Matthew 7:12 – The Golden Rule

My parents have a grandfather clock in their living room.  I grew up with its musical chimes and rhythmic dongs.  It chimes every quarter of an hour, and at each quarter it chimes longer until it reaches the top of the hour when it not only chimes but dongs out the number of hours.  And it can be very loud, especially if you are not used to hearing it.  However, having grown up with it in our living room, I became totally oblivious to its noises.  In fact, I could be sitting right next to it at the noon hour and never hear it.  It was different with visitors.  One time, we had some visitors stay with us overnight and they slept in the living room.  Unfortunately, we forgot to turn the clock chimes off and so as a result they didn’t get very much sleep that night!  What I never heard kept them awake because I was used to the sounds of the clock and they weren’t.

It’s the same with truth.  We can hear a truth so often that we don’t really hear it anymore.  And I wonder if our text this morning doesn’t fall into that category.  We’ve all heard the Golden Rule, and even society at large would probably agree that it is a good rule to live by.  But we’ve heard this clock chime so often that when we come to a text like this, we don’t really hear it.  Whereas the previous verses (7-11) are not heard because of misinterpretation or a lack of faith, this verse (12) is often not heard for no other reason than overfamiliarity.

And yet if we stop to really listen to it, we realize that this is not just another saying from a fortune cookie.  These words are incredibly important to learn and to live.  And we can see their importance underlined in the phrase “for this is the law and the prophets.”  In Jesus’ day, “the law and the prophets” was the usual nomenclature for the Scriptures.  In other words, the Golden Rule summarizes the teaching of the Scriptures.  So if we claim to believe that the Bible is the word of God, then we need to listen to these words. 

This is a summary statement of Biblical truth.  Being able to grasp such statements are incredibly important.  You really cannot say that you understand the Bible if you do not understand those grand themes and basic truths that unite everything else together.  As a teacher of mathematics, I see this all the time.  People will say that they understand calculus or even that they are good at it, but when you press them to summarize what calculus is, what it is about, they have no clue.  They cannot tell you.  And, by the way, such people turn out to not be very good at calculus, and one of the reasons is because they don’t understand fundamentally what it is all about.  The same hold true with the teaching of God’s word. It is said that someone asked Rabbi Hillel if he could summarize the whole law while standing on one leg (evidently a Rabbi wasn’t expected to stand on one leg very long): his response was a version of the Golden Rule.[1]  Can you summarize the teaching of the Bible?  Well, our Lord tells us that one way we can summarize the teaching of God’s Word, at least as it respects our duty to our fellow man, is by the Golden Rule.

A question that might come up at this point is, “Why then do we need all that extra stuff in the Bible?”  If we can summarize all the Old Testament teaching on our duty to our fellow man in one verse, why all those extra commandments?  Well, one reason is that we need “all that extra stuff” because we are so easily tempted to leave these summary truths unapplied to our lives.  In other words, we need specific and detailed commandments to convict us and to move us to apply truth in very specific ways to our lives.  Our Lord in some sense has already been doing this in this Sermon.  In 5:43-48, he gives us specific instruction how to do unto others as he would have them do to us.  In particular, he tells us to love our enemies, because God has been good to us even when we were unlovely.  We, who are so glad that God has been good to us, ought to do good to others, even our enemies.  And then we saw that 7:1-5 is another application of the Golden Rule.  We would not want to be judged by others harshly; we should therefore put away a harsh and judgmental attitude.

We need summary truths to give us the big picture and to keep us from legalism.  One way you can define legalism is that a legalist is someone is gets bogged down in details and forgets the big picture.  Like the Pharisees who got so bogged down in the details of how to apply Sabbath law that they forgot to show mercy.  Keeping the overarching truths of Scripture before us keeps us from becoming unbalanced like that.  On the other hand, specific commandments and instruction are necessary because they bring conviction for specific sins and keep us from libertinism.  So don’t be like the person who says that religion really is just about the Golden Rule and therefore there is no need to read the Bible or listen to sermons or exhortation from fellow brethren.  We need all that.  We need both, and we can thank God that he has given us both in his word. 

