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Sermon Message


"The Golden Rule"

Matthew 7:12
Theme: In this short verse, our Lord gives us the essence of His Father's ethical commandments concerning our treatment of others.

(Delivered Sunday, May 15, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)

This morning, as we continue our study of the Gospel of Matthew, we will focus our attention on just one verse.

Don't worry, though. There's enough to be drawn out of this one verse alone to give us far more than a whole sermon's worth. In fact, there's enough in this one verse to keep us busy for the rest of our lives. And I'll go further than that; this one verse alone - if it were only faithfully obeyed by all people - would lead to the end all wars, the end all conflicts and personal fights, and the transformation of this world into a paradise of peace and harmony.

You may have noticed that all this hasn't happened yet. And this leads me to say something even further about this verse. Because we find that we cannot but fall far short of what it commands us, it alone is enough to drive every single one of us to a place of complete humility before a holy God. This verse is enough to move us to cry out to God for the forgiveness and saving grace He has provided at the cross of Jesus, and to bring us to a place of utter dependency upon His enabling power to live as He would have us live.

Now I know that sounds like quite a bit for one little verse of Scripture to do. But I sincerely believe that what I've said about it is true. The problem is that most of us are so used to this very remarkable verse of Scripture that we don't even notice just what an earth-shaking command it contains!

In Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, we read these words - words that we are often accustomed to referring to as "the golden rule":

Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12).

* * * * * * * * * *

Now of course, the name "the golden rule" is one that people have come up with. But I believe that there's a good deal of sense behind it. Think of what a "rule" is. On the one hand, a rule is an authoritative "standard" or "principle" given to regulates conduct. If you've ever been an athlete, you know about playing by the "rules". The apostle Paul once said, ". . . If anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules" (2 Timothy 2:5). And in one respect, that fits the idea of "the golden rule" very well. It's an authoritative standard, given to us by the Lord Jesus, that is meant to govern the conduct of His followers. As they want others to do to them, they also are to so do for others. It is called "golden", I suspect, because it is understood to be above all others in greatness and purity; and it is certainly a "rule" because it is meant to guide our conduct toward that which is best and most holy.

But there's another sense in which we could understand this to be the golden "rule". A "rule" is also a standard of measurement. If I asked everyone in a room to hold their hands exactly twelve inches apart, everyone would be guessing at the distance; and the space between everyone's hands would be quite a bit different from one another's. But the problem is that everyone would keep on insisting that they were right - until I got a ruler and measured! And then, when I measured the space between their hands against the "rule", everyone would see how far off they were.

I submit to you that Jesus' "golden rule" does both of these things for us. It not only shows us the standard by which we are to govern our conduct toward others, but it also measures us against a standard that shows how far short we have fallen. And that, of course, sends us all the way back to the beginning of Jesus' sermon; and to the words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn . . . Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled" (Matthew 5:3-6).

This morning, I would like for us to dig very deep into this one verse and consider each word carefully. And as we do, let's agree together to allow the Holy Spirit to not only measure us and convict us against the standard of this great "rule", but also to encourage us to move on - with complete dependence upon His help - to put it into practice.

* * * * * * * * * *

And let's begin by looking at the very first word: "therefore". It points us to . . .


The word "therefore" draws us back to the words that preceded this verse. And as we look back, we see that Jesus has taught us about His Father's care for us through our prayers;

"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, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 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 good things to those who ask Him!" (Matthew 7:7-11).

Here, Jesus teaches us that our heavenly Father is very good to us. If we ask for something good, He will not give us something bad. We can trust Him. If we ask Him for something, and we get something different than what we asked for, it's because our Father is so good to us that He will not give us something that's bad for us . . . even if we were to ask for it. In the end, that's how we would WANT Him to treat us! And so, when Jesus says, "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them . . .", He's calling us to imitate the goodness that our Father shows to us.

But we can look back even further. Before that, Jesus says,

"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why to you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye" (Matthew 7:1-5).

Why would Jesus tell us to do that? It's because that's how we would want to be treated. We wouldn't want someone to be judgmental toward us, or to behave toward us in a hypocritical manner. We wouldn't want someone to use us as a means of making themselves look good. And so, we shouldn't treat others that way either.

