Golden Rule

Sermon preached on Matthew 7:6 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 10/12/2014 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Matthew 7:12

The Golden Rule

As we continue working through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to what is commonly known as the Golden Rule. We find this basic teaching in Luke 6:31 as well. Likely you heard it a lot growing up from your parents in the form of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This so called Golden Rule is indeed an important teaching of Jesus. He even tells us of its importance here when he says that this is the law and the prophets. And so we are going to slow down again and consider this single verse today. This is important not only because Jesus highlights the importance of this teaching, but also because of how too often this teaching gets misused today.

So then, as we study this verses, here’s the basic outline for today. First, we’ll think about the meaning of this “golden rule”. What is it basically saying and not saying. Second, we’ll consider what Jesus means by saying that it is the law and the prophets. Third, we’ll reflect on the use of this golden rule; the wrong and right way to make use of it.

Let’s dig into our first point then. What’s the basic meaning of this verse. The basic meaning is pretty obvious of course; that we should treat others the way we would want them to treat us. But let’s think about this in more detail. Let’s think about the first part first. Jesus begins by saying, “Whatever you want men to do to you.” In other words, the first part of this command gets us to consider how we want people to treat us. This is an important consideration. How we want others to treat us, is supposed to be the criteria for how we treat others. Now this makes the assumption that you will want what is best for yourself. But let me clarify that what should also be assumed here is that this is not supposed to be some subjective criteria. In other words, Jesus tells us to consider how we want men to treat us, we shouldn’t answer that based on our own subjective thinking. That is another problem humans have that the Bible talks about elsewhere. It’s the problem of everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. The Bible is clear that we should not determine what is right and wrong, what is good or bad, by our own personal preferences and thinking. We should not determine righteousness by our own eyes. No, we should see that God determines righteousness. God decides what is right and wrong, good or bad, according to his own eyes.

This is all to say, that when you hear Jesus tell us to consider how we want men to treat us, that consideration should be done in light of Scriptures. We should want people to treat us the way Scripture says that people should treat us. If we don’t get that, we will have fallen off track with this verse right from the start. That’s what people sometimes do with this verse. They come to some conclusion about how they want to be treated that is not consistent with Scripture, and then apply that to someone else. As a basic example, let’s imagine you have some serious sin in your life. You might say, wrongly, “Well, I don’t want anyone to confront me about this big destructive sin in my life.” You might then conclude from this verse, that you shouldn’t confront anyone else about the big destructive sin in their life. That kind of logic might seem like you are just living out this verse. But it’s faulty logic because you started with a bad premise. You started by having a sinful desire and standard for yourself, and then said you’ll apply that same sinful desire and standard toward others. But the problem was your sinful desire in the first place. If you are engaged in some destructive sin, you should actually want others to speak the truth in love and confront you. You should want that, even if you don’t. And so when we consider the first part of Jesus’ teaching here, we need to submit that consideration to the Word of God. What we want for ourselves, should be in conformity to the revealed will of God.

And so the second part of Jesus teaching here is that we then take what we want done to us, and do that for others. This is the second part, “do also to them.” James Boice and others rightly make the point that so many world religions have something like the golden rule in them. But Boice points out how typically these other religions put the idea in the negative. For example, Confucius reportedly said, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.” See how that’s put in the negative? Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself. Many of the examples of the golden rule idea in other religions are found in such negative terms. But, Jesus, instead uses positive terms. Do to others what you would have done to you.

Now, I don’t want to overstate this point. What Jesus puts in positive terms surely implies the opposite in negative terms too. I think we should not only do unto others what we would have them do unto us, but also that we shouldn’t do to them, what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves. I do think it goes both ways, and that Jesus’ words surely imply both. And yet to Boice’s point and others, it is pretty wonderful that Jesus does explicitly state it in positive terms. It isn’t enough just to not harm our neighbor. But we should also look to do good unto them. By putting it in the positive terms, it especially calls us to take initiative with our neighbors. And not only is it in positive terms, it’s put in action terms. This isn’t just about what we say or think about others, it’s about what we do unto them. Our love and kindness is to be put into action unto others.

