Matthew 7:12

Matthew 7:12

12 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.


Around the year 20 B.C., somebody asked the Rabbi Hillel to stand on one leg and teach him the whole law.  The “stand on one leg” part had to do with seeing if the Rabbi could answer the profound question quickly and deftly, thinking on his foot as it were.  Hillel did so.  He stood on one leg and said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.  This is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary.”[1]

That will likely sound very familiar to many of you:  “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.  This is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary.”  It will sound familiar because it is so very similar to the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12, words which we know as The Golden Rule.

12 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Yes, those are very similar sayings, and I should note that other sayings similar to the Golden Rule were said even earlier in history.  Even so, there is something unique about the Golden Rule.  It was said by Jesus Himself.  Like all of Jesus’ words, they have content and weight because of Jesus’ work on the cross and in the empty tomb.  What Jesus has done, in other words, makes His words unique, even if similar sayings were made by others.

The context of the Sermon on the Mount adds particular meaning to the Golden Rule as well.  If the Sermon on the Mount is a depiction of how citizens of the Kingdom of God who are current residents of the fallen kingdom of the world are to live (which it is), then this commandment is necessarily integral to our lives as followers of Jesus.  As such, I would like for us to consider two crucial truths about this important teaching.

I. The Golden Rule is NOT an Isolated, Humanistic Ethic of Kindness:  It Grows Out of the New Testament Vision of Who God Is.

One of the temptations we feel when approaching the Golden Rule is the temptation to remove it from its wider theological context and reduce it to an ethical maxim, thereby reducing it to a humanistic ethic of kindness.  In other words, there are those who take these words as the lowest common denominator of all religions and argue on that basis that this rule is all that really matters.  In this way of thinking, the Christian claims concerning the deity of Christ, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His ascension, and His promised return do not really matter.  All that matters are these words of His:  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Many people feel this way, religious and irreligious.  For instance, I recently saw where somebody had asked this question on “Yahoo! Answers”:  “What is the purpose of life?”  This posted response intrigued me.

The purpose of life is to learn to love yourself and others. The golden rule is all that matters and every religion has that. It’s also about learning and growing in knowledge and good character.[2]

That is a typical approach:  forget religious differences and focus on this one rule.  Even atheists have argued this.  In a debate with Rick Warren, the popular American atheist Sam Harris argued that the Golden Rule, which he calls “a wonderful moral precept,” is a good thing that anybody can follow “without lying to ourselves or our children about the origin of certain books or the virgin birth of certain people.”[3]

Do you see?  Sam Harris says we can forget God and forget even the supernatural so long as we hold to the ethic of the Golden Rule.  Furthermore, popular religion author, Karen Armstrong, was asked in an interview if all that mattered in religion was the Golden Rule.

Dave: That everything boils down to the Golden Rule.

Armstrong: I’m convinced of it. It’s in all the traditions, and it’s what the world needs now more than religious certainty, more than doctrinal statements or more rules about what people can do in the bedroom and who can get married and who can be bishops or priests. All this is like fiddling while Rome burns.[4]

So we do not even need religious certainty.  All we need is this Rule, interpreted generally to mean, “be nice.”  Of course, that raises the question of how we can be certain of even the Golden Rule if we cannot have religious certainty.  But many religious people seem to agree with this approach.  I do not normally quote Wikipedia, but the Wikipedia page noted this about The Golden Rule:

The “Declaration Toward a Global Ethic” from the Parliament of the World’s Religions (1993) proclaimed the Golden Rule (“We must treat others as we wish others to treat us”) as the common principle for many religions.  The Initial Declaration was signed by 143 respected leaders from all of the world’s major faiths, including Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Brahma Kumaris, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Indigenous, Interfaith, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Native American, Neo-Pagan, Sikhism, Taoism, Theosophist, Unitarian Universalist and Zoroastrian.[5]

This, of course, appeals to the ecumenical and pluralistic spirit of the age.  After all, who would not love to see all religions get along?  Who would not love to see an end to religious strife?  So maybe this is the answer:  we should all agree on one common rule and disregard all of our differences as irrelevant religious details.

I would like to suggest that, though such an idea may be attractive to our modern, secular impulses, it is disastrous.  It should not be an attractive option for Christians, for whom the totality of Christ’s teachings and life is sacred.  In point of fact, the Golden Rule is not an isolated, humanistic ethic of kindness.  Instead, it grows out of the New Testament vision of who God is.  This means it must remain in its proper place precisely there:  in the center of all that Jesus taught and all that Jesus is.

Part of what tempts people to want to detach the Golden Rule from the whole counsel of God’s word is that it appears to be detached in its lack of an explicit reference to God.

