St. Matthew 7:12
by William Klock
Today we come to Matthew 7:12 and what might well be the most popular saying of Jesus – at least after “Judge not.” Here he says those familiar words:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.
If you remember back to Matthew 5:17, there – after giving us the Beatitudes as a description of Christian character – Jesus told his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” Everything he was saying was new to these people. But it wasn’t new because God hadn’t said it before – it was all there in the Law and the Prophets, in the Old Testament – they just hadn’t seen it. The scribes and Pharisees had misunderstood the purpose of the Law and had twisted it into a legalistic code they could keep – into “acts of righteousness” by which they could merit God’s favour and redeem themselves. And so back in Chapter 5 Jesus told us, “This isn’t anything new. This is what the Law and the Prophets were meant to tell you in the first place.”
It was after that, that Jesus then went on through Chapters 5 and 6 to warn us about hypocrisy and to make sure we understand how to live out these Kingdom norms – he warned us about being judgemental, about being undiscriminating, and in last week’s verses he urged us to a trusting persistence in our prayers. He’s been showing us all along first what God’s standard is for us, and then at the same time reminding us that the only way we meet the standard is by God’s saving hand. Now in 7:12 he caps off the main body of the Sermon on the Mount with what we call the “Golden Rule” and tells us again: all this that I’ve been saying is the Law and the Prophets.”
This idea of “do unto others” wasn’t unheard of in Jesus’ day. Rabbinic Judaism already had a saying like this. The famous rabbi Hillel taught, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole Law.” There were other Jewish sources that said the same thing, not to mention the Greek philosophers. Other more recent religions, like Islam and Buddhism, just to mention two, teach the same thing. Years ago I saw a poster that listed about twenty different “do unto others” quotes from different religions. But in every case those statements were in the negative: “Do not do anything to anyone that you would not want them to do to you.” Anyone can do that. Think about the motivation behind that statement. It puts self at the centre. And yet Jesus has been telling us all along that our motive is love for God and love for others, not love for ourselves. So contrast the negative with Jesus’ positive statement: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
That little change from negative to positive changes the statement entirely. I don’t think the unbeliever can grasp it – to him all these statements are the same whether they come from Jesus, Confucius, or Epictetus. There is no parallel to what Jesus says here, because what Jesus says requires a completely different view of life and of ethics and of God and self.
The first thing I hope you can see is that by putting the Rule in the positive makes it far more difficult and far more demanding. Actually, it makes it impossible for the natural man or woman to keep.
In contrast, the natural man has always been able to keep the negative side of the Rule. In the negative, the Rule is in a legal form – it’s nothing more than a law – and the law always has self at the centre. Think of our laws. I would venture that most people don’t speed not because they want to the right thing, but because they’re afraid of getting a ticket. I’ve noticed that people drive like maniacs on the Island Highway. I’ve been doing 110 and have had people blow past me at speeds in excess of 130 or 140. And I’ve been told over and over that it wasn’t like that in the days of regular police patrols and photo radar. You see, when people know they won’t get caught and that there won’t be any serious consequences, they ignore the law. The law appeals to our selfish nature; it coerces obedience by threatening a penalty. This is one reason why a society of unbelievers can still have a more-or-less civil society. It’s not in anyone’s self interest to have a society in which it’s every man for himself. So it’s entirely possible for a man to discipline himself so that he doesn’t hurt others – and he does so mainly because he doesn’t want them hurting him in return. You avoid being a jerk to others, because you know that most people will probably return your behaviour by being jerks themselves. You want to keep the peace, but you want to keep the peace mainly so that you can keep working on satisfying your own selfish wants and desires.
In contrast, if you’re trying to keep the positive form of the Rule, it’s pretty clear that this is exactly what you can’t do. You can’t live out the Rule in the positive as long as you start with self. The law tells us what we can’t do. The saying of the Lord Jesus Christ tells us what we should do. But you see, you and I can only do what Jesus says if our focus is completely off ourselves and fixed instead on the needs, cares, loves, joys, hopes, and dreams of others. Think about what a difference this makes to morality. Jesus is asking us to see that there are two ways to heaven: either we supply an inward perfection that’s equal to God’s own love and grace and holiness, or we turn completely away from the demands of the law in order to receive a new life from God that alone is capable of doing the things that God requires. The first one of those options is impossible. So we’re left with the second: turning away from the law and letting God give us new life.
Philosophers and religious teachers have been struggling for millennia about the problem of human morality. Jesus gives us the answer here. But to see his answer, first we have to see the impact that the Jesus intended for the Golden Rule to have on all of our human good works. Remember that the purpose of the Law and the Prophets was to show us that our works can never be good enough to earn God’s favour. Well, Jesus tells us there that the Golden Rule iswhat the Law and the Prophets taught. The Goldne Rule comdens just as the Law does. If we try to put our good works on the table to show God as a way of earning our way to heaven, this wipes them all off onto the floor. Jesus’ standard here condemns all of our so-called “goodness.”
Think of it this way: we’ve been talking about the Golden “Rule,” but what’s another name for a ruler? When I was a drafting student and when I was studying architecture, we never talked about a “ruler.” We talked about a “straightedge.” Think about Matthew 7:12 as the “Golden Straightedge” – as God’s straightedge that tells us how morally crooked we really are.
That was the purpose of the Law. Jesus said that this “Golden Straightedge” “is the Law and the Prophets.” It does what the Old Testament Law was supposed to do for the people. Think about what St. Paul said in Romans about the purpose of the Law: “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). J.B. Philips paraphrases that verse this way (notice he uses the word “straightedge” too): “No man can justify himself before God by a perfect performance of the Law’s demands – indeed it is the straightedge of the Law that shows us how crooked we are.”
