In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets
- Matthew 7:12
This verse is repeated in Luke 6:31, but Matthew contains all the information about it that Luke has and then some so we'll stay in Matthew for our study. This very familiar passage, often referred to as the "golden rule", contains two principles. One principle is evident and one is more difficult to grasp; one is practical, and one is theological. Our study will review these two principles in the context of the passage they are in and also in view of the entire Bible.
Rabbi Hillel, the great Jewish teacher of that era taught the following concerning a person's treatment of others. He said, "What is hateful to thyself do not to thy neighbor; for this is the whole law, and all else is its exposition". Sounds good on the surface, but when you really study this approach closely you see that this is pretty selfish. You withhold injury to others so that you will not receive injury in return. You don't hurt because you don't want to be hurt. Jesus turns this saying around when He says, "Treat others in the same way you want others to treat you". Not only does Jesus re-align Rabbi Hillel's dictum, He also provides ample teaching to clarify how to apply this "golden rule" in one's life. Matthew 7:12 is a concluding statement summarizing much of what He has been saying in a long discourse to His disciples which we refer to as "The Sermon on the Mount". His statement about how to treat others in 7:12 concludes much of what He has taught from chapter 5 through 7.
For example, in treating others as you would want to be treated He says that we should:
1. Speak kindly to one another
You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the courts; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing', shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.
James, in his epistle (James 3:1-12), reminds us of the power of the tongue to bless, curse, and start trouble. Jesus puts forth the basic element of personal relationships - kind speech. He also provides the manner in which disputes can be neutralized before becoming violent and destructive confrontations - seek reconciliation first. This is humbling and difficult, but it dissipates anger and avoids worse trouble.
If we want kind words, we should be willing to speak kindly to others. Another way to treat people...
2. Respect one another
You have heard that it was said, YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.
- Matthew 5:27-30
Jesus moves from words to actions and uses sexual immorality as the example of ultimate disrespect for self and others. Sexual sins are against one's own body and thus scar deeply (I Corinthians 6:18). This is why they need to be rooted out from the very start. A lack of respect for self usually leads to disrespect for others, even to the extent of adultery against one's spouse.
3. Be faithful to one another
It was said, WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
- Matthew 5:31-32
The common fruit of sexual sin is the breaking of the covenant of marriage. One goes from sinning against one's own body to sinning against God by reneging on our promise to our spouse before Him. A broken promise leads to a broken life for many.
4. Be honest with one another
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.' But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, 'Yes, yes' or 'No, no'; anything beyond these is of evil.
- Matthew 5:33-37
No relationship, whether it be marriage, business, or social can bloom or even survive without honesty. Confidence, peace of mind, love, and joy are all based on the degree of trust we enjoy with others.
5. Be forgiving with one another
You have heard that it was said, ''AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.' But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
- Matthew 5:38-48
Forgiving has two aspects as Jesus shows here:
- Patience with others' mistakes, weaknesses, or demands.
- Generous (giving) with our love, patience, service, and talents.
The world is made up of sinners and ex-sinners, so forgiveness is necessary at all times. Another requirement of the Golden Rule...
6. Don't be critical
Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.
- Matthew 7:1-5
In order to understand this passage we need to note that the word "judge" refers to the habit of fault-finding (not judgment). Don't be hypercritical because if you are you will be blind to your own faults, and draw criticism for your behavior. Finding fault in imperfect people is easy; searching for good is the challenge and reward.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
- Matthew 7:7-11
Finally in chapter 7:7-11, Jesus tells His disciples why we should treat others in this way - because this is how our Heavenly Father treats us! He is kind and respects our free will. He is always faithful, honest, and forgiving. He always builds up the good and helps us with weakness. The point is that if God treats us the way we want to be treated, we should do the same for others. This is what leads to Jesus' summary statement in verse 12a.
In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you,
- Matthew 7:12a
We already have this treatment from God as His children, we should treat others as we would want to be treated (and are already treated by God).
So much for the practical application, let's move on to the second half of the verse and the theological application.
For this is the Law and the Prophets.
- Matthew 7:12b
In other words, what significance do these actions have beyond their actions, and what spiritual impact does this have? If you read the verse it would seem to say that doing all these things fulfills, obeys, and satisfies all that is written in the form of Law and Prophets. The danger with this line of thinking is that we can easily fall into legalism - systematic good works and self-improvement to satisfy a new code of Law. We trade in the old system that the Jews had of fastidious slavery to rituals and traditions - we exchange this for a new system of practiced benevolence and good behavior to satisfy an ideal or confirm our place with God.
In this "new legalism" turning the other check and resisting any impulse to criticize, remaining faithful, and pursuing honesty becomes the way to satisfy the Law and the Prophets (rather than performing rituals and abstaining from certain foods). For those who are trying to fulfill this new rule, this "Golden Rule" - the thinking goes like this:
- The more I do, the more I feel saved and feel close to God.
- The better I am, the closer I am to perfecting the new law of good behavior.
- I feel spiritual, saved, and secure with every improvement I make towards this ideal.
If this is our approach, we've misunderstood not only the Golden Rule but the basis upon which it rests - the gospel of Jesus Christ. A good example of our misunderstanding are those people who do all of these things; kindness, honesty, graciousness, etc., and do them better than we do, and yet they do not believe in Christ. We all know people like this - they are better Christians than we are, but they do not believe or follow Christ.
