The only way we can live out the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is by appropriating the new life of God, which we receive as we come to faith in Jesus Christ and as we learn to ask God for the right inclinations and the power we must have to pursue them.
This must be why Jesus begins to talk about prayer again, especially after He has already discussed it extensively in chapter 6. What He is saying here is that we need God’s power to do right in all areas: to work for spiritual treasure, to trust God rather than worry about the future, and to stop looking down on those we think are inferior to us. Matthew 7.7-11 is an immensely important passage about prayer.
First, it teaches that if we are Christ’s disciples, having entered by faith into the kingdom of heaven, then we have God as our Father, and the God who is our Father is generous and giving. If a child wants to ask his father for something, the child will pattern his request on what he knows of his father’s temperament. If the father is ill-tempered and stingy, the child will ask for a little only, carefully and at a well-chosen moment. If the father is good natured and generous, the child will present his need openly and with freedom. It is the same spiritually, says Jesus. If God were like the pagans imagined Him to be – capricious, selfish, even vengeful – the one who prays would be on guard and would even try to bribe God or win Him over. But if God is gracious, as Jesus taught, then we need not be afraid to ask Him for whatever we need at any time.
Yet we must ask. That is the second important truth. God cares for us even if we do not ask, as an earthly father cares for even unresponsive children. But God wants us to have a personal relationship with Him, and for that to happen, we must communicate with God in prayer. God gives, but He gives even more when we ask. James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Jesus gives the positive side of that sentence when He says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
The third important truth in these verses is that we are to keep praying. The verbs in verse 7 are present imperatives. This does not mean we are to practice vain repetitions; Jesus has already dismissed that in chapter 6. We do not get more from God by repeating our requests over and over. But it does mean we are never to grow weary of asking, seeking, and knocking since we know that God is always hearing and always answering.
At last we come to the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (v.12). This is Jesus’ summary, and not only of the Law and the Prophets. It is also a summary of the entire body of the sermon – the phrase “the Law and the Prophets” is the inclusio that both introduces the main section of the sermon and now concludes it.
What is important and unique about this verse, the best-known of all Christ’s sayings, is that it is expressed in a positive form. It is not difficult to find parallels to Christ’s rule in its negative form. The great Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to yourself, do to no other; that is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.” In the apocryphal book of Tobit, composed several centuries before the time of Jesus, the hero tells his young son, “What thou hatest, do to no man.” William Barclay, who lists these examples among many others, cites close parallels from Confucius, Epictetus, the Stoics, and the Hymns of the Faith of Buddhism. But these are negative. They say, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.” By contrast, Jesus turned the saying completely around, saying positively, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
It has always been possible for people to keep the negative version of this rule, for it is essentially a sound and necessary legal principle. If we are to get along in a civilized society, we must discipline ourselves so we do not injure other people. We must obey the law, stop at stop signs, pay our bills, avoid overt acts of prejudice, and many such things. It is a bit like an honest man paying taxes. We do it because we must, while hoping we will have enough left over for ourselves after we have paid them.
How different when we look at our obligations positively. Now it is no longer a matter of legal principle, doing what needs to be done to get along or stay out of trouble. What is needed now is a transformed life, which is why we cannot keep the Golden Rule or any other standard of this sermon by ourselves. If we are operating by the law, our minds are on ourselves. To fix our attention on the needs, cares, loves, joys, hopes, and dreams of other people, we must be transformed people.
Christian faith begins with a confession of our failure, followed by faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. But it continues as we learn to put the needs and wants of other people first. In other words, it is only when we have learned to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength that we can begin to love our neighbors as ourselves.