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Righteousness and the Golden Rule

By William R. Cunningham
April 15, 2007



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

The above scripture is commonly known as the golden rule.  What would happen if we knew that everything we put out would come back to us? We often say that what goes around comes around, but what if that was a rule, not just a principle? What if you knew that every careless word or deed would be returned to you almost immediately? Wouldn’t that change the way we act? Jesus gives us a positive version of this rule to help us act properly in regards to how we treat other people. He encourages us to look at ourselves and how we would want to be treated and to use that to know how to treat other people.  A reciprocative version of this scripture is that if we want people to treat us well then we have to treat them well.  The reciprocative version does not appear to be consistent with what Jesus was teaching given that his statement is in conjunction with his previous teachings within the Sermon on the Mount.

Of course one of the questions that a Christian has in relation to the Christian lifestyle deals with the treatment of others.  How should we treat other people?  What happens when someone offends us or does us wrong?  What is the initial approach to interacting or treating someone that we don’t know?  How should we treat other people and remain consistent with the Christian lifestyle?

I must say that there are no simple answers.  What we will find here is a general “rule” if you will, or principle that teaches us how to treat other people.  However, what we learn here should not be mistaken as a blind rule, but rather a principle to live by.  We will discuss that aspect later in this discussion as we deal with fairness and justice.

Scripture Lesson

Let me quote our subject scripture for reference.

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

This passage of scripture is the positive form of what is known as the golden rule.  The actual saying from ancient times was that one should not do to others what one would not wish done to oneself.  That was a common teaching and was found in the Jewish book of Tobit, the teaching of the early Jewish teacher Hillel, and Greek sources.  It is also claimed that the Roman emperor Severus Alexander had the golden rule written on his wall in gold.  It is claimed that he said it was a good rule to live by.  Note that he was not a Christian and never became one and also that he was not referring to the statement that Jesus made in our subject text.

Let’s examine this scripture and see what it tells us.


The first thing we notice is that it begins with what we call a “go back” statement.  It begins with the word “therefore,” which means that it is linked to what is before it.  This therefore is not a stand alone statement, but rather the culmination or effect of the statements before it.  So now the question is, “what did Jesus say before?”  We need to answer that question so that we could put this golden rule statement in its proper perspective.  Here are the topics of those things that Jesus said during the Sermon on the Mount.

  1. The beatitudes – true blessings
  2. The salt and light of the earth
  3. Him coming to fulfill the law
  4. Murder starting in the heart
  5. Adultery in the heart
  6. The sacred bond of marriage
  7. Forbidding of oaths
  8. Going the second mile
  9. Love your enemies
  10. Doing good deeds from the heart
  11. The model prayer
  12. Fasting from the heart
  13. Treasures in heaven
  14. The lamp of the body
  15. Serving two masters
  16. Do not worry
  17. Do not judge
  18. Ask and seek continually


Now we can’t say for sure that the golden rule is linked to all of the above or even how they all may be connected in conjunction with the golden rule.  However, we do know that Jesus Christ was teaching on the kingdom of God.  He was instructing the people on proper conduct as it pertains to the way that God wants us to operate.  He was instructing us on true righteousness that exceeded the righteousness of the Pharisees.

Now let’s look at the very last thing that Jesus said before the golden rule as recorded in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew 7:7-12 (NKJV) -- {7} “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. {8} For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. {9} Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? {10} Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? {11} 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! {12} Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

Notice what Jesus says in verse eleven above.  He said that if those with the sin nature (evil) would do well for their children then how much more would our heavenly Father do for his children.  God provides for us even though we don’t deserve it.  Therefore, we should do to others even though there may be no merit for the treatment.  However, we do to others as we would like for them to do to us, which is well, because of the righteousness that is in us.  The unrighteous cannot live by this principle because the unrighteous would instead do to others as was done to him.  A person who is not righteous would rather reciprocate than to initiate.

So because of all that Jesus had taught us in regards to true righteousness being consistent with the Kingdom of God then we should live righteously.  A righteous person will love their enemies and do well to those who spitefully uses and persecute him.  Again, only a truly righteous person can live this way and even then it will be a struggle since we always struggle with the flesh.  Only a righteous person has what it takes on the inside to live according to the principles that Jesus gives us here.


Jesus goes on to say “whatever.”  This is all inclusive.  We should treat others well in all occasions.  Oh boy!  That’s right.  A righteous person will love no matter what.  Here I mean that a righteous person will demonstrate the love of God that is within her at all times and with all people.  Does this mean that we allow people to take advantage of us and still we treat them as if they are our best friend?  No.  We need to clarify what we mean by the love of God.

