This sermon, recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7, is Jesus’ most famous sermon. The first 40% of this sermon is written to make it clear that we cannot be righteous on our own, and therefore, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven apart from some type of intervention. What follows is a warning about how we try to cope with our failure to be righteous before God. When we understand how impossible it is for us to be righteous before God, we often settle for looking righteous in front of others.
In chapter 6, Jesus begins with a warning about hypocrisy. He then follows it up with three specific avenues of hypocrisy—giving, praying, and fasting. All three are religious activities which can be done in a way that pleases God, but all three can also be done in a way that seeks the approval of man.
This sermon is filled with commands to live righteously, and these commands are to be obeyed. Whatever we do, we must not cripple the force of this charge. Jesus tells His disciples to live righteous lives. But these commands are intended for those who have been rescued from sin. The audience of these commands is Christian.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote: “It is wrong to ask anybody who is not first a Christian to try and to live or practice the Sermon on the Mount. To expect Christian conduct from a person who is not born again is heresy. The appeals of the gospel in terms of conduct and ethics and morality are always based on the assumption that the people to whom the injunctions are addressed are Christian.”[i]
Obedience to these commands cannot make a person righteous. Obedience to these commands is for the person who has been made righteous. When Jesus pours His righteousness in a person, it overflows into righteous behavior.
We see this reality in the order of the sermon. The sermon begins with nine verses commonly called the Beatitudes. Each one begins with “Blessed are the…” None are commands, but all are identities. Or better yet, all are aspects of a single identity. “Blessed is the person whose identity can be described the following nine ways.” It’s not until Jesus lays out this new identity that He transitions to commands about how we live. Why? Character precedes conduct. The heart is changed prior to the hands. Jesus must give a person a new identity before they can obey Him.
Matthew 5:1: Jesus makes righteousness living possible for those who repent and believe.
Matthew 5:2-5: Jesus blesses the broke and broken.
Matthew 5:6-8: Jesus blesses the hungry and whole-hearted.
Matthew 5:9-12: Jesus blesses the hunted and harassed.
Matthew 5:13-16: Genuine faith cannot be hidden.
Matthew 5:17-20: Christians are identified by obedience to God.
Matthew 5:21-26: Living the defused life.
Matthew 5:27-30: Lust is a failure to love God and our neighbor.
Matthew 5:31-37: Followers of Christ are covenant-keepers.
Matthew 5:38-48: Love your enemies.
Matthew 6:1-4: Motives matter in giving.
Matthew 6:5-15: When we pray, we talk to our Father.
Matthew 6:16-18: Fasting helps us understand our need for God.
Matthew 6:19-24: Invest in eternal treasure not empty trinkets.
Matthew 6:25-34: The cure for anxiety is confidence in God’s love.
Matthew 7:1-6: Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Matthew 7:7-11: Children turn to their father when they need help.
Matthew 7:12-14: The law is summarized in love.
Matthew 7:15-23: Fruitfulness is a sure sign of faith.
Matthew 7:24-29: Build your life to survive the storm of judgment.
[i] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), p. 17.