12 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

At first reading, the Gold Rule actually appears to reduce the essence of faith to treating people nicely.  However, two aspects of the Rule mitigate against such an idea.  The first is the word “so” in the ESV or “therefore” in the KJV.  That word is significant because it links the Golden Rule to that which was said just before it.  That may mean it is connected to the beginning of chapter 7 and the warning against sinfully judging others lest we be judged.  If it is connected to those words, it is a kind of concluding thought to, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).  Put together, that would sound like this:  “Judge not, that you be not judged…So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  But what is most significant is that Matthew 7:1 ties its warning to the reality of the final judgment of God.  In other words, we judge not because we realize that there is but one Judge capable of making true judgment:  the Lord God.

But if that “so” or “therefore” refers to what immediately precedes the Golden Rule, then it is linked to the teaching on prayer:  asking, seeking, and knocking.  In this sense, we should treat others with kindness not only because we wish to be treated with kindness, but because, as the text immediately preceding this says, we have been treated with kindness by our good God.

Either way, the first word of the Golden Rule harkens us back to the reality of God.  It is therefore theological, not ethical.  It cannot be reduced to a mere statement about how we should treat people.  Whatever the Golden Rule means, it means something about the life to which God, not human solidarity, calls us.

Furthermore, the concluding statement of the Golden Rule also keeps us from divorcing it from the other truths of God and reducing it to a relational rule.

12 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

That statement is significant:  “for this is the Law and the Prophets.”  It is significant because we have heard Jesus say it before, and this other usage of the term helps us understand how He intends it here, because it is a fuller statement.  The shorter should be interpreted in light of the fuller.  The fuller usage of this phrase was used in Matthew 22

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Ah!  Now things become clearer.  In Matthew 22, Jesus defines the greatest commandment in a two-fold manner:  Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  You will immediately note that loving our neighbor as ourselves is a shortened form of the Golden Rule:  do to others as you would have them do to you.

What this means, then, is that Matthew 7:12 must be interpreted in light of Matthew 22:40.  The grand motivation behind the practice of the Golden Rule is therefore love of God, the first part of the greatest commandment.  In truth, we are only able to love others as we love the Lord God.

The theological core of the Golden Rule is also evident, of course, in the fact that Jesus, in both Matthew 7:12 and 22:40, sees this as the essence of all that the Law and the Prophets sought to do.  The Law and the Prophets are, at heart, about the union of man with God.  Whatever the Law and the Prophets were about, they were not about some mere effort to get people to be nice to each other.  Thus, the Golden Rule cannot be just about having people be nice to each other, for the Law and the Prophets which it epitomizes were not merely about that.  They were about union with God.  This union with God is what lies behind the Golden Rule.  Stanley Hauerwas put it well when he said:

Oddly enough…when the rule is isolated from the eschatological context of the sermon, indeed when the rule is abstracted from Jesus’ ministry in order to ground ethics, it is made to serve a completely different narrative than the one called the kingdom of God…Jesus knows nothing of a realm that Kant called “ethics.”  That we are to do to others as we would have others do to us is not ethics.  According to Jesus it is the summation of the law and the prophets…Jesus calls us to live faithful to the particularity of Israel’s law and prophets.  Jesus does not say that now that we know the Gold Rule – the rule was known prior to Jesus – we no longer need to know the law and the prophets.  On the contrary, we must know the law and the prophets if we are to know how to act toward others.  Let us not forget that this is the same Jesus who told us earlier in the Sermon on the Mount that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.[6]

Is the essence of Christianity therefore simply being nice to people?  Clearly not!  That is not what Jesus intended.  Again, this Rule is given in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is a Rule for the redeemed, born again, blood bought people of God.  This is what life in the Kingdom of God looks like.  Therefore it is about that other-worldly kindness that grows out of redeemed hearts.

That raises an interesting question:  can a non-Christian really follow the Golden Rule?  Can a person whose heart has not been redeemed truly treat others as they wish to be treated?  In a surface sense, the answer is yes.  Non-Christians can be kind and, regrettably, Christians can be brutally and tragically unkind.  But in another sense, we must see that a heart that has been captivated and indwelt by the risen Son of God, Jesus Christ, has a depth of love and kindness and goodness and magnanimity that an unredeemed heart cannot understand.  Which is simply to say that the cross makes a difference in how people treat other people.  At least it should.  Christian cruelty to others is a violation of that most sacred core of our faith:  the cross and empty tomb.

Placed in the mouth of Jesus, the Golden Rule is a Rule for how followers of Christ live out His presence in kindness and goodness to others.  This comes from a heart that has been born again.  Billy Graham was recently asked the following question.