I believe we can take this back even further still. Look at how Jesus ends our verse. He ends it by pointing to 'the Law and the Prophets'. This phrase was a way that people in Jesus' day would refer to all that is taught to us in the Old Testament. Jesus uses this same phrase near the beginning of His sermon when He says,

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:17-20).

Look at the two passages together. In one, Jesus says that He didn't come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them; and then, in the other, He said that to do to others what we want done to us is the essence of the Law and the Prophets. The first one introduces the matter; and the second one summarizes the matter. You might say that Jesus' whole sermon is held together by two "book-ends". Matthew 5:17-20 is one book end; and it establishes for us that Jesus' teaching doesn't set the Law and the Prophets aside, but rather to fulfill what they demanded. And our verse this morning, 7:12, is the other book-end; and it affirms that the spirit of the instruction of the Law and the Prophets is fulfilled when we do to others as we would want done to us.

And then, think of what falls between these two "book-ends". In 5:21-26, we're reminded that the Law says not to murder. But, then, Jesus says we're even told not to be angry with our neighbor without cause. Would you want someone to murder you? Of course not. But you wouldn't want someone to be angry toward you without cause either. And so, you are to treat others as you would want to be treated.

In 5:27-32, we're told that we're not to look at others with lust in our hearts toward them, or to violate the sanctity of marriage. You wouldn't want someone to look upon you as a mere object of their own gratifications. And you wouldn't want someone to look at your daughter or your wife or your sister in a lustful manner. You would want be treated as worthy of respect and dignity. You would demand that your most fundamental commitments of marriage and family be respected; and would want the people in your family circle to be treated as precious and valuable and worthy of dignity. And so, you are to do the same to others as you would want to be treated.

As it teaches us in 5:33-37, we are not to make vows rashly; and more than that, that we are to live in such a way as to make sure our "yes" or our "no" is sufficient. We would want others to keep their promises toward us. We wouldn't want anyone to lie to us. Or as it says in 5:38-42, we would want someone to do more than merely fulfill their most superficial obligations to us. We would want someone to go the extra mile for us, and give willingly and gladly of themselves to us. Or, as it says in 5:43-48, we would want even our enemies to love us, or bless us, or pray for us. We would want them to be good to us - even if we were unworthy of such treatment. And in all this, we are called to do to others as we would want them to do to us.

Look at what we're taught in chapter six. We wouldn't someone to try to do their charitable deeds before us just so that they may receive praise from men (6:1-4), would we? Nor would we want them to make a pretense of prayers before us just so that they will be considered "spiritual" (vv. 5-15). And we certainly wouldn't want them to fast in front of us, just to make us feel sorry for them, or to persuade us to impressed with their devotion (vv. 16-18). And if we wouldn't want people to do that in front of us, neither should we do that in front of them.

We would want people to live with genuine, sincere reverence and trust in God. We would want them to lay up their treasures in heaven (6:19-21), to keep their eye single toward God (vv. 22-24), and to trust Him for their daily provision (vv. 25-34). All of these things describe ways that we would want other people to live before us.

Jesus spoke all these words to those who were His followers. They were intended for those who were "His disciples" (5:1). And all of the things He said describe nothing less than the kind of life His Father intended us to live when He gave His law in the Old Testament. And so, that brings us down to that closing "book-end" verse: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).

Everything else that remains in Jesus' sermon (7:13-27) basically constitutes a call to heed and obey what He has said in the passages between these two book-ends. It is the 'essence' of it all. And so, our verse this morning is really a summary statement of His sermon. It's all brought together for us into a practical call to action in that word "therefore . . ."

* * * * * * * * * *

So that's the "context" of this great "golden rule". Now, let's consider . . .


It's given to us in the phrase, "whatever you want men to do to you . . ."

And you should know a couple of details about it. In the original language, the word that Jesus used for "men" (anthropos) doesn't mean strictly "men" in the sense of "males only". Rather, it should be understood in a more generic way; that is, we are to consider what we would want "people" in general to do to us.

And what's more, the way Jesus puts this in the original language almost strains at being as all-encompassing as it can be. A literal way to translate it might be, "All things therefore, as much as it ever occurs, that you may wish that people may do to you . . ."

