It is a pivotal moment in a man’s life, when upon studying the Sermon on the Mount, he learns that being a “Christian”—or a “kingdom citizen”—involves far more than just being “nice.” If his aim in life were merely to be nice, then the Bible is only one of many trails that converge at the same peak. The Vedas, The Book of Mormon, and even The Qur’an are fertile-enough soils to produce what we could reasonably call, “nice people.” But suppose he possesses even the mildest self-awareness to see in his greatest act of piety, his greatest act of hypocrisy; that when he is most faithful, he is most phony; that there is a difference between a life-changed, and a life-transformed; and that what he needs most deeply is not a life of niceness, but a newness of life. 

In Chapter 10 of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis presents a distinction between “Nice People” and “New Men.” Probably because it doesn’t take much to make a nice man: he only needs to clean up his act, his wardrobe, his flair; take up a hobby, or two, or ten; volunteer at the local animal shelter; and periodically conduct a self-assessment to see whether his life makes a reasonably substantive improvement to his own well-being and to the well-being of others. But ‘mere improvement is not redemption,’ remarked Lewis, ‘God became man…not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.’

To go from bad to nice, self-improvement will suffice; but to go from bad to new requires something outside of you. 

The issue might simply boil down to confusion regarding what really constitutes being “good.” Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics was one Cambridge professor’s attempt to answer, “Why be good?” to which he concluded that there isn’t really one definitive reason why people should be good; only that it behooves us to consider what we ought to do, and to anchor our decision-making in some sort of standard or combination thereof. Jesus raises the stakes considerably when he tells his disciples: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And this he anchors in a unique, and rather provocative standard, 28 verses later, when he concludes: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

Jesus’ most popular and most protracted sermon is what is commonly called, The Sermon on the Mount. It is also considered most practical, which turns out to be a kind of paradox because of how impractical its moral demands seem, especially in light of popular conceptions of Old Testament laws and kingdom ethics. This is what prompts Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7. Jesus’ disciples evidently had a mistaken understanding of what it really meant to be citizens of his kingdom. It is not a place for “nice people,” as the NBA is not a place for “decent players”; there are plenty of those to go around, and their light shines rather dim.

 A kingdom citizen is a distinguished citizen, and his dwelling is, indeed, a city set on a hill. 

Jesus opens with nine “beatitudes,” which represent the distinctive heart postures of kingdom citizens (5:1-11). The word, “blessed,” which opens each successive statement is not so much a word describing how they feel (“happy”), as it is describing what they are (“accepted”). Collectively,  the beatitudes represent the kind of person that will have been accepted into the kingdom of heaven. He will be—in a word—righteous. Few meet these descriptions in the truest sense, thus Jesus presses how truly unique kingdom people are by identifying them as the “salt” and “light” of the world (5:13-15). So distinguished are they to be in their life and conduct that outsiders should be perplexed by their lifestyle, leaving them with only one reasonable explanation—God—and only one reasonable response: worship (5:16).

Jesus then prepares to make one of his most jarring assertions: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). This statement would first provoke shock: for ‘the scribes and Pharisees’ were regarded as the paragons of spiritual virtue, and if they weren’t good enough to get in, what hope would they have? This statement would also beg the question: “Exactly how far is my righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees?” Jesus answers this question, 28 verses later, when he concludes: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). Now, any sentient person listening would probably be thinking that Jesus was out of his skull because he is essentially telling them to be God! And by that metric, who would ever qualify? 

The Picture of True Righteousness

Well, what Jesus implied by this was that those who alleged to be his followers had a distorted, or at least diluted, understanding of what it really meant to be “good.” And so sandwiched between these two statements (in 5:20 and 5:48) is Jesus’ portrayal of what real righteousness looks like (spanning 5:21-5:47). Indeed, it goes beyond a mere presentation of authentic righteousness to capturing a kind of spiritual blueprint for how kingdom constituents shall live in the kingdom to come. Now, lest one should think that Jesus is being inventive, or intentionally trying to subvert the Old Testament stipulations as some kind of political anarchist, he clarifies in 5:17 that he did not come to “abolish” the law, but to “fulfill” it. (Indeed, the word, “fulfill” becomes a thematic key throughout the gospel of Matthew.) He even goes as far as to warn that the slightest disregard for even the most seemingly insignificant command would result in banishment from the kingdom. Jesus explicitly grounds his kingdom blueprint in the Scripture by six times referencing the Old Testament law, and each time intentionally drawing out an implication of that command that would have been conveniently overlooked or downplayed. 

Matthew 5:21-47 represents the distinctive lifestyle of those who will one day inhabit Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. The kind of righteousness that characterizes a true kingdom citizen is something otherworldly. It is a transcendent morality that finds no parallel in false religion. Indeed, the strongest apologetic for the distinctiveness of Christianity, I think, is not found in some cutesy apologetic book, but in 5:21-5:47. No human being, or committee for that matter, would ever dare compose such a text—apart from divine inspiration—because it is self-condemning at virtually every point. Who has never cursed another? Who has never lusted? Who has never lied, or uttered a half-truth masquerading as a whole-truth?

The Sermon on the Mount essentially explores the answer to two overarching questions: i. What does real righteousness look like? And ii., How is this “real righteousness” subtly counterfeited? The reader does well to meaningfully consider what Jesus said in 5:21-47, for 6:1 will introduce a major shift in the sermon that is as illuminating as it is disturbing.