- Are they saved?
- Do they fulfill the Law and the Prophets by virtue of their actions?
- If they don't, why do we (who do lesser things) think that we accomplish this?
In other words, why should we have any hope when our lives are often not as good as people who don't believe in Jesus Christ or obey Him? Let me explain how the Law and Prophets (that is all the commands and instructions in God's word) are fulfilled.
1. They are not fulfilled by works
Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus,
- Galatians 2:16a
This is a principle we are familiar with, but we should understand that this covers any type of "work" - whether it is a careful ritual keeping or scrupulous attention to personal behavior and attitude. Nothing done by the effort of man is ever weighed against the Law and the Prophets.
2. The Law and Prophets have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ
Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. For not knowing about God's righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.
- Romans 10:1-4
Paul points to the Jews as a nation who misunderstood this very principle. During His life, Jesus fulfilled every prophecy made concerning His birth, life, death, and resurrection. During His life, He fulfilled every requirement of the Law as to attitude, conduct, worship, and personal integrity (I Peter 2:22 - no sin). Because of this His life was perfect in every way and suitable to offer as a substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf for all sinners. God sent Jesus to accomplish what no human could - to fulfill the Law and Prophets (only Jesus actually fulfills the Law and Prophets).
3. We fulfill the Law and Prophets through faith
Paul expresses it so clearly in Romans 10:4. The benefit of fulfilling the Law and Prophets is that there is no condemnation for those who can do this - the Law will not condemn or punish those who obey it perfectly. The problem is that no one can claim these benefits because all fail to obey the Law and are in many ways outside of God's purpose (Romans 3:23; 6:23). Jesus resolves this by fulfilling both Law and Prophets and offers to share with us the benefits of His perfection (Romans 8:1). No condemnation for Jesus = Perfect. No condemnation for us = in Jesus. We are made perfect through association with Jesus, not personal accomplishments.
We don't actually fulfill the Law and Prophets action by action. We are given the privileges and advantages of the One who has accomplished this because we believe in Him and have expressed that faith in the way He has asked us to do so - repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). In the same way, we don't actually fulfill the Golden Rule action by action. However, we are given the privileges and advantages of the One who has accomplished the Golden Rule, because we continue to believe and obey Him as best we can.
The Golden Rule and Salvation
The next question that might arise is this, "What, therefore, is the relationship between the Golden Rule and my salvation?" Why bother if I receive the benefits by faith? The answer to this question is, "Only the saved can truly obey the Golden Rule, fulfill the Law and Prophets, and receive the benefits". Several reasons why I believe this to be so:
1. Jesus' audience for these teachings
Matthew 5:1 specifically states that Jesus had brought aside His disciples in order to explain to them the things of the "kingdom". The verse concerning the Golden Rule was addressed to the disciples, believers.
2. Jesus fulfills the Golden Rule for His disciples
Remember, we can't fulfill the Law and Prophets the old way (rituals and commands) or by perfect execution of the Golden Rule, the new way (treating all others as we would be treated). Jesus does this for us in every way and confers upon us His perfection by virtue of faith.
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
- Galatians 3:26-27
Because I am united to Jesus by faith, I have also fulfilled the Law, the Prophets, and the Golden Rule.
3. Jesus' disciples live according to the Golden Rule as a witness of their faith
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.
- Matthew 5:16
Our treatment of others is based on how God has already treated us. We not only treat others as we would want to be treated but also because we have been treated this way by the Father. There may be others who, without faith, may incorporate these ideas into their lives but we have a greater capacity to love others for several reasons. God has so loved us that we are moved by His love to love others.
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
- I John 4:10-11
The Holy Spirit empowers us to overcome our natural sinfulness that often blocks this love.
For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
- Romans 8:13
God's word instructs us how to love, Matthew 7:12. This love provides a shining witness that God is love, God gives love, and God wants love. We can't fulfill the Law and Prophets or the Golden Rule, but our faith in Christ confers upon us His perfection, and our effort to practice the Golden Rule serves as a witness that we are God's people and Christ's servants. It isn't our love that is as good as gold, it's our faith in Jesus Christ that is as good and even better than gold.
This is a tremendously important verse and key to understanding our faith and conduct as Christians. Here are some things to remember:
- Treating others as self is the benchmark quality of disciples of Jesus Christ. We may get church organization right, and approach to worship right, but if we don't treat others right we've missed the point altogether. We'll be the ones saying, Lord, Lord and He'll say I never knew you.
- It is not the degree of love that we have that fulfills the Law, Prophets, or Golden Rule. It is our faith in Jesus that accomplishes this and motivates us to live this way.
- Our witness of love for others points to the ultimate goal of which the Law, the Prophets, and the Golden Rule strive to expose. And that is that one day there will be perfect love between God and Man, as well as man and man - a state that was destroyed so very long ago in the Garden of Eden.
The Golden Rule is the rule of the Kingdom, and all who live by it now in Jesus' name will share eternally the golden reward of a new heaven and new earth. If you are not united to Christ by faith - confess your belief, repent of your sins, and be baptized in His name as soon as possible and you will begin to live within the reality of the Golden Rule.