* * * * * * * * * *

Have you ever been caught in one of those awkward social situations in which you didn't know how to respond to someone. Perhaps they caught you off-guard by some insensitive act. Or perhaps they asked something of you that you could not give them. Or perhaps, you offended them in some way, or acted insensitively toward them. Well, whenever we encounter a question of what we are to do with other people, Jesus calls us to stop and ask this simple question of ourselves; "What would I want people to do to me in a similar situation?"

Think about it. Wouldn't you want other people, on the most fundamental level, to love you and to treat you with dignity and respect - no matter what you may have said or done? Wouldn't you want people to see past what they saw on the surface, and look at the real you? Wouldn't you want people to assume the best about you; and put the very best frame on your motives? Wouldn't you want people to only say what was true about you, and not spread rumors or gossip about you?

What about those times when we disagree with others, or when you enter into a controversy. Wouldn't you want your ideas to be at least listened to and respected, or your concerns sincerely considered? Wouldn't you want that other person to at least show you the courtesy of trying to understand your point of view, and representing your position to others in a fair and accurate way?

If you were in sincere need of some help of some kind, wouldn't you want people to notice your situation of need without you having to go through the indignity of pointing the need out to them? And wouldn't you want someone to rise up and meet that need gladly and cheerfully - without condemning you for having it, or communicating to you that you inconvenienced them in the meeting of it?

If you have sinned against someone or offended them in some way, and have sincerely asked their forgiveness, wouldn't you want that forgiveness to be granted? And wouldn't you want the matter to be put out of mind and forgotten - never again to be brought up in order to beat you over the head with it? Wouldn't you want your efforts toward peace with that person to be welcomed?

These are the kinds of things we deal with every day. And as His disciples, Jesus gives us a wonderful standard to look to in dealing with them, doesn't he? We never need to wonder what to do. We never need to scurry off to the library and get a copy of 'Miss Manners'; and frantically flip through the pages for what should be done in this situation or that situation. It's really as if our wonderful Savior has given us a portable "book of holy etiquette" that we may carry around within our own selves. Just simply ask, "What would I - as a man or woman of God - want others to do to me in this situation?" - and there you have your answer.

* * * * * * * * * *

That's the "measure" of this "golden rule". Now, look at . . .


Jesus says that whatever you want men to do to you, ". . . do also to them . . ."

Now, this is where the real uniqueness of Jesus' words shines through - although many people miss it. You see, many historians have made a point of the fact that similar words have been spoken long before the time when Jesus spoke them. The noted Bible teacher William Barcley once collected many such sayings and put them together in order to show how Jesus' instruction is different from theirs.1 As I share these ancient sayings with you, I wonder if you can detect the difference between them and what Jesus said.

The famous rabbi Hillel, for example, was reported to have taught, "What is hateful to yourself, do to no other." In an ancient Jewish work called The Letter to Aristeas, an Egyptian king was said to have asked a group of Jewish scholars what the summation of the teaching of wisdom would be; and one scholar said, "As you wish that no evil should befall you, but to be a partaker of all good things, so you should act on the same principle towards your subjects and offenders . . ." The apocryphal book of Tobit says, "What thou thyself hatest, to no man do."

This sort of thing can even be found in the ancient writings of non-Jewish philosophers and religions. Confucius was asked if there was one word that could serve as a rule for practice in all of life; and he replied "Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others." Epicetus said, "What you avoid suffering yourself, seek not to inflict upon others. And the Stoics said, "What you do not wish to be done to you, do not do to anyone else."

Do you notice the difference? For the most part, these ancient sayings are put in a negative form. "What you DON'T want done to you, DON'T do to others." But Jesus stated His golden rule for us in a positive form that focused on positive action: "Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them . . ." And there is a world of difference between the negative and the positive forms of that word of instruction.

Think about it! If all I wanted to do was passively NOT do to someone else what I DIDN'T want them to do to me, then all I would have to do is do nothing at all! I could keep that commandment just by staying home and sitting on my hands. To passively NOT do something narrows the range of my active responsibilities significantly! But if I seek instead to actively DO to others what I want them to DO to me, then suddenly I must become very active. Suddenly a whole world of new responsibilities opens up to me. Suddenly, I have to think! Suddenly, I have to evaluate and measure! Suddenly, I have to love! Suddenly, I have to take seriously - and quite literally - the words of the apostle Paul:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-4).