As far as I’m concerned the most important thing about religion is following the Golden Rule and treating people kindly. After all, isn’t that what Jesus told us to do? We’d have a lot fewer problems in the world if everyone did this, in my opinion. — W.W.

Graham’s answer was characteristically insightful.

Yes, the world certainly would be a better place if everyone put the Golden Rule (as it’s commonly called) into practice. Jesus’ words are just as relevant today as they were when He first spoke them: “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

But why don’t we put it into practice? Why is there so much conflict and evil in the world? The problem isn’t ignorance; most people, I suspect, know they ought to treat people with respect and kindness, even if they can’t quote Jesus’ words exactly. And yet they fail to do it — and so do we.

The problem is far deeper: The problem is within our own hearts and minds. Down inside, we are selfish and demand our own way — and this brings us into conflict with others (who are just as selfish). Almost every headline bears witness to this truth. Jesus said, “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22).

This is why we need Christ, for only He can take away our stubborn selfishness and replace it with His love and compassion. And He will, as we confess our sins to Him and submit our lives to His control. Don’t trust in your own goodness (which has its roots in pride — which is a sin). Instead, turn to Jesus and commit your life to Him today.[7]

I repeat:  the Golden Rule is not an isolated, humanistic ethic of kindness.  Instead, it grows out of the New Testament vision of who God is.  And the New Testament vision of who God is is a vision of His redeeming, forgiving, and declaring righteous lost humanity as it turns, repents, and receives His grace.

II.  The Golden Rule is a Practical Demonstration of Inner Transformation Through the Indwelling Presence of Christ.

It follows, then, that the Golden Rule is a practical demonstration of inner transformation through the indwelling presence of Christ.  It is, in other words, a Christian Rule.  It is the Rule of Jesus.  We do to others only that which we would have done to us because what has been done for us in Christ is so immeasurably infused with shocking love.  We love because we have been loved!

Living out the Golden Rule is therefore an act of mission.  It is an incarnation in our own treatment of others of the love that we have been shown by Christ.  We treat others as we would be treated.  We treat others as we have been treated.  The Golden Rule is unintelligible without the love of Christ.

In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin makes the following observations about kindness and charity:

In scattering the seed, scattering your “charity,” your kind deeds, you are giving away, in one form or another, part of your personality, and taking into yourself part of another; you are in mutual communion with one another, a little more attention and you will be rewarded with the knowledge of the most unexpected discoveries.  You will come at last to look upon your work as a science; it will lay hold of all your life, and may fill up your whole life.  On the other hand, all your thoughts, all the seeds scattered by you, perhaps forgotten by you, will grow up and take form.  He who has received them from you will hand them on to another.  And how can you tell what part you may have in the future determination of the destinies of humanity?[8]

There is truth in this.  We do unto others as we would have done to us because of what Christ has done for us.  But in doing so we share the love of Christ with others, we share the presence of Christ with others through acts of love and kindness, effecting them in turn, leading them to contemplate this love that they have been shown and, behind it, the Lover who has shown us the love that makes our love possible.  Kindness, then, becomes a door for the gospel.  Love because an avenue for the cross.

12 So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

It is the Law and the Prophets for the Law and the Prophets both point to Christ and are both fulfilled in Christ.  To follow the Golden Rule, then, is to be Christ to others, to love with the love of Christ.  Practically speaking, then, the person who is indwelt by Christ will love like this.  The person who does not love like this, no matter what they may say of Christ, may, in fact, not be indwelt by Him at all.

Can you be cruel to others with no inner disturbance, no agitation of or by the Spirit of the living God?  Then perhaps you are not indwelt by Him.

Can you speak viciously to others without feeling as if you are betraying your King, Jesus?  Then maybe it is because you do not know Jesus the King.

Are you harsh, unforgiving, judgmental, bitter, and hateful?  If so, then can you say that Christ lives within you?

But do you treat others with love?  With mercy?  With compassion?  With understanding?  With grace?  With tenderness?  With kindness?  With love?  And do you do so because you yourself have been shown such love by Christ?  Do you act out of the storehouse of your own gratitude over the fact that you have received such love?

It must be so with followers of Jesus.  It must be so with citizens of the Kingdom of God.  It must be so with people who are indwelt by Christ and who are being slowly transformed by the indwelling presence of Christ.

Would you love like this?  Then trust in Jesus.  Repent of your sins and come to Jesus.  He will pour this kind of love into your heart.

Christian, are you not loving like this?  Then repent and return to your first love, Christ.


[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978), p.190.


[3] Chad Meister, “God, Evil and Morality.” God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible.  Eds., William Lane Craig and Chad Meister. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009), p.110-111.



[6] Stanely Hauerwas, Matthew. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.88-89.


[8] Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Idiot. (New York:  Everyman’s Library), p. 385.

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