The Golden Rule
Children, your parents are very familiar with Matthew 7:12. Growing up, your parents heard this verse referred to as the “Golden Rule; “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Often it is said that if all mankind would only practice this rule, the world would be a wonderful place.
But we must stop and ask the question: what is the Lord’s purpose in speaking these words? Was the Lord providing for all mankind a golden rule to live by?
Remember the context of this verse; Jesus is bringing his Sermon on the Mount to a close; that sermon where he is describing the ethics that belong to his kingdom; the kingdom of heaven. If you take verse 12 out of its context, then Jesus is not saying anything different from other religions. Many religions before and since Christ have taught the Golden Rule. Confucius taught the Golden Rule, as well as Buddha. Is Jesus simply affirming the same ethic that all other religions affirm?
According to the Sermon on the Mount, the ethic of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is exclusively Christian. It is impossible for an unbeliever to obey this ethic. Unbelievers cannot obey this ethic because they are born with a sinful nature; a nature that dominates how they think and act toward others.
The Lord has already told you how unbelievers treat others. Luke 6:32 & 33; “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” An unbeliever is by nature self-centered; he cannot obey Matt 7:12. How an unbeliever treats others is based upon how others first treat him.
This difference between Christians and non-Christians is most clearly seen in times of persecution. The unbeliever may have been a kind person to most people, but he cannot understand why a Christian is kind to evil men who persecutes him. Why would you be kind to people who are treating you this way?
Unbelievers cannot discern that the Christian considers other people from a whole new vantagepoint. The Christian is one who has experienced forgiveness; he knows what it means to have an enemy make peace with him. We were at one time enemies of God, and God made peace with us through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. So if we call v. 12 the “golden rule,” we must remember that this is the golden rule for Christians, for those who have been made members of Christ’s kingdom through his atoning death.
Notice also the word at the beginning of the verse, the word that most people pass over; “therefore.” Do you remember the rule for the word “therefore?” When you’re reading your Bible and you come across the word “therefore,” see what it’s there for.
In v. 11 Jesus explained that as Christians you can always pray to your Father in heaven, because God has promised that he will give you all you need to remain in the faith. Now we come to the “therefore” in v. 12. Therefore, as those who have been forgiven in Christ, as those who have God as their Father, therefore, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The person whose sins were covered on the cross, the person who knows the love of God, the person filled with the Spirit; that person has a whole new ethic when it comes to treating other people. That person can actually obey v. 12.
As Christians, your treatment of people is no longer determined by what they first do to you. Your treatment of others is motivated by what God has done for you in Christ. You have tasted forgiveness; and you like it. You have tasted patience, and you like it. You have tasted God’s gentle correction and seen the good fruit that comes from it, so you like it. You have tasted love, and you like it. You have tasted the fruit of being served by Christ, and you like it.
If you like these benefits when God gave them to you, you also like them when others give them to you. You like when others forgive you. You like when others gently correct you for your own good. You like when others treat you as important. You like when others respect you. You like when others love you.
So in the way you would like to be treated, so treat others. God loved you before you did anything good to him. So now, before anyone treats you good or bad, treat him or her in a Christ-like way, as you like to be treated.
As a matter of fact, your ability to forgive others when they ask is directly proportionate to how well you have understood God’s forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer assumes you are forgiving others when they ask, so you can boldly pray, Father, forgive us as we forgive our debtors.
So here is your ethic as Christians; treat others as you like to be treated. So often, Christians complain about the lack of friendliness in a particular church. But the first question I ask them is; have you tried to make friends with anyone there? As you want others to treat you, so treat them.
Well, if you are not yet convinced that v. 12 only applies to Christians, consider the phrase at the end of the verse; this is the Law and the Prophets. I doubt, parents, when you grew up hearing the golden rule you ever heard the second half of the verse quoted – this is the Law and the Prophets.
The Jews broke up the Old Testament into three parts; the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Sometimes they would simply refer to the Old Testament as the Law and the Prophets. So in saying “this is the Law and the Prophets,” our Lord is referring to the entire Old Testament.
Now, ponder this for a minute. Our Lord is saying that the whole Old Testament is found in this phrase; do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.
You are aware of what liberal theology has done with this. Liberal theologians want to narrow down the Bible to a book of ethics for mankind. You do not need to believe that Jesus provided a substitutionary atonement for sinners, or that there is a heaven or hell. According to liberal theology, v. 12 proves that the Bible is really about all people being kind to others.
Some of our founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, held this view of the Bible. To liberals, v. 12 proves that the Bible is not really about sin and salvation, but simply about being kind to others.
But you know that cannot be Jesus’ point, least of all because you have actually read the Old Testament. You know the entire Old Testament is about the coming of Christ, of the need for his death and resurrection, and of the need for a sacrifice for sins. The whole purpose of the Old Testament was to prepare people for Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Lord said as much himself on the road to Emmaus.
So you see how the ethic, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be the whole purpose of the Old Testament. As you do unto others as you would have them do unto you, you are a living testimony that what God promised throughout he Old Testament he has done. He has provided a sacrifice for sins. He has created a people with new hearts; hearts that have the ability to love the unlovely among us.
So the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ words to his redeemed people how to live in his kingdom. Now that you have been forgiven, forgive. Now that you have been served, serve. Now that God has loved you when you were unlovable, love the unlovable.
What this tells us is that there is nothing more central to your Christian ethics than how you treat others. Christianity is not first and foremost centered on issues, nor is it centered in what is called “personal holiness,” nor is it centered on personal disciplines. As important as these concepts are, to focus on them above relationships with people is to miss the forest for the trees. How you treat others around you says more about your faith than anything.
Now, a focus on people makes living the Christian faith a little more difficult than presumed. You see, if Christianity is first and foremost about my own private purity, or my own private disciplines, well, I have always been a rather disciplined person. If all it takes to walk the Christian life is to refrain from certain things, well, I can do that.
But if the Christian ethic is more lived out in relationships, well, I’m not so good at that. I’m not very good at loving people, or loving my wife, or correcting others with a good spirit, or putting others’ needs above my own. I’m not very good at responding to criticism. I am not very good at being tough with others when it is time to be tough, or being gentle when it is time to be gentle. I am not very good at getting along with people different from me. It is not always easy to respect authority. Issues are easy; loving others is difficult.
If the Christian life is most lived out in my ability to have Christ-like relationships with Christians and non-Christians, then I need help from above. I do none of these things very well naturally.
Now ironically, when you focus your Christian life on loving others and treating them well, that love will affect your personal holiness. If you love people, you will not want to use them; thus you will refrain from many immoral practices.
On the other hand, if the focus of your Christians life is on what you yourself do or do not do, instead of practicing Christ-like relationships, you are in great danger. In other words, I have known many in churches who are very disciplined, who have strong convictions on every issue, yet they do not love; they do not serve; they do not care about people. You remember those famous words of the Apostle Paul, “if I give my body to be burned, and bestow all my goods to the poor, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
So Matt 7:12 was never meant to be a general rule for mankind. We cannot take the ethics Christ gives his redeemed people and apply them to unbelievers. But through the gospel, Christ liberated your heart, enabling you to treat others well.
Therefore, as you want others to treat you, so treat them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Make relationships with others the priority in your life.
Always ask yourself, how does Christ treat me? How do I want others to treat me? As those who have been forgiven, corrected, served and loved, go and do likewise, for this is the Christian life. Amen