—if contrary to what Jesus taught them (non-violence), they were known to be false.
Once more, he emphasizes proper action over confession (7:21–23). The false prophets would be known by their fruits. His disciples were to let their light shine through their good works (5:16). He wanted their righteousness to exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (5:20). At every turn, Jesus wanted his disciples to show, by their actions, fidelity to God. They’re not to make a show of it for others but to quietly serve God, trusting in him. Their house will stand if they heed his instructions (7:24–27).
The response to Jesus’ teaching as having authority stems from his teaching coming directly from himself. Pharisees and rabbis would have cited the collective wisdom of the rabbis, the Law, or other Jewish writings. Jesus alludes to them but speaks with authority and settles the matter. He taught, unlike any other teacher that lived, citing other sources.