Introduction: Advocates of “religious tolerance” – or as more accurately termed, advocates of religious relativism or religious pluralism – often cite the Golden Rule as an example of how all religions are essentially teaching the same thing. Of course, it is common knowledge that there are actually a number of ancient religions or ancient philosophers that teach an ethic of reciprocity in some way similar to that which is found in Jesus’ teaching. But a closer examination of their actual teachings will show that they really aren’t as similar as some would have us believe. Here are a handful of examples commonly cited by the advocates of “religious tolerance” (many of whom are professing atheists or agnostics), as cited at ReligiousTolerance.org here and here.
1. From Ancient Egyptian Philosophy
“Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.” (The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, 109-110. Translated by R. B. Parkinson.)
Notice that the assumed motive for treating another well is simply to get them to do things for you. It is basically teaching selfishness as a virtue. But Jesus would never countenance such a view, which understands others simply as means to one’s own ends, as existing to be used to get what one wants. Instead, Jesus consistently teaches that we should treat others well simply because it is the right thing to do, whether or not we ever receive good treatment in return. This is because our ultimate motive is to glorify our heavenly Father. This difference in perspective may also be seen in the other examples which follow.
2. From Zoroastrianism
“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” (Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5)
“Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others.” (Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29)
3. From Confucianism
“Tse-kung asked, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’ Confucius replied, ‘It is the word “shu” – reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’” (Doctrine of the Mean 13.3)
4. From Hinduism
“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
5. From Buddhism
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5:18)
6. From Greek Philosophy
Socrates said, “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.” (5th century B.C.)
7. From Judaism
“What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary.” (Talmud, Shabbat 31a.)
John Stott also cites this teaching from Rabbi Hillel when he writes:
In the Old Testament Apocrypha [Tobit 4:15] we find: ‘Do not do to anyone what you yourself would hate,’ and this, it seems, is what the famous Rabbi Hillel quoted in c. 20 BC when asked by a would-be proselyte to teach him the whole law while standing on one leg. His rival Rabbi Shammai had been unable or unwilling to answer, and had driven the enquirer away, but Rabbi Hillel said: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is only commentary.’ (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p.190)
Other examples could be given, but they are essentially all saying the same thing, which is the point of their being cited as they often are. Notice, however, that in each of these cases, ranging from ancient Egyptian philosophy to ancient Judaism, the principle of moral reciprocity is stated negatively. That is, that we should avoid doing the things we do not want to be done to us. Even the Jewish teachers – as represented by Hillel, one of their most famous Rabbis – taught the same negative principle. But as we can see in the passage before us, Jesus taught a positive principle.
NKJ Matthew 7:12a Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them …
But Jesus was not really stating something the Jewish leaders shouldn’t have already known, was He? After all, isn’t this essentially just another way of stating what the Law taught? For example:
NKJ Leviticus 19:17-18 You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him. 18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
When we read this Old Testament passage, it is not surprising that Jesus should have a similar thought in mind when teaching about confronting sin in a brother (recall vss. 1-5). But notice that the standard is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Surely each one of us would not want others simply to avoid doing bad things to us, but would want them also to do good things for us as well. After all, our love for ourselves leads us to desire good things for ourselves, doesn’t it? Hillel’s teaching minimized this requirement to love one’s neighbor as oneself with the negative statement, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else,” whereas Jesus brings out the full force of this love by making the positive statement, “whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them.”
So, just as He does throughout the Sermon on the Mount, so here Jesus is confronting the common Pharisaic attitudes and teachings which minimized the requirements of the law, and He is countering them with His own clear presentation of the very Old Testament teaching that they had distorted. Let us recall just a few of these examples:
1) In 5:21-22a – Jesus confronted their teaching against murder while they failed to properly challenge the anger of the heart that leads to murder.
2) In 5:27-28 – Jesus confronted their teaching against adultery while they failed to challenge the adultery of the heart.
3) In 5:43-44 – Jesus confronted their attempt to distort the teaching to love others by requiring love for those it is easiest to love while they allowed hating ones’ enemies.
But all these attempts to minimize the demands of genuine righteousness will not alter the fact that God’s judgment will require just that – a genuine righteousness that comes from the heart and is not merely focused on outward conformity to a set of comparatively easy requirements. Remember what Jesus also said earlier in this Sermon:
NKJ Matthew 5:20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
As a matter of fact, the lessened standard of Hillel, in particular, will ultimately help no one in the day of judgment. D. A. Carson makes this same observation in his commentary on Matthew:
About A.D. 20, Rabbi Hillel, challenged by a Gentile to summarize the law in the short time the Gentile could stand on one leg, reportedly responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it” (b Shabbath 31a). Apparently only Jesus phrased the rule positively. Thus stated it is certainly more telling than its negative counterpart, for it speaks against sins of omission as well as sins of commission. The goats in 25:31- 46 would be acquitted under the negative form of the rule, but not under the form attributed to Jesus. (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p.187)
Carson has rightly alluded to Jesus’ teaching on the final judgment, so let’s take a look at this teaching to see his point more clearly:
NKJ Matthew 25:41-46 Then He will also say to those on the left hand, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: 42 for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; 43 I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.” 44 Then they also will answer Him, saying, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” 45 Then He will answer them, saying, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.” 46 And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Yes, the goats on Jesus’ left hand might have been acquitted by Hillel’s standards – or by the standards of the other ancient teachings mentioned earlier – but not by those of our Lord Jesus! For He expects us not only to avoid doing what we know is sinful but also to actively go about doing what we know is right and good. The Apostle James would later reflect this same teaching in his epistle:
NKJ James 4:17 Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.
Isn’t Jesus making essentially the same point? Isn’t He basically saying, “To him that knows to good for others – as he would want others to do for him – and does not do it, to him it is sin”?
NKJ Matthew 7:12b for this is the Law and the Prophets
The point is that Jesus’ principle is a summary statement of the requirements of the Old Testament teaching regarding the love we should have for others. Hillel had said of his negative principle, “this is the whole law,” but Jesus says that it is rather His own positive principle that “is the Law and the Prophets.” It is almost as though Jesus had Hillel’s words in mind in this verse!
John Stott is again helpful when he writes:
All we have to do is use our imagination, put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, and ask, ‘How would I like to be treated in that situation?’ As Bishop Ryle wrote, ‘It settles a hundred difficult points … It prevents the necessity of laying down endless little rules for our conduct in specific cases.’ Indeed, it is a principle of such wide application that Jesus could add, for this is the law and the prophets. That is, whoever directs his conduct towards others according to how he would like others to direct theirs towards him has fulfilled the law and the prophets, at least in the matter of neighbor love. (The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 191)
But I think there is yet another reason that Jesus mentions “the Law and the Prophets” here, and that is because this principle brings to culmination the theme He began to discuss earlier in the Sermon:
NKJ Matthew 5:17-20 Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
But, like the scribes and the Pharisees, don’t we all have the tendency to minimize or distort the standard for righteousness found in God’s Word? In fact, doesn’t Jesus assume we will have such struggles when He warns us against these very tendencies? This is also undoubtedly why He prefaced this particular teaching with an emphasis on constant prayer (vss. 7-11), for it is only through prayer that we can find the strength from God that we need to live as we should. And, as we prayerfully consider in the light of Scripture the supposed parallels to Jesus’ teaching so often cited by advocates of “religious tolerance,” we find that they are the same kind of attempts to minimize or distort God’s true standard of righteousness. Thus, they actually fall short of the true teaching of our Lord Jesus. They fail in comparison.