Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. —Matthew 5:6
When Jesus preached this sermon, the people were surprised (Matthew 7:28-29). His preaching wasn’t like the sermons they’d heard before. The Beatitudes are showing us how different he was. Here Jesus congratulates – remember that the word “blessed” means “Congratulations” – he congratulates not the righteous but the unrighteous, the people who have sinned their way so far out of their own righteousness that it’s gone for good, and now those unrighteous people can only yearn with a broken heart for their lost innocence. These people are not happy with themselves. But Jesus is happy with them. And he wants them to know it.
When we hear what Jesus was saying, he’s surprising. A predictable, controllable Jesus might be a false Jesus. You know the word “Antichrist.” The “anti” prefix on that word does not only mean “opposed to, against.” That Greek prefix can also mean “substituting for.” The Antichrist of the End Times will not necessarily come across as an attack on Jesus. He might look like the Savior of the world. But every substitute Jesus is an attack on the real Jesus. What we’re doing with the Sermon on the Mount is peeling away layer upon layer of the unreal Jesuses that get into our thoughts. We’re listening to the real Jesus with total openness. We are repenting, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4:17). And here is what the real Jesus is saying to us this morning: “You see how far you are from God? But you’re hoping, just hoping, he might take you as you are and make something beautiful of you? Congratulations! My best is all yours.” Let’s take it in two steps.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”
Hunger and thirst are basic appetites. Until they’re cared for, everything else must wait. I might want to start a hobby or prepare for a marathon or just get through my day at work. But if I’m starving, everything else will have to wait. Everything else is a luxury in the face of this one necessity. That’s the force of this Beatitude. Hungry is healthy; pampered is deadly. Jesus is saying to us, “If you’re thinking, ‘I can’t live without a miracle of God in my life,’ I will satisfy you. Nonchalant worldliness will kill you. Complacent Christianity will kill you. Hunger and thirst will fill you.”
If you are not hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of Jesus, either you’re dead – dead people feel nothing – or you’re sick – sick people lose their appetite – or you’ve stuffed yourself full of junk food of some kind. But hunger and thirst are healthy. Here’s what we see in this Beatitude. With Jesus, the deal-breaker is not our unrighteousness. With Jesus, the deal-breaker is our self-satisfaction. As he looks out at the human race, he sees three human conditions. One, complacent unrighteousness. Two, complacent righteousness. Three, hungry and thirsty unrighteousness. Both complacently unrighteous and complacently righteous people know nothing of the real Jesus. But hungry and thirsty sinners taste him. How different church is when we stop comparing ourselves favorably with others and start hungering and thirsting for his righteousness! That’s when the real Jesus becomes real to us.
The Swiss theologian Adolf Schlatter – he died in 1938 – was a brilliant New Testament scholar. In a section of his book on Jesus called “The Repentance of the Pious,” Schlatter explained what Jesus purposed in this sermon:
Jesus pitched the Sermon on the Mount against those who condemned murder and avoided adultery as sin, not against those who murdered and followed every lust, against those who fasted and prayed, not against those who neglected to do so. Jesus did not call the pious to repentance simply because he rejected their sin but also because he condemned their righteousness.
You and I can hide evil desires under good behavior. But under sinful behavior, the heart can mourn and sigh and weep and long for something better. If that’s you this morning, grieved by your sin, thirsty for God, turn to Jesus. He promises to satisfy you. But if you’re thinking, “I’m as good as I want to be, I’ve gone as far as I want to go, and I’m better than most,” you are pushing Christ aside. Your righteousness is in danger of hell. Repent of it! Join the sinners who are thinking, “Wretched person that I am! Who will set me free?” Have you ever said to Jesus, “I agree with your judgment against me. Even my goodness is corrupt. You may rightly damn me for the best things I’ve ever done. My only hope is you, and I long for you”? If you have never been emptied of your goodness to the point that you see yourself at the level of the worst offender, Christ is not congratulating you. He is the Ally of sinners – not of their sin, but of them in their sin. Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13). He did not say, “I came to call rehabilitated sinners.” All he said was, “I came to call sinners.” He was criticized for being “a friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19). So this is what you must know. If you have wrecked your life so badly you need someone else to put it back together for you, Jesus is very close to you. He did not say, “Blessed are the righteous” but “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
Neither does Jesus say, “Blessed are those who avoid sin.” Avoiding sin can be sin. In her novel Wise Blood Flannery O’Connor writes of her central figure, “There was already a deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin.” The last thing some people want is God. So what do they do? They live good lives. “Keep your distance, God. I’ve got everything under control.” That kind of “good life” is, to God, the masterpiece of iniquity. For us to avoid sin is not why God created the universe. After all, why are we here? God created the universe for the display of the glory of his grace (Ephesians 1:6). We are here because God purposed to pour out the dying love of Jesus on sinners. And the triumph of his grace is not when we avoid sin but when we hunger and thirst for a righteousness only Christ can give us.
Thomas Chalmers was a minister in Scotland two hundred years ago. He preached a sermon entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” He said there are two ways to get people to change in a positive way. One way is to show them the stupidity of their sins. It doesn’t work. No one ever becomes a better person by being shamed and pressured. The other way to lift people up is to set before them Jesus as the only satisfaction of their hearts. That does work. What empowers us to turn and live for God is a new affection that enters the heart and expels our taste for sin. Chalmers understood that you can scold people all day long, and it won’t make any impact. Why? Because we are convinced that our sins are just the price we have to pay to get a little taste of freedom. But when we see the love of Jesus for the undeserving, we get traction for change.