Well, as we finish up in our first point for today in thinking about the basic meaning of this so called golden rule, let’s ask who is to be the recipient of our good deeds. The verse specifically refers to mankind. Our pew bible says that whatever you want men to do to you, do it to them. The word for “men” is the generic word for human in the Greek, anthropos. But let’s think about what that means. It means everyone. And if it means everyone, that means not just family and friends. Not just neighbors and acquaintances and strangers in general. It also includes your enemies. In Luke 6, this same teaching is given, and it’s packed into the context of Jesus teaching about loving your enemies. And so this helps us to realize that when Jesus tells us here to treat others the way we would want to be treated, it doesn’t mean reciprocation. Jesus isn’t saying treat them the way they treat you. Nor does he say treat them well, only if they treat you well. No, Jesus teaching is that regardless of how they treat you, you treat them the right way.

So that’s our first point, to describe the basic meaning of this command of Jesus. Let’s turn now to our second point and consider what Jesus means when he says that this command is the law and the prophets. Essentially, what Jesus is saying, is that this law is a sort of summary to the ethical teachings of Scripture. For the Jews, they could basically describe the Bible in shorthand with that phrase, the law and the prophets. That language reflects the past revelation given by God to his people. In one sense, then, that revelation could be summed up by this rule given here by Jesus, that “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.”

Now some important clarifications need to be given here. First, we should say that what Jesus says here is not what so many liberal theologians want to do with this verse. In other words, you go to some of these churches who embrace liberal theology and they take this command and basically use it as a definition of Christianity. They basically say that the Christian faith is all about learning to treat your fellow man the way you want to be treated. They take a verse like this and say this is what Jesus’ message was really all about, and all it was really about. In other words, they reduce the Christian faith to being about human ethics. The necessary consequence is that they basically tend to either drop or redefine labels such as sin and atonement and repentance and faith and salvation to basically be understood in light of this one overarching mission of treating others the way you would want to be treated. Of course, if you were to criticize them for doing this, they might try to appeal to this verse which has Jesus saying that this is the law and the prophets.

But of course that misses Jesus’ point altogether. For this command concerning how we treat others to be a summary of the Old Testament Scriptures means it is a summary. Summaries by definition are not exhaustive. Summaries by definition need more details to flush them out. It’s like if your school teacher assigns you a book to read, and you only read the cliff notes, but not the book, you’re only getting a summary. The reality is that there are a number of ways you could summarize the Bible, and your summary would depend in part about what aspect you might particularly be trying to summarize. Here, Jesus summarizes God’s moral standards in these terms. But you could also say how the Ten Commandments are a summary of it. Or, in Matthew 22, Jesus quotes the two greatest commandments, to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind, and secondly, to love your neighbor as yourself. In that summary, Jesus again says that all the law and prophets hang on those two commands.

And so Jesus’ words here should not be pushed to mean that our Christian religion is only about our interactions with our fellow man. Nor should his words here be used to disregard categories of important things like sin, faith, repentance, salvation, etc. Summaries need to be filled in with details.

What is rather a more interesting question here is that if you think about this verse here, you realize right away that it really falls into that second greatest command, the one to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s essentially a rewording of that. What’s interesting then is that Jesus says elsewhere that this would be the second greatest commandment. The first would be about our love for God. So, why then does he say that this can summarize the law and prophets, if it’s really only the second greatest commandment?

Well, two answers jump out to me. First, God is the one who calls you to show this love. To obey it is to obey God as God, which is a way of saying that the second greatest command drives you back to the first greatest command; that loving our fellow man should be done out of love for God first. A second response is somewhat similar, and that’s to point you to 1 John 4:20-21. It says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” And so John makes a connection as well between the first and second greatest commandments. He too sees a connection. You can’t keep the first commandment if you don’t keep the second commandment. And so in that sense, they are somewhat interchangeable as summaries. But again, the point is that a summary is not exhaustive. We should never take a short verse like this, however amazing, and use it as the supreme text by which all other passages have to be fit under. And yet that is sadly what some have done and made Christianity into some humanistic thing which is not at all something that resembles the true Biblical religion.

Rather, may we appreciate what Jesus does mean by this. This is a great summary of how God’s people are to treat others. We are to treat them with love, even when underserved. If ever you are in doubt over the details of what the Bible says concerning how you treat someone, you can start here. Yes, you’ll want to dig deeper. Yes, search the Scriptures to learn wisdom for each encounter with another human. But this is a wonderful starting point in how you think about how you ought to treat other people. See it for the big picture that it gives you on how to righteously treat our fellow man.

