Open Matthew 7:12.
Do to others what you would like them to do to you. Jesus’ statement is clear and inclusive, an ethical diamond reflecting on all facets of our lives.
The principle is found in other writings — Jewish (Tobit 4:15, and b. Shabb. 31A) and non-Jewish (Herodotus, and Confucius) — though expressed in the negative: don’t do what you wouldn’t like people to do for you.
But Jesus’ gem has a setting. We miss the main point if we treat it as a pithy proverb in isolation. According to Matthew, Jesus included a therefore, for this saying brings his kingdom message into focus. In fact, the whole message of Jesus’ bible (Torah and Prophets) comes into focus in this saying:
Matthew 7:12 (my translation)
Everything, therefore, you might want people to do for you, do the same for them; for this is the Bible.
Miss the kingdom theme, and even good commentators struggle to understand how the “therefore” ties this saying to Jesus’ message, e.g.:
The logic of the ‘so’ or ‘therefore’ (oun) with which this verse begins is not plain. — John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 1985, 190.
This striking saying does not directly relate to vv. 7–11, which were concerned with our relationship with God rather than with other people. — R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 2007, 282.
But the previous verses — ask, seek, knock — were not merely about prayer in general. As we explained, asking is inviting God to reign over us; seeking is seeking his reign (as 6:33), and knocking is approaching the palace door that closed when humans rebelled. The good news is that the heavenly sovereign responds to those who ask him to reign; he reveals himself to those who seek his kingship; he opens his door when the rebels return.
So what does it look like to function as a community under God’s reign? It’s pretty simple really. You know the way God treats us, the way we like to be treated? Do that for each other. We experience God and his love in the way we treat each other. That’s how the kingdom functions.
That’s what our heavenly sovereign has been saying to us since the beginning. All the laws God gave to Israel at Sinai had that single purpose: to show the nations what they were missing – the wonder of a nation under God rather than human rulers. All the messages God sent to Israel through the prophets had a single purpose: to call them back into submission to their heavenly king so they could know the blessing of living under his reign. All the Law and the Prophets — the whole Old Testament message — called the people of God to care for each other as they wanted to be cared for, as their heavenly sovereign cared for them. Treating each other with the same love that God has given us — that’s the message of the Bible.
It’s the core commandment of Jesus’ kingship (John 13:34-35). The essence of kingdom life is to love the people of his realm as the king loves us (John 15:9-17). It is the essence his nature, and it’s what it means to be his kingdom people. We love each other because of how our sovereign has loved us (1 John 4:7-21).
The Golden Rule is much more than a pithy proverb. It is the horizontal dimension of a restored relationship with God as sovereign. We share everything with each other because of what our king has shared with us. It is the kind of life that flows naturally from asking God to reign over us, seeking his kingship, knocking on his palace door.
There’s something that speaks more loudly than all the preaching, all the evangelism classes, all the books in the world. It’s what we say by treating people with the same generosity we enjoy from our heavenly king.
Only when we give God his place do we give people their place.
What others are saying
Scot McKnight. Sermon on the Mount. Story of God Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 2013) on Matthew 7:12 (emphasis original):
There is a shocking claim made here by King Jesus for kingdom citizens: the entire Torah is summarized by or hangs down in dependence from the Golden Rule. In fact, James [2:8] sees it as the capital command of the entire Torah. …
The Golden Rule is perhaps the most potent political weapon we Christians have today. …
Any serious pondering of all of life through the Golden Rule is dangerous for our moral health because it will summon us … to live under the King and as one of his kingdom citizens. If you listen to yourself in all of life, you will be led out of yourself into a life of loving others.
John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985), 192:
The Christian counter-culture is not just an individual value-system and lifestyle, but a community affair. It involves relationships. And the Christian community is in essence a family, God’s family.
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