Suddenly, I have to do what Jesus said in Matthew 5:44-48:

But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:43-48).

And by the way; do you now see why I said that, if this commandment of our Savior was faithfully obeyed, it would mean the end of all wars and conflicts and fights? But of course, you can also see why I also said that this commandment drives us to God in humility for forgiveness and grace. None of us has kept it, because we are so prone to seek our own interests first, and are quite content to ignore the needs of others.

May God have mercy on us and help us. We could never do what Jesus said in our own power. To obey it, we would have to be completely different people from the inside out! But by His indwelling Holy Spirit - living the perfect life of Jesus through us - we can. This command is simply describing how Jesus Himself has treated us. As His church, He loved us and gave Himself for us, so that He might sanctify us and cleanse us and present us to Himself a glorious Bride - without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish. He behaved toward us as the Bible teaches a husband is to treat his own wife - that is, as his own flesh. "For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church" (Eph. 5:29).

What a difference it is that we are to keep a "positive" and "active" rule: ". . . Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them . . ."

* * * * * * * * * *

This leads us, finally, to . . .


Jesus says, ". . . For this is the Law and the Prophets". In other words, this rule - in positive form - is the essence of what we were commended to do in the Old Testament law regarding other people.

The Old Testament itself says this! Leviticus 19:18 says, ". . . You shall love your neighbor as yourself." And do you see what the key to it all is? It's love. A good way to describe love - in a very practical sense - would be to say that it means sacrificially putting the needs of the person loved on an equal level with our own.

And it's that kind of love that fulfills the requirements of the law of God with respect to our treatment of others. In Romans 13, Paul wrote;

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "You shall not commit adultery," "You shall not murder," "You shall not steal," "You shall not bear false witness," "You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8-10).

Similarly, in Galatians 5:14, Paul wrote, "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself".

This was a point that Jesus taught in one of the stories about Him in the Bible. A lawyer - that is, a scholar of the law of God - once came up to Jesus and tested Him, asking "Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?" And Jesus answered by saying,

"'You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40).

And before we leave this subject, let me make one more point. People are often very fond of saying that they dislike the Old Testament laws; but that they love instead the sublime and winsome teachings of Jesus - especially the "golden rule".

But Jesus hasn't left that option open to anyone! The fact is that if they hate the law of God, then they're REALLY going to hate the "golden rule" of our Savior - once they truly understand it. Because Jesus Himself says that it is the summation and essence of the law of God! The problem isn't that such people prefer to think about "love". The problem is that they don't love God - who is a God of great love, nor understand His law - which is summed up in the command to love our neighbor as ourself.

* * * * * * * * * *

And this leads us to the question of how we should begin to obey this command. Let me suggest that one of the most important mistakes we could make is to forget that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is not meant to be understood as the first great command. It is the second; and it can only be obeyed as we obey the first command first!2

The first great command - as Jesus Himself has told us - is to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind. When obeying Jesus' great command toward our treatment of our neighbor, we don't start with looking at our neighbor; and we certainly don't start with looking at ourselves! Instead, we look to God. We must first love Him with the totality of our being. Then, in loving Him, we will find that we obey the Ten Commandments that govern our relationship with Him: we have no other god than Him; we make no graven images of Him; we do not take His name in vain; and we honor His sabbath day.

Only when we first love God with all our being will we be able to look to ourselves and ask what we would want done to us - and get a holy answer! Only then can we truly love our neighbor as ourself. Only then will we will keep God's commandments that govern our relationship toward our neighbor - that is, to honor our fathers and mothers; to not commit murder, nor commit adultery, nor steal, nor bear false witness; and to not covet what belongs to our neighbor.

With our love toward God where it should be - in first place - then we will see other people as God sees them. We will see them as needy sinners like ourselves; and we will also recognize the love that God has shown toward them in Christ. Then we will seek to love them - even when they are our enemies - in the same way that God does.

1Cited in William Barcley, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), p. 273-4.

2For more on this, see D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on The Mount (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 213-4).

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