Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 7:12a “Therefore. . .”
Our Master now brings us to a passage which has for some 300 years been called, due to its great value, the Golden Rule for Life and Living. James called “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” the “royal law” (JM 2:8), and our present text is a variation on the same theme. When we want to obey the royal law, to love our neighbor as ourself, how do we determine what is a loving deed? One helpful tool is to implement the Golden Rule. Consider what we would want for ourselves.
Before examining the Golden Rule itself, we set it in its context. “Therefore” ties it closely to what Jesus had said immediately before. Prayer has little weight with God if it does not translate into something practical in our lives. Privilege and responsibility go hand in hand. “It is utterly vain to speak like angels when on our knees before God, if we act like devils in our transactions with men” (Pink).
By setting the Golden Rule in this context, Jesus tells us God, who is love (1 J 4:8), expects to see in our behavior a reflection of what He does for us. Knowing God wants us to handle others as we wish Him to handle us provides us a powerful motive for doing kind deeds. The lesson is clear. If we want God to give us “good things” in a Fatherly way, we must give good things to others in a brotherly way.
We expect our desires to move God to action for us. Our desires must also move us to action for others. “Our desires sent heavenward procure blessings for us; sent earthward, they prescribe our blessing of others” (Maclaren). We desire things from God. Everyone else also has desires. Even as we expect God to answer our prayers, we should seek to be God’s answer to someone else’s prayers.
Living by the Golden Rule is our way of proving we trust the Golden Ruler who gave it. Do we truly believe God will give “good things” to us when we ask? We prove our faith by taking care of others. Words are cheap. Only deeds count.
If we truly believe God will meet all our needs, we are set free to fully love others with reckless abandon. “We can do for others what we would want done for ourselves without fear of depleting the divine resources and having nothing left” (MacArthur). Since the Father is responsible for my well-being, I do not have to worry about me, and can take time to help others. Whatever we profess, we show a lack of faith “if instead of depending like sheep on the care of their shepherd we set off like beasts of prey to forage the world for ourselves” (Andrew Fuller, in Pink).
Matt. 7:12b “. . .all things. . .”
Do not overlook the vast extent of Jesus’ command. The Golden Rule applies to “all things,” to all our dealings with others. Christ’s admonition is a quantum leap beyond all the other proverbs of reciprocity which were offered before Him.
Negative forms of the Golden Rule were found almost universally in olden times. Ancient Greek King Nicocles wrote, “Do not do to others the things which make you angry when you experience them at the hands of other people.” Confucius said, “Do not to others what you would not wish done to you.” The Apocrypha reads, “What you hate, do to no man” (Tobit 4:15). Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to thee, do not to anyone else; this is the whole law, all else is commentary.” The Stoics taught, “Do not to another what you do not wish to happen to yourself.”
Before Jesus came, God had not left mankind totally helpless in the area of morality. Evidences of high ethics shone through from time to time in various cultures. Truth has always been truth, whenever and wherever it has been found.
In the beginning, people knew right from wrong. The Fall obscured truth, but vestiges of it survived. Augustine rightly notes certain things were written from the beginning on the hearts of people. We see this in universals like marriage, family, laws against murder and theft, etc. God did not totally abandon us. Fragments of truth remained, but Jesus had to come to make the truths crystal clear again.
The negative formulations are good rules, but not Golden, for they contain much selfishness. As prudent statements of self-defense and self-protection, they are common sense ways to stay out of trouble, to keep mischief from being riled up.
The negative statements are needed, for society could not exist without them, but fall far short of what Christ expects from His followers. “Don’t harm others” is a far cry from “Help others.” The former can be satisfied by doing nothing, and could thus be obeyed by a corpse. A person can avoid hurting others and yet still be a useless citizen, neighbor, or family member. To obey the Golden Rule requires us to be proactive, not reactive. Rather than be passive, we must initiate, overcome our inertia, and go out of our way to find–yea, create–opportunities to help others.
Matt. 7:12c “. . .whatsoever ye would that men should do to you,. . .”
Note the generic term “men.” The Golden Rule is to be applied toward every person we meet. Its sweep is breathtaking–in “all things whatsoever” to all people. Again I feel a need to show how far Jesus went beyond all others in this directive.
Seneca said the best way to give a gift is to give what we would wish to receive. Aristotle said we should behave toward our friends as we should wish them to behave toward us. Notice, even these positive statements do not measure up to the Golden Rule. Seneca dealt only with the giving of gifts, Aristotle only with the treatment of friends. Jesus required all actions toward all people to be beneficent.
As the truth contained in the Golden Rule begins to sink in, we realize we cannot fulfill it on our own. In 1780, Tedynscung, chief of the Delaware Indians, said of the Golden Rule, “It is impossible. It cannot be done. If the Great Spirit that made man would give him a new heart, he could do as you say, but not else.”
We must let the impossibility of obeying it by ourselves bring us into a posture of calling out for Christ’s strength. We are reminded again of Christ’s first lesson in this Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” We cannot live by the Golden Rule apart from the ongoing miraculous working power which comes solely from Jesus filling us with the Holy Spirit. The Golden Rule breaks down when we omit the One who spoke it, but happens if we are full of His love.
A chaplain in the World War II Bataan death march told of a Japanese soldier who at grave risk to himself offered by night food and drink to starving American prisoners. The soldier repeated over and over again the only English word he knew, “Jesus, Jesus.” This pictures the only way we can live by the Golden Rule. We must keep asking, seeking, and knocking for power in the Golden Ruler’s name.