"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12).
This is arguably the most famous passage from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and it is perhaps the only Bible verse you can still quote in a political or social setting without rejection or repercussion. Often called the “Golden Rule,” it is one of the few teachings of Jesus with which almost everyone agrees—at least on the surface.
Most would agree today that we should be thoughtful and considerate of others, maybe even practice “random acts of kindness” toward strangers. Tolerance—for every religion, lifestyle, and moral persuasion—is the god of our culture, and this verse is frequently quoted in order to encourage us to worship at her shrine.
Sadly, this widespread, warm-and-fuzzy reception to Jesus’ command is owed to how broadly it is misunderstood and misapplied. Consider at least three aspects of the Golden Rule that we often don’t bother to notice or to remember.
THE GOLDEN RULE IS BASED ON GOD’S CHARACTER
Matthew 7:12 begins with the word “So,” which points us back to the previous eleven verses and the motivation for this command. Jesus connects the Golden Rule with what comes before it, a two-fold lesson concerning the character of God. We are to practice the Golden Rule because God’s divine judgment teaches forbearance (vv. 1-6) and because God’s goodness teaches kindness (vv. 7-11).
In Matthew 7:1, Jesus instructs us to “Judge not, that you be not judged.” Clearly then, God’s divine and righteous judgment should lead us to honest self-examination and a realization of our own failures and faults. Whether or not you and I recognize the planks in our own eyes, God sees and will judge “impartially according to each one’s deeds” (1 Pet. 1:17).
Paul uses this same motivation when he instructs masters not to threaten their servants, “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Eph. 6:9). Christians—because we trust that we are forgiven through grace, and not our own merit—should be characterized by an acute awareness of own failings, not the failings of others.
Yet this lesson is a double-edged sword for any person wishing to wield it because it is forged in the fiery reality of God’s judgment, perhaps the single most offensive subject to any unbeliever.
It is true we should be willing to forbear, love and forgive others. But the reason we are to do this, Jesus intimates, is that God’s judgment will come on those who do not consider and act in accordance with his righteous character.
Then Jesus tells us to persevere in prayer rather than in faultfinding by continually asking, seeking, and knocking at the throne room of God. But what are we to be asking, seeking, and knocking for?
The parallel passage in Luke’s gospel shows the spiritual nature of God’s promise: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). God promises God to those who ask! And so God—not bank accounts, promotions or even physical health—is to be the great object of our prayers.
Once you revamp the priorities of your prayer life according to that promise, the obvious question is: How will you apply the Golden Rule in your newly-renovated prayer life? Surely you will not be content any longer, in your prayers for others, to merely ask for financial success or personal happiness, when the Holy Spirit himself is promised to those who ask for him. No, the Golden Rule clearly corners you into spiritual prayers on behalf of others, as well as for yourself.
Be assured that the surest, fastest way to learn to love your aggravating spouse, wandering teenager, or persistent enemy is to pray for their spiritual well being! But it first requires the recognition that they need the moving of the triune God on their behalf in order to help them out of their current state.
This is not what most people think of when they say, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” But in context, this is clearly what Jesus means.
Ultimately, Jesus is saying the second commandment hangs on the first. We are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind—humbled by his righteous judgment and looking to him for our every need—and thus we will discover the strength, motivation, and conviction to love others selflessly and sacrificially. And part of loving them like that will mean loving them enough to pray for their spiritual welfare. We will pray for them to be drawn irresistibly to God by his grace, and thereby transformed from unbelief to faith.
THE GOLDEN RULE IS POSITIVE AND COMPREHENSIVE
Jesus’ statement of the Golden Rule is positive, not merely negative: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Confucius stated the negative version of this rule—don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you—and we often mistake this for Jesus’ words. But the negative version is much easier than Jesus’ command. Jesus tells us to actively be engaged in the lives of others for their welfare—which is why the same Jesus would then send his disciples out to the Great Commission.
If Jesus is indeed God, and if God is the one great object, center, and satisfaction to be found in the universe, then the Golden Rule demands we preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to others no matter their religious background or personal perspective.
This is why Jesus’ statement is not only positive, but also comprehensive: “Whatever (literally, “everything”) you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” There is nothing you should be willing to pray for yourself, but not for others. There is no great and liberating truth you should embrace, but not share with others. It is in perfect accord, then, with the Golden Rule that Paul would say to a great assembly of pagans and idolaters, “I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” (Acts 26:29).
The Golden Rule does not prohibit us from the offense of the gospel. Rather, the Golden Rule mandates personal evangelism, praying for and striving for the spiritual good of others, according to the reality that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.
THE GOLDEN RULE IS LAW
The third aspect of the Golden Rule we miss so often is that it is Law. Jesus says himself in this verse: “This is the Law.” James would likewise affirm, “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well” (Jas. 2:8). Paul pronounces that “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Rom. 13:8).
The Golden Rule is not a mere motto by which to live; it is a bedrock reality built into the cosmos, firmly grounded in the foundational reality that this universe has a Maker, that he is the God of the Bible, and that he has given us laws by which we are to live.
John Stott appropriately reminds us that “The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales.” If we are saved, it isn’t because our good works outweigh our bad works. We are saved because Jesus fulfilled the demands of the law on our behalf.
The grace of the cross, then, should be displayed in the way we deal with and interact with others, as the Golden Rule reminds us. Our relationships, like our religion, should be symbolized by the cross (unconditional forgiveness), not the scales (carefully weighing and criticizing the misdeeds of others).
Yet the cross also reminds us that the only way to salvation is Jesus Christ. The Golden Rule—itself a part of the righteous law of God—points us to the reality that we can never save ourselves; that the only hope the world will ever have to escape God’s righteous judgment is the person and work of Christ on the cross.
Our very inability to truly love others as ourselves should drive us to Christ for strength, forgiveness, and healing—and to share this good news with others in direct proportion to the joy we ourselves have found in it.
Justin Huffman has pastored in the States for over 15 years, authored the “Daily Devotion” app (iTunes/Android) which now has over half a million downloads, and recently published a book with Day One: Grow: the Command to Ever-Expanding Joy. He has also written articles for For the Church, Servants of Grace, and Fathom Magazine. He blogs at justinhuffman.org.