We lose appetite for the things of God not because we’ve eaten poison, but because we have had our fill of everything but God. Or to quote John Piper, “For all the ill that Satan can do, when God describes what keeps us from the banquet table of his love, it is a piece of land, a yoke of oxen, and a wife (Luke 14:18-20). The greatest adversary of love to God is not his enemies but his gifts. And the most deadly appetites are not for the poison of evil, but for the simple pleasures of earth. For when these replace an appetite for God himself, the idolatry is scarcely recognizable, and almost incurable.”(Hunger for God)
It is no accident that Christ’s sermon about those who belong to the kingdom of heaven starts off with a state of blessed emptiness. Blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek. So in Matthew 5:6 as a result of emptiness there’s a state of hunger and thirst. The person who hungers for righteousness is the one who lacks it. And the only way he can be satisfied by God is if he’s not full of the stuff of this world and of the self. But what does righteousness means in this context, and what does it mean to hunger and thirst for it?
The word “righteousness” occurs five times in this sermon (5:6, 10, 20; 6:1, 33). So the best way to understand what Jesus meant by the word righteousness in this sermon is to look at these other instances of the word.
The closest usage of the word is in verse 10. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I mentioned before in the first three beatitudes that we can look at the structure of this sermon as one unit. Sandwiched as it were between the promise of possession of the kingdom of heaven in the first and last beatitudes were the other six in verses 4-9. I also mentioned that it can be divided into two groupings of four. First group talks about our disposition toward God and the second one is our demeanor toward others. What I did not mention however is that each group ends with a statement about righteousness. Verse 6 contains a word for hunger and thirst for righteousness, and verse 10 deals with being persecuted for the sake of righteousness. Notice that in the former the blessed hungers and thirsts for something he lacks, but in the latter the blessed is being persecuted for something he does have. I think it is safe to say then that verses 7-10 is an overflow of the satisfaction in verse 6. So if that’s true, the righteousness in verse 6 is consist of being merciful, pure and peacemaker. As I mentioned before, it is necessary to get the order right. First there’s a sense of spiritual bankruptcy, then there’s mourning over sin. Meekness and humility would follow because of the recognition of our condition. Now the result of this emptiness is that we hunger for that which we lack, namely righteousness. God then satisfies our hunger for righteousness so that we’re filled with it. And as a result there would be an overflow of righteousness toward others. The first three beatitudes leading up to the fourth is about emptiness. But something occured in verse 6. God filled the emptiness. And so verses 7-10 is no longer about emptiness but fullness. They are full of mercy, purity and peace that they too can now become merciful, pure and peacemakers. So it is clear what righteousness means. They hunger for righteousness not only in the vertical level but also horizontal level. Now to confirm this usage let’s look at another verse in the same chapter.
In verse 20 Jesus says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Then what follows are six examples or illustrations of how our righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees.
So it is quite clear what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Mercy enables them to become merciful to those who does evil against them. Purity of heart enables them not to look upon a person with lust. Being peacemakers enables them not to retaliate, but instead return good for evil, and pray for them. We’re filled by God with mercy, purity, and peace first before we can even do these acts of righteousness and be persecuted because of it.
This simply means that the citizens of heaven doesn’t just work out righteousness because they’re obliged to obey, but they hunger and thirst for it. They don’t just do acts of mercy. They love mercy. They love purity and peacemaking. This does not mean they hunger for vertical spiritual highs alone. Instead this hunger and thirst, when satisfied by God, will overflow in acts of righteousness to other people. Notice that the verse didn’t say, “hunger for God”, even though that’s true. Instead Jesus said, “hunger for righteousness”. And the immediate effect of being satisfied is horizontal righteousness, not a monk like solitary spiritual ecstasy. Also look at Matthew 6:33, it says “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Yes there’s a seeking for God and his kingdom, but there’s also a seeking for his righteousness. And we find this righteousness in God alone, not on our own resources. Or look at how Jesus ends the sermon on the mount in Matthew 7:22-23,
“On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.””
He didn’t say depart from me you who don’t have a hunger and thirst for God. Instead Jesus said, “Depart from me, you evil doers.” The evidence that we really desire God is that there’s a desire for righteousness. Jesus put it this way in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Notice that it’s not a command but a promise. It says, “You will keep my commandments”.
Clearly what they will be satisfied with is righteousness. But before anyone can even crave for righteousness, there should be a taste for righteousness first. How can you crave for something that you don’t even like? Romans 3:10-11 says, “No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” Or in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “the natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them for they are spiritually discerned.” So between emptiness and hunger, something happened, namely the awakening of taste for the things of God. We’ve first tasted righteousness when God birthed us through the gospel, because in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. Without this first taste, hunger and craving for righteousness will be foreign to you. So if there’s a taste for righteousness, then there will be hunger and thirst for it, and if there’s a craving, God will satisfy you. So if you’re hungering and thirsting for righteousness trust the Lord that He will grant you righteousness. But if you are the person who have not tasted righteousness and as a result no craving for it, don’t treat this passage as a mere list of what you have to do in order to be called righteous. Instead, trust Christ’s righteousness alone. Ask God to grant you a taste of righteousness.