When our kids were little, I started listening to a CD with the greatest hits of the British comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan. These operas were written in the late 1800’s, and they poke fun at all kinds of people in their songs, including one British High Lord of the Admiralty, who got his post as the head of the Navy as a political appointment, but he had never actually been on a boat in his whole life! So in one of their songs they have him singing this lesson to his hearers: “So land men all, whoever you may be, if YOU want to rise to the top of the tree: stick close to your desks and never go to sea — and you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navy!” I loved the song, and I guess I hadn’t really realized how much I had been listening to it, when one day our sons Paul & David were fighting about something — I can’t remember just what it was; I think David wouldn’t share some video game with Paul or something — so I asked David: “David, don’t you know the Golden Rule?” And he said: “Yeah, you mean: ‘Stick close to your desk and never go to sea, and you all may be rulers of the Queen’s Navy’?” That was the day I knew I had failed as a parent!
So today we are going to be talking about “The Golden Rule” — NOT the Gilbert & Sullivan “Golden Rule”, but the REAL one, that is found here in Matthew 7:12:
“In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
I. THE MEANING OF THE GOLDEN RULE
“Treat people the same way you want them to treat you”
It’s really very simple; and that’s part of the genius of this verse. It is a simple summary of Christian ethics (or the way that we should treat other people) in one easy verse: treat others the way that you want others to treat you.
First off, this verse makes an important point that many people need to hear: it matters how you treat other people! Christianity is NOT just about your personal vertical relationship with God, but about your horizontal relationships with other people as well.
It is just like Jesus said later in Matthew: the Greatest Commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and might — but the second is like unto it: “love your neighbor as yourself.” In other words, Christianity is NOT just about “you & God.” It is also very much about your fellowship with other Christians, and the way that you treat other people.
That’s the answer to the old question: “Why can’t I just be a good Christian and worship God at the lake?” Because Christianity is NOT just about you & God only; if it were, you COULD worship just as well at the lake as you could at church. But it’s NOT; it is also about your fellowship with other people. There are so many “one another” commands in the New Testament, that we can only obey by living them out in fellowship with other people. This verse reminds us of that. Christianity is not just about you & God; it’s about the way that you treat other people as well.
And in these verses, Jesus is commanding us to have an outward focus: THINK about other people. Quite honestly, this is a good word for many of us who tend to be so focused on ourselves and our own perceived needs: it’s not all about US; it’s not all about OUR problems, OUR needs; what’s best for US. Jesus is saying: think about other people; what their needs are; how they feel.
In Exodus 22:21 God commanded His people: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In other words, He was telling them: you know what that is like to be living in a foreign country — you went through that when you were in Egypt. You know how lonely it can be to be away from your homeland; how people can look down on you ‘cause “you’re not from there.” Let the things that you have experienced in life — for good and for bad — help you to understand other people, and guide you to do what is best for others. Do for them, what you’d want them to do for you. Think about OTHER PEOPLE and what they need.
Observe too that this command is not just how your are to treat “some” people — our family, or Christian brothers or church members only — but for ALL people. The Greek Bible word here is “anthropoi,” it means people in general. So this command applies to EVERYONE you meet. There is NO ONE you know, to whom this verse does not apply! It’s for everyone!
And notice that Jesus did NOT say: “treat people the way they treat you.” No; people may treat you badly — but that is not the way He tells you to treat others. Instead He says: treat them the way you WANT to be treated. That is a big difference, right? Treating other people the way they treat you is just the old “an eye for an eye.” Do back to them what they did to you. But that is NOT what Jesus tells us to do. He says treat them the way they SHOULD treat you; the way you WANT to be treated by them. In other words, don’t give that person the kind of present you know they are going to give you; give them the kind of present you’d want them to give you! That’s a whole different thing, isn’t it?
