We’ve all heard of the golden rule—not that “he has the gold makes the rules,” but that we should “do unto others what you would have them do to you.”
We’ve all heard of the golden rule—not that “he has the gold makes the rules,” but that we should “do unto others what you would have them do to you.” This is one of the Bible’s most famous sayings, but that doesn’t mean we all practice it well. In fact, it may well be the hardest lesson for us to carry out. Here is what to know about the verse and its surrounding ideas.
What Does 'Do unto Others' Mean?
Jesus uses this phrase while talking about how we should relate to our enemies. He not only says ‘do unto others what you would have them do to you,’ he says to love your enemies, bless those who curse you, and give generously without expecting anything in return. While Jesus doesn’t radically redefine family as he does in Matthew 12:48, he is clearly headed in that direction. In essence, he is telling his audience to recognize common humanity, even in people they don’t like.
Although this teaching is primarily about being merciful and generous to others, it is worth noting that the Bible doesn’t define love as just “being nice.” Jesus loved everyone, but sometimes asked people (such as the woman at the well) questions that they didn’t understand or like, questions that made them face how little they knew or how much they needed God. He also had no problem rebuking his disciples when they behaved poorly. After Jesus’ ascension, early Christians like Paul affirmed the need for church leaders to rebuke and exhort when other members behave poorly (see Titus, for example).
So, although Jesus doesn’t outlaw “being negative” via honest rebuke or feedback, he does call people to, as much as it is possible, live at peace with each other (Romans 12:18). By saying we should do unto others even if they are our enemies, he emphasizes that we are not just supposed to look out for our families—which we will see later was a pretty radical shift for Jewish listeners.
Why Is This Known as the Golden Rule?
According to Harry J. Gensler, author of Ethics and the Golden Rule, Anglican preachers started calling “do unto others” the golden rule in the 1600s, with the earliest example being Charles Gibbon in 1604. The term seems to have originated because gold is often used to mean a high standard (the golden mean in mathematics, for example). The principle of “do unto others” is a very old idea, one which appears in almost every religion in some form. Therefore, it can be seen as one of the golden ideas of religion and philosophy, a concept that humans across cultures and countries understand as being important. However, if we look at “do unto others” in the context of Luke 6, where Jesus gives the teaching, we see that he is giving an interpretation which not all religions agree with.
What Is the Context of Luke 6:31?
This verse is part of a long message which Jesus gave to his disciples after healing a large number of people (Luke 6:17-19). This sermon includes the Beatitudes, which are recounted in Matthew 5 with various other teachings, and usually listed as “the Sermon on the Mount.” In addition to listing some different teachings in their different versions, Matthew and Luke differ on the location where Jesus gave this sermon—Matthew describes him giving it on a mountain, while Luke has him giving it after he comes down the mountain. However, both versions describe Jesus giving the message specifically to his disciples. We often imagine Jesus giving this talk to a wide group of people, disciples, and potential converts. In fact, he gave it to people who have already committed to following him.
The fact that Jesus gave this message to his followers, not to the general population, highlights that while it is good moral teaching, he gives no guarantee that anyone can do it. In fact, in many ways what Jesus does in the sermon is make life harder. There was a way that Jewish people understood following God, which put a lot of emphasis on outward devotion. Most of the things Jesus says in his sermon challenge his audience to follow God’s teaching on a personal level, an intimate one that means more than just showing up for synagogue every Sabbath. Thus, his teachings were things that people could not do on their own. To “do unto others” would require shifting their understanding of religion in a big way, and they would need God’s help to live out. Thus, unlike many teachers throughout history, Jesus set up the teaching as something that people would have to rely on God in order to do. Like every other part of following Jesus, people would need the Holy Spirit to live it out.
The shocking nature of Jesus’ idea becomes clearer when we realize that Jesus was saying this to Jewish people. Irving Hexham notes in his book Encountering World Religions that Judaism emphasizes caring for one’s family first, an important trait in many Middle Eastern collective cultures. Jews had a responsibility to care for their families, for other Jews (and Jewish converts) since they were the chosen people…and everyone else had to look out for themselves. Hexham also notes that Judaism doesn’t require mercy for one’s enemies or loving them. Given the long history of Jews being oppressed by other nations (in Jesus’ time, the Romans), Jewish solidarity was primary. Caring about enemies would have seemed bizarre or blasphemous—hence why the Pharisees saw tax collectors working for the Romans as “sinners.”
By asking his disciples to “do onto others,” including their enemies, Jesus was suggesting a shocking new way of understanding God’s law. It may not have been abolishing Jewish law as much as fulfilling it in its true essence, but it was still a strange new way of seeing things. It required a new understanding of what it meant to be a Jew and a God follower.
4 Practical Ways to Do unto Others Today
Doing unto others will look very different depending on where we live, what stage of life we are in…and what kind of enemies we have. However, there are basic ways that we can all start applying this principle here and now:
Look around. We all have people in our lives who annoy us, make life difficult in some way. Once we have considered who those people are, we can begin the task of finding ways to bless them.
Do things in secret. Jesus talks in Matthew 6:3 about the value of doing generous acts without making a public display. By helping people in private ways, without them noticing or without anyone else knowing about it, we are generous without getting any credit.
Aim for the practical. We’re used to the idea of giving in impersonal ways, writing a check for a cause, or leaving money in a mailbox. Instead, look for things that will require a bit more effort, like offering to help rebuild something. By giving practical help, we are showing something that takes effort, is costly to us. This fits with the model Jesus gave of love, giving at high expense.
Recognize the other person is also suffering. It is often difficult to help people out until we recognize that we all have burdens of some kind. Gerald Kersh summed up this point in his short story “Busto is a Ghost, Too Mean to Give Us a Fright!” He describes a narrator who hates his landlord, then discovers the landlord’s humanity when tending to a sick dog. The narrator observes, “There are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment.”
We have all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and therefore none of us are what we were meant to be. We part of a creation that cries out with groanings for relief (Romans 8:19-27). Recognizing this truth helps us have empathy for even our enemies.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Silvia Jansen
G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor, with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Writing from Taylor University. In 2020, he won First Prize for Best Feature Story in a regional contest by the Colorado Press Association Network. He has contributed over 1,000 articles to various publications, including interviews for Christian Communicator and book reviews for The Evangelical Church Library Association. Find out more about his work here.
This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.
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