When I was in the seventh grade I took my first drafting class. The first day of class the teacher had each of us mount a sheet of paper on our drafting board and asked us to draw a straight line without any tools. Most of the guys drew one freehand. Some weren’t that bad, some weren’t even remotely straight. A couple of us had prior experience and used the edge of the board as a guide, running our knuckles down the edge to keep our hands relatively straight. We all started comparing our lines. Everyone agreed that those of us who had thought to use the edge of the board as a guide had the straightest. Those lines did look pretty good.
Then our teacher handed each of us a T-square, went to the front of the room and demonstrated how to use it using his own drafting board. The T-square was a perfect straightedge and with it the teacher drew a perfectly straight line. Not even the best of our freehand lines could compare with the straightness of the lines drawn with the straightedge.
But you see, that’s just like our human attempts to define morality. Sinful men and women draw their own lines and start comparing their lines to each other. Some are straighter than others and some will start to gloat about how morally upright they are in comparison to someone else. But then God steps in with his divine straightedge and draws a perfectly straight line and shows just how crooked and curved even the best of ours human lines is.
If you or I could keep the Golden Rule – IF – then we could walk through heaven’s gate and tell God to scoot over so that we could sit next to him on his throne. We could hold our heads high in the knowledge that God gave his holy standard and we kept it. We could claim that we’re as perfect as he is. If you or I could keep that standard, we could take over heaven. On the other hand, if we see that we haven’t kept it and that in our own strength we will never be able to keep God’s standard, then we have to take our place with the rest of our fallen race, admitting that we’ve fallen short of the glory of God and deserve his judgement. The Good News is that when we admit that we can’t meet God’s standard, that’s when he comes to us with his offer of salvation, revealing to us that he sent his own Son to be our righteousness and to give us new life through which we can finally be pleasing to God.
Think of that wonderful hymn O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing:
O for thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of his grace!
My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread thro’ all the earth abroad
The honours of thy name.
He breaks the pow’r of cancelled sin,
He sets the pris’ner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean,
His blood availed for me.
You see, it’s the righteousness of Christ – made available to us through his blood, through his death on the cross, that we grasp hold of by faith – it’s his righteousness by which we become acceptable to God.
That’s the Good News. That’s the Gospel. But the story doesn’t end there and neither does our text today. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t given merely to drive us to Christ. It does that, but it also puts in front of us a standard that God is constantly leading us to as Christians.
Jesus puts before us the Golden Rule, but the only people who can ever hope to obey it are those who have been reborn and who have something other than self at the centre of their lives. And that’s why God redeemed us. God didn’t save us just so we won’t have to suffer his wrath and an eternity apart from him in hell. He didn’t save us so that we could remain in our sins, but happy that we’re going to heaven. If you think that, you haven’t been redeemed! If you understand the fullness of the Gospel, you understand that God has redeemed us so that he can give us new life. He saved us in order to make us like Jesus, and that means that we’re called to live out his holy standard. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “After all, the law was not meant to be praised, it was meant to be practiced. Our Lord did not preach the Sermon on the Mount in order that you and I might comment upon it, but in order that we might carry it out.”
Someone might be tempted to ask, “But how can I carry it out when you just told me that the Golden Rule is impossible to keep, and that it, in fact, condemns me?” That is what I said. The answer is that you can never do it. But when God comes into your life, and that happens when you stop trusting that you can do it on your own and when you trust in Christ’s righteousness and submit yourself to his lordship, when you do that, God creates new life in you. He grafts you into Christ. (The new life comes from him.) At that moment he fills you with his Spirit. And by that new life God enables you more and more to do the things that he requires. That’s why God gives Christians so many commands in Holy Scripture. Look at Romans 12:1-2 as just one example: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The natural man could never come close to fulfilling this commandment. But when we come as Christians, with the new life of God himself in us, we can do it. More than that, this is what the Spirit of God in us constantly urges us to do.
I like the illustration of this that C.S. Lewis gives in Mere Christianity. He writes, “When I was a child I often had a toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother – at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew she would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from the pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie; if you gave them an inch they took [a mile].
“Now, if I may put it that way, Our Lord is like the dentist. If you give Him an inch, He will take [a mile]….that is why He warned people to ‘count the cost’ before becoming Christians. ‘Make no mistake,’ He says, ‘if you let Me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through…I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect – until My Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with Me.”
What Lewis was saying is what St. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). God will not quit. For that reason, the Golden Rule (and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount) is as much a statement of where God is taking the Christian as it is a standard by which God judges the goodness of natural men and women. So what’s it going to be? Will you waste your time on earth trying to meet God’s standard (or some other standard) on your own? Or will you surrender to Christ, letting God enter your life, giving you new life, and remaking you in the image of his Son? If you let him, he’ll turn you into the kind of person who really will think first of others and will reflect back to God, like a pure and spotless mirror, some of his own limitless glory, power, love, and goodness. Sometimes the process is painful, but God will accomplish it and you won’t miss the goal.
Please pray with me: Heavenly Father, you set before us your perfectly holy standard: in the Law, in the Prophets, in the Golden Rule, and in the person of your Son, Jesus Christ. We confess to you Father, the times when we pridefully try to meet your standard on our own, ignoring the work your Son did for us on the cross. Work in us by your Spirit, we ask, and remind us of our sinfulness, that we might humbly rest on the finished and perfect work of Jesus, entering your presence by his merit. Free us from the bondage of sin, that we might be moved to lives of good works done out of loyalty to you, Our Redeemer and Lord. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.