Sermon on the Mount (Part 2): A Righteous Life

Sermon on the Mount (Part 2): A Righteous Life

After describing the life of a disciple as blessed, Jesus directed His message to a discussion of righteousness. He touched on this in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:6). As we noticed in the previous lesson, to be righteous is to be right by God’s standard, not man’s. The verses we will consider here expand on that idea. We can see from Jesus’ words that the life of a disciple is a righteous life.

Example to Others

You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Jesus used three analogies to emphasize the fact that we are to be examples to others. First, He said that we are “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). Salt is a preservative. Of course, this does not mean that if we can increase the number of righteous people in the world, then God’s judgment will be delayed. Paul told the Athenians that God has “fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). Instead, we act as a “preservative” in that by living righteously, we are preserving what is good and right on the earth. By our righteous example, we are showing others what is right and encouraging them by our influence to be good as well.

Second, Jesus said we are “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). Light is important because it shows the way. The psalmist wrote, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). Again, by our example as we are directed by the word of God, we are showing others the way that they should go. Paul encouraged the brethren in Philippi to be different from the world: “Prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Jesus explained the clear and unmistakable difference between right (light) and wrong (darkness): “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19-20). Those who do right – as long as they do not compromise – will not blend in with those who do wrong. By our actions, we highlight the contrast between right and wrong.

Third, Jesus described His disciples as “a city set on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). This means we are highly visible, emphasizing again our example. Not only is a city on a hill highly visible, but it is also in a position of strength. The wise man wrote, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runs into it and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10). Those who are righteous have the strength of God to protect them. We are to live righteously because we trust in God to save us.

Our righteousness should be visible to others. Jesus said that others should “see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). We are to be an example to others in all that we do. The way we do this is through righteous living.

Emphasis on the Importance of Law

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

Many in the religious world have a misunderstanding when it comes to law as it relates to our following of Christ. They believe we should obey the “spirit” of the law rather than the “letter” of the law. In other words, they think we should focus on what we perceive the purpose of God’s law to be rather than the details of His instructions.

However, what we see in Jesus’ words is a respect for God’s law – even the “letter” of the law. Jesus said, “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). God expects us to reflect this attitude of respect for His word so that we will be careful in our handling of it. Paul told Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). How careful are we to be? Consider Jesus’ confrontation with the Sadducees in which He proved that there is a resurrection based upon the tense of a verb (present tense instead of past tense) in the Biblical text: “‘But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.’ When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching” (Matthew 22:31-33). If we are to properly learn and apply God’s word, we must exercise care in our handling of it and not ignore the details.

We know that the Law of which Jesus spoke has since been nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). But remember Jesus’ purpose in this sermon – to show what a disciple is to be like. Christ’s disciples are to respect God’s word enough that we care about following even the details of it.

Exceed the Righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).

The scribes and Pharisees were the religious elites of that day. Jesus’ point is that those who seem to be religious are not our standard. We follow Christ, not other men. Paul wrote to the brethren in Corinth to warn them about this: “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:12-13). No matter who the men are that we might be considering, we cannot follow them over Christ.

The scribes and Pharisees focused on the “letter” of the law to the exclusion of the “spirit” of the law. As we noticed in the previous point, the “letter” of the law is important; but we cannot neglect the purpose for which the law was given. Jesus condemned the scribes and Pharisees for this later: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23). We cannot neglect either the details of God’s law or the broader concepts that are taught in it.

We must also not look to God’s word in order to find “loopholes” to justify our behavior. This was what these individuals were doing and Jesus exposed them for it: “And He answered and said to them, ‘Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, “Honor your father and mother,” and “He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.” But you say, “Whoever says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,’ he is not to honor his father or his mother.” And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition’” (Matthew 15:3-6). They meticulously searched God’s law, not to follow it exactly, but to find what they believed was a “loophole” that would allow them to ignore a part of the law they did not want to follow. If we are to faithfully follow Christ, we must strive to reach a higher standard than the religious elites of the day.

