The “Golden Rule” finds expression in every major religion. But with one stark difference, exhibited in the following quotations.
They are all in the negative. However, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts it in the positive. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Mt. 6:12). What is it that makes Jesus’ teaching distinctly Christian, other than it coming from lips of Christ? We can identify at least four features.
The Golden Rule offers a way of life not a way of salvation.
“I believe someone gets to heaven by keeping the Golden Rule.” Has anyone ever said that to you as you’ve engaged them in a conversation about salvation? After all, what complaint could God possibly have with those who live by that precept? The very thought speaks of parity, equity, civility toward others and uprightness before God. No wonder the Golden Rule finds expression in every major religion.
There are three problems with that thinking. One, treating others the way I want them to treat me makes myself the point of reference for righteousness rather than God. Two, making even the noblest human being the standard of righteousness necessarily lowers that standard from the perfection God demands. Jesus makes it eminently clear that God demands a righteousness that exceeds even the most meticulously obedient, the Pharisees. Three, such an approach promotes salvation by works of man rather than by the grace of God.
The gospel of the kingdom declares the good news that a righteousness that qualifies us for the kingdom of God is a righteousness accomplished by our Messiah King, and is ours through faith in Him. The Golden Rule is not a directive for a way of salvation, but directs us in a way of living as subjects of the kingdom of God.
The Golden Rule operates by the principle of grace.
A typical understanding of the Golden Rule, as it is lumped in with its variations in world religions, operates on the principle of fair play. If you don’t want some guy riding your tail on the road, then you shouldn’t tailgate.
But Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount has consistently emphasized that we are to treat others contrary to what they deserve. We are to turn the other cheek. If we are sued for our tunic, we give our cloak as well. Grace is unreasonable and counter-intuitive.
Our Father in heaven is our example. We treat others as we have been treated by Him. We forgive, as God has forgiven us. We love, as we have been loved by God.
In giving us the Golden Rule, Jesus has not shifted gears from dealing in grace to now dealing in fair measure. Rather, we are to treat others with the grace we have received. Like some flowers take on the color of the nutrients in the soil in which they are rooted, the Golden Rule gains its hue and fragrance from the nutrient of grace indigenous to the Kingdom of God.
The Golden Rule presses a kingdom agenda.
Our Lord Jesus has made it clear what the priority and orientation of our lives are to be under His lordship. We are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Mt. 6:33). With this in view, the Golden Rule sets before us a positive agenda to do just that. It is reflective more of Christ’s rule than our righteousness.
The negative versions of the Golden Rule in world religions have us adopt a defensive posture. However, our Lord wants us to be on the offensive. We are to live counter-cultural lives in this world. Rather than reacting to others, we are to be proactive for the kingdom of God, displaying His values, His ethics, His glory. In so doing, we take up the kingdom weapons of goodness and truth, wielded in mercy and grace.
The Golden Rule has more behind it than just getting along with people. In fact, as Jesus asserts in Matthew 5:11, others may find us offensive for the sake of Christ. We may well suffer for righteousness, being ostracized, persecuted and ridiculed.
The Golden Rule does not induce us to being people-pleasers. It compels us to being Christ-pleasers. We are not to be thermometers that react to the temperature of the environment around us in the world. Rather, we are to function as thermostats that look to regulate the temperature around us, for the sake of Christ. By our living, we set the tone and show the way, that others may observe our different-ness and bring glory to our Father in heaven.
The Golden Rule directs us in loving others.
Jesus has already spoken of love in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:42-43). Later in the Gospel of Matthew He will lay out the two great commandments of loving God with the entirety of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Mt. 22). In that later teaching Jesus says that all the Law and the Prophets hang on those two commandments. But in Matthew 7:12, He says to do unto others as we would want them to do unto us is the sum of the Law and Prophets. Which is it?
The Golden Rule is another way of saying the same thing as Matthew 22. It expresses the law of love. Inherent in it is a love for God and for neighbor.
How do we know how to love our neighbor? We love them as we love ourselves. The Golden Rule just puts it in a different way. For example, in Ephesians 5 the Apostle Paul instructs husbands to love their wives as their own bodies. He says, “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.” We treat others as we would want them to treat us.
The word “so” that introduces the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12, logically connects us to what has been said. Likely, it relates to the opening thought of Matthew 7:1-2 of judging others. We judge with the standard of God’s righteousness (versus our idiosyncratic standard or pet issues), and in a constructive rather than a condemning manner—because that is how we would want to be evaluated.
Parents often invoke the Golden Rule in the discipline of their children. Imagine little Jimmy, sitting on the floor, minding his own business, happily playing with a toy. Big sister, Erica, comes up to him and snatches the toy from his hand. Jimmy bursts into tears. Mom springs into action. She recovers the toy and returns it to a sniveling Jimmy. Then, she turns her attention to Erica and says, “Erica, sweetie. Jimmy was playing with that. Would you want him to come and take something you were playing with?” Erica, eyes downcast, would likely admit she would not like that.
Most of us have pressed the Golden Rule into service in that way. But what do you notice? What we have taught and enforced is more in keeping with the negative way it is expressed in non-Christian religions. “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Buddhism). We are disciplining our children more in terms of religion rather than Christ. We have enforced a self-centered sense of equity, rather than kingdom principle and values.
The point of reference for our treatment of others and the training of our children is not to be self-advantage. For us as subjects of the kingdom, self is not the point of reference. Christ is to be our focus. The righteousness of His kingdom is to be our norm. The grace we have received is to be our modus operandi. And the glory of God is to be our goal.