A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Already in the Virgin Mary’s song, the Magnificat, the spiritually poor and spiritually hungry have been associated, and both have been declared blessed. For God ‘has filled the *hungry* with good things, and the *rich* he has sent empty away’. (Lk.1:53) The general principle is here particularized. The hungry and thirsty whom God satisfies are those who ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness’. Such spiritual hunger is a characteristic of all God’s people, whose supreme ambition is not material but spiritual. Christians are not like pagans, engrossed in the pursuit of possessions; what they have set themselves to ‘seek first’ is God’s kingdom and righteousness. (Mt.6:33).
Righteousness in the Bible has at least three aspects: legal, moral and social.
Legal righteousness is justification, a right relationship with God. The Jews ‘pursued righteousness’, Paul wrote later, but failed to attain it because they pursued it in the wrong way. They sought ‘to establish their own’ righteousness and ‘did not submit to God’s righteousness’, which is Christ himself (cf. Rom.9:30-10:4). Some commentators have seen such a reference here, but this is scarcely possible since Jesus is addressing those who already belong to him.
Moral righteousness is that righteousness of character and conduct which pleases God. Jesus goes on after the beatitudes to contrast this Christian righteousness with pharisaic righteousness (20). The latter was an external conformity to rules; the former is an inner righteousness of heart, mind and motive. For this we should hunger and thirst.
It would be a mistake to suppose, however, that the biblical word ‘righteousness’ means only a right relationship with God on the one hand and a moral righteousness of character and conduct on the other. For biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well. And social righteousness, as we learn from the law and the prophets, is concerned with seeking man’s liberation from oppression, together with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honour in home and family affairs. Thus Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God.
Luther expressed this concept with is customary vigour: ‘The command to you is not to crawl into a corner or into the desert, but to run out, if that is where you have been, and to offer your hands and your feet and your whole body, and to wager everything you have and can do.’ What is required, he goes on, is ‘a hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end. If you cannot make the world completely pious, then do what you can.’
There is perhaps no greater secret of progress in Christian living than a healthy, hearty spiritual appetite. Again and again Scripture addresses its promises to the hungry. God ‘satisfies him who is thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things’ (Ps.107:9). If we are conscious of slow growth, is the reason that we have a jaded appetite? It is not enough to mourn over past sin; we must also hunger for future righteousness.
Yet in this life our hunger will never be fully satisfied, nor our thirst fully quenched. True we receive the satisfaction which the beatitude promises. But our hunger is satisfied only to break out again. Even the promise of Jesus that whoever drinks of the water he gives ‘will never thirst’ is fulfilled only if we keep drinking. (Jn.4:13,14; 7:37) Beware of those who claim to have attained, and who look to past experience rather than to future development! Like all the qualities included in the beatitudes, hunger and thirst are perpetual characteristics of the disciples of Jesus, as perpetual as poverty of spirit, meekness and mourning. Not till we reach heaven will we ‘hunger no more, neither thirst any more’, for only then will Christ our Shepherd lead us ‘to springs if living water’ (Rev.7:16,17).
More than this, God has promised a day of judgment, in which right will triumph and wrong be overthrown, and after which there will be ‘new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells’ (2 Pet.3:13). For this final vindication of the right we also long, and we shall not be disappointed.
Looking back, we can see that the first four beatitudes reveal a spiritual progression of relentless logic. Each step leads to the next and presupposes the one that has gone before. To begin with we are to be ‘poor in spirit’, acknowledging our complete and utter spiritual bankruptcy before God. Next we are to ‘mourn’ over the cause of it, our sins, yes, and our sin too – the corruption of our fallen nature, and the reign of sin and death in the world. Thirdly we are to be ‘meek’, humble and gentle towards others, allowing our spiritual poverty (admitted and bewailed) to condition our behaviour to them as well as to God. And fourthly we are to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’. For what is the use of confessing and lamenting our sin, of acknowledging the truth about ourselves to both God and men, if we leave it there? Confession of sin must lead to hunger for righteousness.
In the second half of the beatitudes (the last four) we seem to turn even more from our attitude to God to our attitude to our fellow human beings. Certainly the ‘merciful’ show mercy to men, and ‘peacemakers’ seek to reconcile men to each other, and those who are ‘persecuted’ are persecuted by men. It seems likely therefore that the sincerity denoted by being ‘pure in heart’ also concerns our attitude and relation to our fellow human beings.
Tomorrow: Matthew. 5:7. The merciful.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.