And then notice the POSITIVE nature of Jesus command here. There were some similar sayings to this in history, even before Jesus’ time. BUT they were almost all NEGATIVE: “DON’T do to anyone, anything you wouldn’t want them to do to you” — and that’s not a bad rule — but as usual, Jesus takes it so much FURTHER: to “not do” something to somebody, you just don’t have to do anything! You could just leave them entirely alone and fulfill that! But Jesus says I want you to be actively DOING the good for them that you’d want them to be doing for you. It calls for positive action on our part: DO! DO for them what you’d want done for you.
So that’s what The Golden Rule means: true, godly religion is not just all about you, so be outwardly focused and involved with other people, and DO, positively, for EVERYONE you encounter, what you would want them to do for you!
II. APPLYING THE GOLDEN RULE
So how do we apply this? What does this look like on a practical basis? We could literally be here all week giving examples, because as we shall see, it applies to everything, but let me share just a few examples of what this looks like in real life:
First of all, in context (there’s that word again!) it continues the thought of Matthew 7:1, where Jesus commanded us not to judge. We saw that that does NOT mean that we can never say that anything is morally or doctrinally wrong; but it DOES mean that we don’t “jump to conclusions” about people when all the information is not in; or that we don’t judge their motives, or their heart, when we can’t know what that is. We all want people to give us the benefit of the doubt, right? SO DO THAT FOR OTHERS! Treat them the way that you’d want to be treated.
My sister Hope is a great example of that. God has given her a good heart towards people. One time somebody said something to her that could have been taken as an insult, and someone asked her if she was mad about it, and she said, “No, that might have sounded bad, but I know they didn’t say it to purposefully be hurtful. They didn’t mean it that way.” Well, that was a very generous way of looking at it, wasn’t it — but isn’t that the way we all want to be treated? Haven’t you ever said something that might have come across worse than you really meant it? You want people to understand, and give you the benefit of the doubt, and to say, “I know them, and I know they didn’t mean anything bad by that”, right? SO DO THAT FOR OTHER PEOPLE! Don’t just keep looking to be offended by every little thing somebody says; treat other people with the same understanding that you want others to have for YOU!
It applies in all of our personal relationships: You don’t want to be always remembered for your worst mistake, do you? You want people to see past that, right? So stop treating other people that way! Treat them the way you want to be treated.
Think about the Golden Rule before you pass some “juicy gossip” along — would you want someone telling that kind of thing about YOU? Then don’t you tell it about them!
The Golden Rule applies in business. How many times do people say things like: “business is business” — and sometimes even Christian people seem to act like there is some kind of line of “distinction” between their business and their faith. But the Bible makes it very clear: THERE IS NO SUCH DISTINCTION! Following Jesus is to affect the way you do business. And specifically here, Jesus says you should ask yourself if you are treating your customer, or the person you are doing business with, the way that YOU would want to be treated on the other side of that business deal:
— would YOU want to buy the item you’re selling?
— would you want to eat the meal you are cooking?
— is the job you are doing “good enough” for YOUR house? How would you do that job if it were YOURS? That’s what you should do for them.
— would YOU want someone to show you grace if you needed to run in the store a minute before closing? Then you show that to the person who comes in then. Or if you were an employee, would you want someone running in a minute before closing? See, the whole thing here is: we are to think about the other person in everything we do:
— would YOU want the raise you gave your employee?
— would YOU want the vacation you are letting them have?
— would YOU want to work the hours you are asking?
— Here’s one: What if it was YOUR job to call people on the phone or knock on their door — how would you want to be treated by the person on the other side of the door, or on the other side of the phone?
— Or what if YOU were the server in the restaurant; what size of tip would YOU want?
Listen, this applies even on the highway! I had a friend years ago whose wife was mad at him, because when he was in the right hand lane on the interstate, he would never move over and let people from the on-ramp come in. He said, “It’s my right-of-way; I’m under no obligation to let them in.” Well, maybe technically he’s right, I don’t know; but I know this: I sure am glad when I’m trying to get on the highway I look over and see that people are moving over to let me in! So I need to do that for them, right? That is what Jesus is saying here.