 “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  It has been often said that the “Golden Rule” is not unique to the teaching of Christ.  However, among all the variants of the Golden Rule found in the various religions, the words of our Lord are unique in the sense that his version of the Golden Rule is stated positively, whereas in the teaching of others it is always stated negatively.  For example, Confucius is supposed to have said, “Do not to others what you would not wish done to yourselves.”[2]  It is not quibbling to point out the difference, for there is a difference.  If you put it only negatively, you are attacking only sins of commission.  But if you put it positively, you are attacking both sins of commission and omission.  In other words, our Lord was not only saying that we shouldn’t do bad things to other people; he was also saying that we should always do good to others.  To fail to do good to others, even if you haven’t harmed them in any way, is still a breach of the Golden Rule as our Lord puts it before us.  In other words, once again we see the breadth of our Lord’s teaching.

What is the connection of this passage with the forgoing?  The word “therefore” indicates that there is a connection.  However, there is disagreement on how it is connected.  Some say that the connection is not with any specific verse or verses, but with the entire sermon so far.  Thus, given everything that our Lord has said up to this point, it follows that we should do good to others as we would have them do to us.  Others say that this verse is connected with the first five verses of this chapter.  And certainly this verse is tied to those verses in that 7:1-5 is an application of 7:12. In that case, 7:7-11 would be read as a parenthesis.  And this may well be true.  However, it seems to me most natural to read 7:12 as a deduction from the previous verses.  In other words, our Lord’s promise to do good to those who seek him leads naturally to the Golden Rule.  God does good to us; we ought therefore to do good to others.  Another way to put this is that we ought to live out the gospel practically in our lives.  God has been gracious to us; we ought to be gracious to others.  God has been liberal with us; we ought to be generous with others. 

In other words, the “therefore” at the beginning of verse 12 points to the motivation behind the Golden Rule, and this makes this version of it uniquely Christian.  The motivation to do good to others as we would want them to do to us is not rooted in selfishness but in our view of God and his grace.  We should not practice the Golden Rule because we think we are much more likely to be liked (or at least left alone) by others if we practice it.  The ultimate motivation is not love for self but love for God and our desire for others to know him and his goodness and grace.  You see, if all that is motivating you to practice the Golden Rule is some selfish desire for others to like you or appreciate you or validate your existence upon the earth, then you will end up undermining it in your life.  This is because the Golden Rule is primarily selfless, and so if selfish considerations are what are driving you, those very motivations will end up undoing it.  Love to self is the enemy of the Golden Rule, not the driving force behind it.  On the other hand, love to God and experiencing his power and grace and goodness in your life is necessary for living out our Lord’s words.

So do you want to live out the Golden Rule in your life?  Then know God!  Not just in the sense of being a theologian (though that’s important), but in the sense of experiencing God in your life.  We need to be the kind of person who lives out verses 7-11.  Such a person who is full of God’s goodness will overflow with deeds of goodness and kindness and grace to others.  The well-springs behind this kind of life of overflowing love lie in fellowship with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ.  God is the only one who can sustain this kind of life.

This is why Peter wrote, “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. . . . If any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever.  Amen” (1 Pet. 4:10-11).  It’s not just that our motivation lies in God; it’s that our very ability to live this way lies in God.  He gives the ability to do it, so that in our serving others and doing good to them, he may be glorified.  We may give to others, but our gift is from God first of all.  We give what we have first received.  Which means that God gets the glory, not us.

This serves to underline the importance of never taking a Scripture out of context.  There have been many people over the years who have taken a verse like Matthew 7:12, ripped it out of its context, and then used it as a way to make the Christian religion nothing more than doing good to others.  And they’ll claim that it doesn’t matter what you think about God – as long as you are a good person, then you are being a good Christian.  Now, the Christian religion is of course about doing good to others, but that is not all that it is.  As our previous considerations make clear, it does matter what you think about God, it does matter that you have a relationship with him through his Son Jesus Christ.  And if you do good to others all your life and yet turn your back on the Son of God, you are yet in your sins and without hope.

“Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”  These words are very similar to our Lord’s answer to the question: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36-40).  His answer was this: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Love your neighbor as yourself is essentially the same thing as saying, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

Now we’ve been arguing that selfish concerns are not a proper motivator to the Golden Rule.  However, they are a good rule to follow in applying the Golden Rule.  It’s not love to self that ought to motivate me to do good unto others, but love to self should guide me in doing good to others.  The reason for this is that we naturally love ourselves.  Long ago, the French philosopher and Christian Blaise Pascal noted that everyone does what they do to increase their happiness.  This is true even in extreme cases, like when a person commits suicide.  Why do they do that?  Because they think they will be better off dead than alive.  And we do what we do to be happy.  And we want to be happy because we love ourselves.

There is nothing inherently wrong with loving yourself.  What is wrong is when we love ourselves more than God.  What is wrong is when we put ourselves before others.  However, some people come to a verse like this and draw wrong conclusions from it.  They will point at it and say, “Look, there is a Biblical command to love yourself.”

Now that is not what our Lord is saying, and it’s very important to recognize that.  It is very troubling to me that people are taught that their problem is that they do not love themselves enough, and that if they would just have a better view of themselves then life would get better.  But the problem is not that we do not love ourselves enough.  The problem is almost surely that we have sinned in some way because we have loved ourselves more than God, that we are seeking our happiness in something or someone other than God.

Of course people say that they hate themselves, but what they really mean is they hate what they have done (or are doing) because of the consequences that they are reaping from it.  Again, the problem is not a lack of self-esteem but sin which stems from a self-love that has supplanted God.

What our Lord is doing in this text (and with the Golden Rule) is not commanding people to love themselves, but simply recognizing the fact that people already love themselves.  Thy command is to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself.  And instead of encouraging people to work on their self-esteem, he is reorienting such self-love so that it occupies to proper orbit.  God first, above all else.  And then we must love our neighbor (which in Scripture means everyone else) in the same way (as) we love ourselves.

The problem with this advice to increase your self-esteem is that is turns people away from God.  Now for someone who doesn’t believe in God, working on your self-esteem is all that you’ve got.  The same is true with the oft-repeated advice to “forgive yourself.”  There is no Scripture that justifies telling someone that they’ve got to forgive themselves!  The only one whose forgiveness you need is God’s.  The problem with guilt is not a problem with a lack of forgiving oneself, but a problem with a failure to believe in God’s remedy for sin.  Again, if you don’t believe in God, then the only way you can deal with guilt is to try to forgive yourself.  But you will not succeed.  God is the only one who can forgive sin.  Just as God is the only one who is worthy of your love above all other things.  He is also the only one who can truly make us happy and satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.

Finally, note the universality with which the Golden Rule is stated: all things.  Here again we are faced with the fact that following Christ requires the commitment of the whole person.  All of our life is to fall under his jurisdiction and we are to put every aspect of our life under the rule of Christ.  Moreover, all of our life is to be under the obedience of Christ at all times.  It is not a part-time job.  We are not to seek to live out the Golden Rule on Sunday only to turn into a completely self-oriented person on Monday.  We are not to seek to apply the Golden Rule merely in ways that please us and with which we are comfortable, but we are to apply our Lord’s words even when we don’t want to because it is hard on the flesh.  And especially, we are not meant to live out obedience to our Lord’s command only when it will be recognized and appreciated by others.  We are to do unto others, beginning in our living rooms with our spouses and our children.  Then we are to apply it to our friends and our co-workers, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The greatest example of this is our Lord himself.  He did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.  He came so that others could experience the love of the Trinity forever.  What he had experienced from eternity, he wanted for his people.  And so he came to earth to be despised and rejected of men, to be crucified and to have their sins placed upon his shoulders so that they might have eternal life and enjoy the fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit in increasing and never-ending joy.  The good he had so long enjoyed he gives to others.  It was not easy to get there.  For our Lord, doing good unto others meant the cross.  And now he calls on us to mimic him, to be his followers in this way.  Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.

[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (IVP: 1978), p. 190.
[2] Ibid, p. 190.


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