After teaching the principle which we commonly call the Golden Rule, the Savior said, “This is the law and the prophets.” What did He mean by that?
The Hebrew Bible, which contains the same text found in the Old Testament, is divided into three groups of books:
- The Law – The first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). These are also called the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the five books of Moses.
- The Prophets – This group of books represented the writings of prophets other than Moses, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi.
- The Writings – All of the other books, including Psalms, Proverbs, and 1 and 2 Chronicles.
These categories were well understood in Jesus’s culture. For example, when a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36), he meant quite literally, “What is the most important commandment in the five books of Moses?” Jesus responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” Then, He added a second commandment, also from the law: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18).
So when He says in the passage above that the Golden Rule “is the law and the prophets,” He is telling us that this principle sums up everything we might learn from the five books of Moses or from any of the other prophetic writings in the Old Testament.
One of my favorite classes in college was Economics 110. The professor would teach us a principle using a number of examples. The homework consisted of a completely different set of examples which were relatively easy to solve if you understood the principle, but which were confusing if you were trying to tie them back to the examples from class. Without understanding the core principles, you had no hope of understanding how to complete the homework.
It’s the same with spiritual principles. The Apostle Paul wrote, “All the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” And he went on to say, “If ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law” (Galatians 5:14, 18). I think he meant that, once you get the principles, you don’t have to memorize lists of rules any more. You apply the principles to each unique circumstance you encounter without having to find a precedent for each decision.
President Russell M. Nelson described a liberating experience in which he understood the principle of sabbath observance:
In my much younger years, I studied the work of others who had compiled lists of things to do and things not to do on the Sabbath. It wasn’t until later that I learned from the scriptures that my conduct and my attitude on the Sabbath constituted a sign between me and my Heavenly Father.12 With that understanding, I no longer needed lists of dos and don’ts. When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, “What sign do I want to give to God?” That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear (“The Sabbath Is a Delight,” General Conference, April 2015).
Elder Richard G. Scott taught that identifying true principles is an important part of acquiring spiritual knowledge:
As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances. It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle. I have tried to do that with gaining spiritual knowledge (“Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” General Conference, April 1993).
Today, I will strive to live according to true principles. I will be grateful for examples of true principles in the scriptures and in the words of living prophets. But I will strive to understand and internalize the principles underpinning those examples, so that I can apply those principles to the variety of circumstances I will face.