And folks, we ARE to take our Christianity to the highway; we are to take our Christianity to the business place; we are to take it to Wal-Mart — treat people there the way that you want to be treated. The truth is, if you don’t live your faith on the highway; if you don’t live out your faith in your business, and you don’t live out your faith at Wal-Mart; if the only place you live it is here in church, then your faith is not real at all! Jesus is saying, if this is real to you, then you go and live this out wherever you are. In every area of life you can think about, do for other people what you would want them to do for you.
III. THE UTILITY OF THE GOLDEN RULE
And that is actually part of the usefulness, or the “utility” of the Golden Rule; it is an easy-to-understand summary of Christian ethics that applies to every situation.
It basically summarizes so much of what is spelled out elsewhere in the Bible. After He had spoken the Golden Rule, Jesus added: “For this is the Law and the Prophets.” In other words, this one simple rule pretty much summarizes many of the commands that were given in the Old Testament.
In fact if you go back and look, “The Golden Rule” really isn’t a “new” idea; it’s what the Old Testament had been teaching all along:
— It is what Exodus 22:21 was saying about treating the strangers the way you wanted to be treated when you were in Egypt
— It is the point of Exodus 23:4 “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him” — do for him what you’d want someone to do with YOUR animal.
— It’s the second table of the 10 Commandments: don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal or bear false witness — you don’t want people doing those things to you; don’t do them to them either.
— It’s pretty much summarized in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So “The Golden Rule” is not really “different’ than what had already been said in God’s word before —but the value of this verse is that it is such a good SUMMARY of Christian ethics, in one handy place.
It’s like a “Swiss Army Knife” verse. Have you ever had a Swiss Army Knife? You know what I’m talking about: one of those little pocket knives that have all kinds of blades and attachments. Someone gave me one a number of years back and I just loved it: it had a regular blade, and then one that was a bottle opener, and fingernail file, and a corkscrew, and a screwdriver; mine had a little pull-out tweezers, and a toothpick you could pull out and use. It was SO handy; I could use it in just about any situation. Unfortunately, after 9-11 and some of the other tragedies they started restricting where you could take knives: couldn’t take it on a plane, or to the courthouse, or the ball game, etc., and it got so restrictive it was just easier to leave it at home. But I loved having that knife, because I could pull it out and use it in just about any situation.
And that is what the Golden Rule is. It is a “utility” verse, that you can use in just about any situation to help you know the right thing to do. Brunner says “this rule liberates the church from the rule of experts.” See in Jesus’ day people were always going to rabbis and sages, to get their expert opinion on exactly what step they should take in their specific situation. And the Jews had VOLUMES of books of laws on what you should do in every given situation — but no one could keep up with it all; it was too complicated.
So the beauty of the Golden Rule is that it sets us free from all that. You don’t need to carry around a 24-volume set of the Christian Ethical Encyclopedia so you can figure out what to tip your waiter — just apply the Golden Rule. You can pull this verse out like a “Swiss Army Knife” and and you’ll know the right thing to do in virtually any situation.
So we don’t need to remember a bunch of “laws” on how to deal with people if we just remember this one: treat people the way you want to be treated. When you are confronted with a situation, just pause and pray, and ask the Lord to show you: what would I want someone to do for me in this situation — and you have your answer.
— How much should you pay them? Well, how much would YOU want to be paid?
— What should I say to them? What would you want someone to say to YOU in that situation?
— How can I resolve this problem? What would make YOU happy if you were on the other side of this?
This is a “utility verse”: You don’t have to go to your pastor or to a professional counselor or whatever to tell you what to do in every specific situation; you can pull this “Swiss Army Knife” verse out and use the Golden Rule in virtually every situation in life. Just do for others, what you would have them do for you!
IV. THE GOSPEL & THE GOLDEN RULE
Now, this IS an amazing and useful verse, but some people take this too far, as if keeping the Golden Rule was all the religion they need. In fact, if you ask people, many of them will say something like: “I will just keep the Golden Rule and that’s good enough; that will get me into heaven.” But there’s a couple of problems with this:
First, it ignores the CONTEXT of this verse.