Suppose your worst enemy who is your next door neighbor is in dire straights?  Typically this person has no respect for you or your property.  He plays loud music at late hours of the night and early hours of the morning.  He blocks your driveway and has trash on your property as well as his.  What if he was in a lot of trouble such as an eminent home foreclosure by the bank and he came to you for help and you have the resources available to help him.  Would you help him save his house?  Here’s another question for you.  Would Jesus help him save his house if he came to Jesus Christ?  Ouch!  Do you see how complicated it could get. 

What if you helped him and he remained disrespectful and it happens again.  Would you help him again?  Now I admit that there may be many factors involved.  For example if it is a drug addict living next door then you would probably do all you can to either get him away from you or you away from him for the safety of you and your family.  So we shouldn’t think of the golden rule as a rule, but rather a principle to live by.  Since it is a principle then we have to weigh each situation and act according remaining consistent with the will and way of God.

To Do

Jesus said that whatever we want men to do to us….  The key word here is the word “do.”  This implies actions and separates it from ideals.  Ideals are good, but many times they are not consistent with reality.  For example someone may say, “I love you.”  However, if that phrase is not supported or confirmed by actions then it could be merely an ideal and therefore effectively meaningless.

Therefore living a righteous lifestyle is an active lifestyle.  I like what James said.

James 2:18-20 (NKJV) -- {18} But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. {19} You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! {20} But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead?

In this scripture the word faith should be interpreted as the Christian’s belief in Jesus Christ as savior and the subsequent lifestyle.  We cannot say that we are saved and yet do not live consistent with true righteousness that is of God.  So we have to escape the realm if idealism and move into the realm of activity in order to truly live the righteous lifestyle.  What are you doing?

Let me give you an illustration to bring this home.  We know that God loves us.  However, we have something more than just mere words printed in our bibles.  God didn’t just say that he loves us.  He did something about it.  He demonstrated his love towards us by giving his only begotten son as a sacrifice for our sins.  God showed us his love.  He did something (See John 3:16).

What have you done to show your love?  What have you done to demonstrate the love of God in your life?  If you are merely saying it then your words are meaningless.  A person can for example say that she loves you until she is blue in the face, but her statement is meaningless unless you see that love demonstrated or in action.  Words are indeed cheap, but actions show the heart.

Another thing about actions is that a person tends to do what is important to him.  If his marriage is important then he will invest in it and if not then he won’t.  If hanging out with his friends or spending most of his time in church is important to him then those are the things that he will do.  Likewise, if living a righteous lifestyle is not important to a person then that person will not invest in the effort to live righteously.  The bottom line is that it all starts from the heart and this is why we truly need the Spirit of God in us before we can ever claim that we can live a righteous life.

Jesus said that a good tree brings forth good fruit and a bad tree brings forth bad fruit.  A righteous person will do righteous things because of the righteousness that he has in Christ.  The converse is not necessarily true.  A person doing righteous things is not necessarily righteous.

Isaiah 64:6 (NKJV) -- {6} But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.

The Law and the Prophets

Jesus said that doing to others as you want them to do to you is the Law and the Prophets.  In other words, he appears to be saying that it is a summary statement of all that the law and the prophets stood for or was revealing from God.  Consider the following.

Matthew 22:34-40 (NKJV) -- {34} But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. {35} Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, {36} “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” {37} Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ {38} This is the first and great commandment. {39} And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ {40} On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus said here that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all that is within us.  He also said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves and that those two commandments are the foundation of the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus was revealing the righteousness of God in regards to the way that we should conduct ourselves.  The entire Bible deals with the righteousness of God and how God is calling us to a righteous relationship with him.  So treating others well demonstrates the love of God that we have and it is consistent with what God has been telling us all along about how we should live and how we should be.

A Principle

We should remember that this is a principle that we should live by and not a formula.  This doesn’t mean that we blindly treat people nicely when the situation doesn’t promote that.  For example, I would not treat someone nice that is trying to rob me.  I would not treat someone nicely that is lying on me.  I wouldn’t return evil for evil, but sometimes we have to do things that aren’t considered nice even though it is the right thing to do.  Sometimes we will defend ourselves.

We can take our example from Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ is just, but he didn’t always do the nice thing.  There were times when he called the Pharisees “white washed tomb” and we could surely say, “That wasn’t nice.”  However, it was very true.  Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites and he said that their father is the devil.  Those too could be considered to be not a nice thing to say.  However, again they were true.

Therefore, we should remember that these and other such teachings are principles that we should live by and not be confused with an all inclusive rule or formula.


How should we treat others?  We should treat others in a way that we would want to be treated.  That is the principle that Jesus gives us in regards to human relationships that are consistent with the righteousness of God.  Only a righteous person that has put his or her faith in Christ could ever live by this principle.

The only way that a person can show unconditional love and care for others is if he or she has the Holy Spirit on the inside.  We cannot live this way with our normal human spirit.   We indeed need Jesus and without him we can do nothing.  We need him to live righteously since true righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  Amen.


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