Why is the Golden Rule so important?
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). This phrase has come to be known as "The Golden Rule." Jesus never called it that, and the Bible doesn't give it that name, but the phrase is regarded as so important and such a good summary of the principles of unselfishness and love contained in Jesus' sermon that it was given the name "The Golden Rule" by Bible translators in the 16th and 17th centuries, using a popular saying at that time. The words "Golden Rule" were never actually spoken by Jesus.
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The human heart is inherently selfish. Even our most seemingly unselfish acts come from a desire to feel good about ourselves and look good before others. While people may appear to be unselfish, the deepest motive of the human heart is not to help others but to help our own image and self-esteem. God sees the heart, and knows its true motives (Matthew 7:11; Jeremiah 17:9), so when Jesus tells people to treat others as they would like to be treated, He is speaking directly to the deepest feelings of the heart and confronting its wickedness.
The people of that day – especially the religious people – needed to hear this message. They were very good at appearing outwardly loving and kind and righteous, while inwardly they were "full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness" as Jesus rightly declared (Matthew 23:27). The Pharisees and the people they taught were very concerned with following the Law, thinking that by their good behavior they would be saved. But when Jesus said, "for this is the Law and the Prophets," He was referring to doing to others what you would wish to have done to yourself – what we know as The Golden Rule. Nobody likes to be deceived or treated in an insincere way. Jesus brought the discussion onto a heart level with this statement, essentially telling them that if they were not sincere in their love, no amount of rule-following would be considered righteous in God's eyes.
Something interesting about the Golden Rule is its proactive, positive quality. Other religions, including Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, contain similar commands:
• Confucianism: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you" (Analects 15:23).
• Hindusim: "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you" (Mahabharata 5:1517).
• Buddhism: "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful" (Udana-Varga 5:18).
Notice the negative quality of these commands. They seem to be saying the same thing as Jesus' Golden Rule, but they are actually a negative opposite referred to as the "ethic of reciprocity." The idea espoused by these other religions is that you should not do something to another person if you know it would cause them pain; that is, if it would cause you pain, it will cause them pain, so don't do it to them. But this "silver rule" as it is sometimes called, requires nothing of you. It requires no love, no positive action. You can be filled with apathy for your fellow man and still follow this rule. The Golden Rule, in contrast, requires a heart stirred with love for others.
What human being has a heart like this? Do we naturally seek to do good to our fellow men, entirely unselfishly? We do not. The wonder of God's work in the heart is that He puts His own love for humanity in our hearts for one another. John reminds us that "No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us" (1 John 4:12). What this means is that when we love each other, we glorify God and His image can be seen in our love, which is ultimately His love.
This command to love makes Christianity unique when compared to every other religious system. In fact, the Bible is so radical in its command to proactively love that Christians are told to love even their enemies, something that simply does not exist in any other world religion (Matthew 5:43-44; cf. Exodus 23:4-5).
The mark of a true Christian is this kind of unselfish love (John 13:35). God's Spirit of love is alive in the person who loves in this unselfish, supernatural way – and the presence of that Spirit is evidence of a Christian's salvation. 1 John 3:16-18 makes it clear: "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth."
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