Thoughts on Matthew 7:12
One thing to keep in mind while reading this or any passage contained in the Bible is that chapter and verse numbers were inserted by editors years after the original texts were written. Since they were not inspired they are not perfect, and we sometimes find places where the chapter/verse breaks don’t make a lot of sense. One even more recent addition to many Bibles are the section headings – those bolded summaries of each group of verses many people unwittingly allow to serve as authoritative commentary or interpretation. Those phrases can be helpful in finding a particular section, but they, like chapters and verses, are not inerrant and are not always ideally used. The verse at hand, the “Golden Rule,” is one that both seems oddly placed within the sermon and, at least in the English Standard Version, is not separated from the next verse that appears very disconnected (so much so I will discuss it in a separate post).
As has been pointed out many times in past posts on Matthew, it’s helpful to read the parallel passage in Luke 6:17-49 to aid our understanding. I highly encourage you to read it now before continuing here. Really.
As you can see, Luke ties together his summary of the Beatitudes, Jesus’ words about loving, judging, lending, giving and blessing, and throws the “Golden Rule” right into the middle of it all. Matthew, on the other hand, seems to add it as a sort of summary of a long section he assumes we will have remembered, starting it with “so” in order to connect it to what preceded it. While the overall point of the verse doesn’t change based on what immediately surrounds it, Luke provides more concise context for us to know what types of situations Jesus had in mind when he gave the command.
What Matthew does differently from Luke that is significant is that he includes Jesus’ statement that obedience to this one command “sums up the Law and Prophets.” Matthew’s Gospel is intended for a Jewish audience with the goal of convincing them that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. This colors the entire book and influenced what Matthew incorporated into the text, including this comment about the Law and Prophets. Throughout this sermon, Jesus argued that the Jews misunderstood the intent of the Law and presented simplified, yet deeper interpretations that drove to the “heart of the matter.” This verse is no different.
To say that doing to others as we want them to do to us sums up all the commands of the Old Testament is a very bold statement. However, this theme, which is basically “love others,” is continued throughout the New Testament. Paul the Apostle goes so far as to say exercising gifts of the Holy Spirit, having faith to move mountains and even giving ourselves up “to be burned” amounts to nothing if we “have not love.” What Jesus offers us with the “Golden Rule” is a simple formula to determine what loving our neighbor looks like. He does this because he knows how quick we are to quibble, justify, equivocate and make up excuses when it comes to loving others. He essentially tells us to be honest with ourselves about how we’d like others to treat us (because he knows our bent is selfishness) and do our part to make that a reality for others. If we all did this all the time, we’d find our needs being fulfilled while we would be simultaneously fulfilling the needs of others.