So, this then is leading us more and more into our third point for today. How do we use this wonderful verse? I hope you don’t find it repetitive if my answer sounds very similar to what I’ve been saying all along as we’ve gone through the Sermon on the Mount. This verse is law. It’s law, not gospel. Plain and simple. We must not think we enter God’s kingdom by how well we manage to keep this law. Rather, this law should serve to condemn us in terms of our own record. We should reflect on our treatment of our fellow mankind, and be reminded again today how we so often have not done unto others as we would have done unto us. We are rather people too often with a double standard. We too often treat others harshly, but expect others to give us the benefit of the doubt. We too often treat others by gossiping about them, but jump on them in anger should we catch them saying anything critical about us. On and on the examples could go.

This is again the problem with liberal theology. They essentially think they can keep this law. It’s much like the problem with the Pharisees back then. The Pharisees would try to minimize the laws demands, so lowering its standards, into something they thought they actually could keep. But God’s laws are so much more demanding that that. He calls for perfection. And so the liberal theologian who things his being right with God is something he gains by showing love and charity and respect for others and because he put some energy into solving the social evils of our day, that person is mistaken. That person hasn’t realized that God’s laws demand more than what any of us humans have accomplished. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That truth must stand out as we think of this command being a summary of all the law and the prophets. As a summary of it, we are left summarily condemned. We are left under God’s wrath, save a salvation.

And yet I proclaim again to you today that there is a way of salvation. God sent his son to die on the cross for sinners. Jesus did not treat sinners like they treated him. No, he treated him the way they should have treated him, and even better than that! By giving up his life for them. By paying the debt of our sins. The Scriptures tells us that when we are confronted with the laws’ demands, we need to repent of our sins and turn in faith to Jesus. We need to trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. If we do, we are no longer under the wrath of God. We are no longer condemned by the laws demand to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are forgiven and granted access into his kingdom of heaven by grace.

Brothers and sisters, we are then those who have found a great use for this law. It has driven us to Christ for salvation. So then having found that salvation, we see yet another use for this law. It becomes now the guide for how we are to live. Just because we are forgiven for our transgressions of the law, doesn’t change the fact that God’s laws are good. We ought to seek to truly do unto others what we would have them do unto us. And even when they don’t treat us the way they should, it’s all the more our delight to nonetheless treat them well. Why? Because Christ didn’t treat us the way we had treated him. He showed us grace, and radical love, and even suffered and died for us. May we then seek to treat our Lord’s call to love one another with such devotion. May it be our delight to suffer, and if need be, even die, in living this out. Because we do it all as unto our Lord, who has done even more for us.

This brings us back all around to the first word in our verse for today. It says “therefore.” That word “therefore” connects this verse with the surrounding context. How does this verse relate to the context of the Sermon on the Mount? At first, it might seem hard to relate it to the context, but hopefully with a moment’s reflection it will become clearer. Jesus had been talking earlier in this chapter about our interactions with others. We need on the one hand to not sinfully judge them, but on the other hand, there are ways we do need to judge and discern in our interactions with others. Faced with that tension, Jesus called us to seek God in prayer. To ask him for good things. And then in the verse just before our verse for today, Jesus assures us that God will answer us and will give us good things. But notice he says that to us, while acknowledging that we are actually evil people. Verse 11, we being evil, yet God as our heavenly father will give us good gifts. That’s his grace at work. God gives us evil people whom he redeems from our evil, he gives us evil people good gifts. Therefore. Therefore, go and love others. Therefore, go and treat others the way you would be treated, because you know how God has treated you, even though you treated him so poorly.

In other words, may we all the more be fueled to love our neighbor as ourselves because of gratitude. Gratitude for all the grace God has shown us and continues to show us. Gratitude that we have been so undeservingly brought into Christ’s kingdom and into God’s family. Gratitude says “therefore”, we will seek to show God’s radical love to others. Praise be to God for his wonderful grace and mercy. May we indeed look to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. And may we express unto them that radical love God has expressed unto us. Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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