Explaining the “Spirit” of the Law

After discussing the importance of following the “letter” of the law, Jesus explained why it was important to follow the “spirit” of the law. This was not for the purpose of finding a “loophole” – as the scribes and Pharisees did – but to more fully understand and fulfill God’s will that was expressed through His commandments.

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder,’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever said, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown in prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent” (Matthew 5:21-26).

Murder was explicitly condemned under the Old Law (Exodus 20:13). The condemnation of one who “sheds man’s blood” was given much earlier to Noah (Genesis 9:6). In the New Testament, Paul indicated that murder was a sin that was “contrary to sound teaching” (1 Timothy 1:9-10). However, there was a reason why murder was condemned and not accidental killings (Numbers 35:10-12, 22-25) or acting in self-defense (Exodus 22:2). The reason was because murder involved anger against another person. Jesus said, “Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court” (Matthew 5:22). Anger is classified as one of the “deeds of the flesh” that prevents one from inheriting the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21). John wrote, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). Anger is condemned even if it never leads to murder.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30).

While all forms of fornication were condemned in the Law (Leviticus 18:6-23), the Ten Commandments emphasized adultery as being contrary to God’s will (Exodus 20:14). Paul told the brethren in Corinth that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9). This number included “adulterers.” However, Jesus explained that the condemnation of adultery also prohibited one from fantasizing about the act of adultery. The problem with lust is that it leads to sin. James wrote, “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). Because of the danger posed by lust and the unrighteousness produced by it, Job made a commitment: “I have made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman” (Job 31:1, NIV). Lust is condemned even if it never progresses as far as one committing adultery.

It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).

Jesus cited the instruction given in the Law of Moses about putting away one’s wife (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Later, Jesus would be asked specifically about this text (Matthew 19:7). The Pharisees thought that Jesus ignored the alleged permission to divorce when He explained God’s marriage law: “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). The instruction in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was not given because God was granting new permissions for divorce; rather, it was given to regulate and, more importantly, limit divorce. This was why Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:8). The Lord expects “marriage…to be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). Disregarding one’s marriage vows was condemned even if one met certain “legal” requirements in order to end their marriage.

Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil” (Matthew 5:33-37).

The Law of Moses stated, “You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:12). The wise man wrote, “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” (Ecclesiastes 5:4). However, just because they were told to be sure they fulfilled their promises when they made a vow did not mean they were permitted to fail to keep their word at other times. God’s people are to be honest and speak the truth at all times. Paul wrote, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25). To the brethren in Colossae, he wrote, “Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices” (Colossians 3:9). Dishonesty is condemned even if one never enters into a “vow.”

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).

In every society, it is necessary for crimes to be punished. The wise man explained what happens when this is not done: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Jesus cited a passage that described how punishments ought to be increasingly severe as the crime is more severe (Leviticus 24:17-20). But it is important to remember who has been given the role of carrying out such punishment. Paul explained that civil authorities have the divinely-given role of punishing crimes: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minster of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil” (Romans 13:3-4). Because of this, he told the saints in Rome, “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19). Taking revenge against someone is condemned even if it was in response to a crime that was committed against the one seeking vengeance.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47).

Loving one’s neighbor was commanded (Leviticus 19:18). However, the second part of this that they had heard – “hate your enemy” – was not part of the law. It was a faulty conclusion that had been drawn based upon the command to love their neighbor. God’s people are to love all people. Paul told the brethren in Thessalonica, “And may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). Hating one’s enemy is condemned even if one still loves his neighbor.

Strive to Be Perfect Like God

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

At the end of this section, Jesus gave the goal – His disciples are to be like God. Obviously, we will never be sinlessly perfect. Paul made that clear when he wrote, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). But we are to strive for this.

How do we do it? We practice righteousness. John wrote, “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous” (1 John 3:7). We must respect God and His word enough that we follow the “letter” and the “spirit” of the law.


The life of a disciple is a righteous life. This means we conform to God’s standard and not man’s. Let us strive to be like God and let our light shine before men.

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