We can judge with righteous judgment—we can judge rightly—by submitting to God in faith and seeking to understand His Word. This is one possible application of Jesus’ words in John 7:24: “Do not judge by the outward appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (NASB). While this statement is pithy and quotable, it is not simply an isolated proverb. It is a line of dialogue from a historical narrative. Jesus said these words to a specific group of people at a specific time, so the context of John 7:24 deserves be explored before a modern application is made.
In John 7, Jesus goes to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. In John 7:14, Jesus begins to teach in the temple. A curious crowd gathers, mixed in their appraisal of Jesus and His seemingly audacious claims. Jesus explains that those who are “willing to do [God’s] will” are going to understand the source and authority of Jesus’ teaching, because His teaching is from God (John 7:16–18). It becomes clear that the reason the crowd does not understand Him is that they do not know God (John 8:42–43). They have the Mosaic Law yet are themselves lawbreakers (John 7:19). This is demonstrated by their desire to kill Jesus. If they truly understood the Scriptures that Moses penned, they would believe in Jesus, because those same Scriptures point to Christ (John 5:46).
The crowd does not respond favorably to Jesus’ statement that their accuser was Moses (John 5:45). Apparently, some still believed Jesus was a lawbreaker based on His healing on the Sabbath in John 5:1–15. Jesus, once again, corrects their misunderstanding of the Sabbath. He explains the relative priority of the Sabbath, using an example from their own tradition (John 7:22–23). As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus has the right to correct their legalistic misunderstanding and reset the priority on human beings rather than on rule-keeping (Matthew 12:3–8). The Mosaic Law was not meant to be used as a legalistic and slavish instrument for self-righteousness, but to promote God’s righteousness in every area of life and draw His people closer to Him.
Following up on His scathing assessment of their hypocrisy regarding the Sabbath law, Jesus commands the crowds to “judge with righteous judgment” not by outward appearance (John 7:24, NKJV). They were not judging based on God’s righteousness but on their own worldly assessment. Their judgments were based on the way things appear on the outside, and that judgment is incorrect. To judge rightly, Jesus’ audience needed to know God and place their faith in Him (John 7:17). If they did, they would know who Jesus is, and their evaluation of the situation would be completely different. Their rejection of Jesus, as mentioned later in chapter 8, demonstrates that they do not really know God. D. A. Carson writes regarding Jesus’ exhortation in John 7:24, “This appeal has many formal Old Testament parallels. . . . Jesus’ appeal is more personal, eschatological and redemptive. They have misconstrued his character by a fundamentally flawed set of deductions from Old Testament law, an approach that turns out to be superficial, far too committed to ‘mere appearances’. If their approach to God’s will were one of faith . . . they would soon discern that Jesus is not a Sabbath-breaker, but the one who fulfills both Sabbath and circumcision” (The Gospel According to John, William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1991, p. 316).
How do we apply the exhortation to “judge with righteous judgment” in modern times? At the very least, Jesus’ words should humble us, as we recognize that we are capable of distorting and misapplying God’s commands due to our own pride and self-righteousness. We are supposed to be discerning, but our judgments should be based on God’s revealed truth and our relationship to Him. When we judge a situation, do we allow our own pride to dictate our understanding, or do we in humility present our judgments to God and seek His direction? Faith in God is required to truly know Him and understand His ways (Hebrews 11:6).
Jesus’ command to judge with righteous judgment also invites us to reflect on our own legalism and treatment of others. Do we ever dismiss others based on our own standards? When we quote God in order to evaluate someone else’s life or behavior, do we ever miss the true intention of what God has told us? We should evaluate our man-made traditions and values. If we had been present, would we have been part of the crowd that condemned Jesus for failing to follow their own self-invented rules?
When we fail to demonstrate love and mercy, but instead condemn others for failing to follow standards we have invented, we are missing the entire point of God’s instructions (Matthew 9:13). Carson ends his assessment of John 7:24 with a timely application: “In an age when Matthew 7:1 (‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’) has displaced John 3:16 as the only verse in the Bible the man in the street is likely to know, it is perhaps worth adding that Matthew 7:1 forbids judgmentalism, not moral discernment. By contrast, John 7:24 demands moral and theological discernment in the context of obedient faith (7:17), while excoriating self-righteous legalism and offering no sanction for censorious heresy-hunting” (ibid., p. 317).