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the Golden Rule. But most people are NOT familiar with its CONTEXT, which is important specifically because of the word “therefore.” Why does this verse begin, “therefore”? The word “Therefore” always points BACK to something that came before.
For example, one of the most famous “therefore’s” in the Bible is in Romans 12:1, where the Apostle Paul writes, “I urge you THEREFORE brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice.” What is that “therefore”, there for? It ties what he is saying in Romans 12:1, BACK to what had been said in the first 11 chapters of the book, which is the most detailed explanation of God’s plan of salvation in all the Bible. So Paul is saying in Romans 12:1, “Therefore” — BECAUSE of all that I have just written about what God has done for you in salvation, “therefore”, you must present your body to God as a holy sacrifice to live for Him. The “therefore” ties it back with all that was written before.
So one of the often-overlooked things about the Golden Rule is that it begins with this word “therefore”! Jesus is tying it BACK to what He has just said, about ASKING GOD for the needs we have, including our salvation. Remember, we saw last week that Jesus said: don’t go “throwing your pearls before the swine” of the religious charlatans; ASK GOD and He will save you. You don’t deserve it, but because of His great mercy and grace He loves you and sent Jesus to die for you, and He will forgive you if you ASK HIM!
So it is in light of THAT then that Jesus says: “THEREFORE” — BECAUSE God as your Heavenly Father is so gracious to you, and He just GIVES you the good things you ask for, including salvation — THEREFORE — because of that, now YOU will treat other people the way you want to be treated. So see, this verse is not in a vacuum; your motivation for treating other people graciously, is because God has already been gracious to you. If you have not experienced that grace of God, then you will have no desire or power to treat others graciously like the Golden Rule teaches. So the “therefore” here is vital. The only way you can keep this verse is in response to the grace of God in Jesus Christ, which is working in your life.
So you can’t just say, “I am going to keep the Golden Rule and go to heaven.” We don’t keep the Golden Rule to EARN salvation, we are doing it “therefore” — BECAUSE of what God has already given us in salvation. That is a HUGE difference.
The SECOND thing is: you can’t keep this to earn your salvation! No one has ever treated everyone they met, just how they would want to be treated.
Think about this: The Golden Rule is not new, is it? We’ve had this thing for 2000 years! EVERYBODY knows it! I think I’d be pretty safe if I told you I’d give you a dollar for every person you could find today who had never heard the Golden Rule; I don’t think I’d be out much money. Everybody knows it. The problems of our world today are not here because people don’t “know” they should live by the Golden Rule! No, the problem is, we HAVE known the Golden Rule for the last 2000 years, and nobody has KEPT it — because we are SINNERS! THAT is our problem. You can’t keep the Golden Rule to go to heaven. You’ve known the Golden Rule all your life, and you’ve broken it more times than you can count, and so have I — And we’re going to break it again tomorrow!
See, we all know the Golden Rule, but we all fall short of it — which is exactly what Romans 3:23 says: “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” So the Golden Rule reminds us that NONE of us have lived up to God’s standards. If getting to heaven were just up to keeping the Golden Rule, NONE of us would get there.
This is why, the Bible says, we need a Savior. And that’s why Jesus came. He came to teach us God’s truth, yes; to show us the right way to live by The Golden Rule. But He also knew that none of us could keep it, so He came to die on the cross, to pay for our violations of the Golden Rule, so that if we would admit our failures, and trust what He did on the cross to save us, that we could be forgiven. And He would send His Holy Spirit into our lives to help us follow Him, and then one day we will live with Him in heaven forever.
But none of us will be in heaven because we’ve kept the Golden Rule. Because we haven’t. Now, does that mean we shouldn’t try? No; we should try. We’re to pray, and ask God to help us apply this Golden Rule in every circumstance of our life. Just don’t be surprised when you fall short of it. When it happens, ask God to forgive you by His grace in Jesus Christ. And when others don’t treat YOU by the Golden Rule — then you forgive THEM too. Because remember: Jesus commands you to do for others, what you want others to do for you!