God awakens us with new appetites at multiple levels. After all, what is this righteousness? Jesus doesn’t limit it. He’s thinking of righteousness in the fullest and most wonderful sense. So, select “righteousness” and double-click on it. What comes up on the biblical screen? What comes up on the screen is a renewed universe enjoyed forever by perfected human beings under Jesus Christ the King of grace. What comes up on the screen is you and me at peace with God through the finished work of Christ on the cross, you and me changing right now deep within, you and me perfected out in eternity, you and me and a whole new human race romping and playing forever in the endless kingdom of Christ. It’s what Isaiah could see – that, under the Messiah, the wolf will dwell with the lamb (Isaiah 11:1-9), the mountains and the hills will sing and the trees will applaud wherever we go in the new heavens and the new earth. That’s the full meaning of this word “righteousness.” That’s what we long for – for ourselves, our kids, our city, the whole world. And we don’t have to deserve it. Jesus died to give it to us. All we do, all we can do, is receive it with the empty hands of faith. But if you’re willing to settle for some tedious morality of your own, to keep God off your back, you’re as far from him as you could be. C. S. Lewis famously and rightly said,
If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Complete this sentence: “I am so looking forward to ____________.” Be honest. How do you fill in that blank? Here’s one way you know God is at work in your life – not that your behavior is perfect but that this thought goes right to your heart: “I’ve got to have Jesus. Whatever else I must lose, I’ve got to have him. He is love and acceptance and forgiveness and peace and identity and purpose and eternity and energy and joy and everything else that will satisfy my heart.” Jesus Christ doesn’t offer you what you should want. He offers you what your crazy heart does want, but purified, intense, lasting, with no bitter aftertaste. When will you stop defrauding yourself, depriving yourself, punishing yourself, starving yourself, killing yourself? You can come to him now, as you are, with nothing but your hunger. He will call you “blessed” right now, and he will satisfy you forever.
I remember sitting in a sidewalk café in a foreign country years ago, having dinner with friends. Some street boys hung cautiously at the periphery of things, hoping for scraps. The pain in their eyes was hard to bear. They were living out of dumpsters. We fed them, of course. But aren’t all of us just like those boys? We go to the dumpsters of this world, including the dumpsters of religion, rather than the feast of Christ. Every man clicking through his computer to a porn site is, in fact, looking for God. And he still welcomes us. But to everyone who is self-satisfied Jesus says, “You’re full? You’re okay? I’m so sorry. You have no idea how I can satisfy you, and you will never know until you risk everything on me alone. I am the only human happiness that exists.”
Think of the city of Nashville awash in a righteousness not our own – peace with God, peace with one another, no tense marriages, no racial resentment, no tedious religion, nothing but beautiful human life overflowing with happiness from above. Can we be content without it? Isn’t it the passion of our hearts to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done in Nashville, as it is in heaven”?
Did you know there’s a way for Christians to shut down the strip joints of Nashville, without passing a single law? Here it is. The Christians of Nashville will shut down the strip joints when the Christians hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Jesus more than they hunger and thirst to blame others. When the church people go into repentance and find help from the real Jesus, the non-church people in town will notice and think, “Maybe I could find help in church too.” And they will come. And they too will be helped. And we will all change.
“for they shall be satisfied”
Your soul has senses, just as your body has senses. The psalmist wrote, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice” (John 10:27). Paul prayed that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened (Ephesians 1:18). His ministry of the gospel spread the fragrance of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14). The psalmist summed it up with, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Your soul has senses, just as your body has senses.
It’s why people throughout history have talked about Jesus in terms of pleasure and satisfaction. For example, Augustine, around 400 A.D., described his conversion this way: “Suddenly it became sweet to me to be without the sweets of folly. What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss. You, O God, turned them out and entered in to take their place, pleasanter than any pleasure” Bernard of Clairvaux, around 1100 A.D., wrote, “O Jesus, Light of all below, Fount of life and fire, surpassing all the joys we know, all we can desire” John Owen, in the 1600’s, wrote, “Thoughts of God delight and refresh the hearts of believers. Whatever is good, desirable and powerful, whatever is gracious, wise and merciful, believers see and find in God. Who he is is their greatest joy. In these thoughts believers take delight. These thoughts are sweet to them and full of refreshment” Jonathan Edwards, in the 1700’s, preached, “Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual appetites…. They may drink, yea swim, in rivers of spiritual pleasure” What is going on with people like Augustine and Bernard and all the others down through time? They stopped thinking of Jesus as a burden and began seeing him as satisfying. Jesus is not asking you to settle for something. He wants to satisfy your crazy heart’s whole desire.
If God is stirring new longings in your heart, he’s doing it for one reason – to satisfy you. But you must be hungry and thirsty first. So don’t be ashamed of your unfulfilled desires. Unfulfilled desires for God are not evidence your Christianity isn’t working; they are evidence your Christianity is real. Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish pastor from centuries ago, said, “There is enough in our Lord’s kitchen to satisfy all his children, and enough wine in his cellar to quench all their thirst. Hunger on, for there is food in hunger for Christ. Never go from him without bothering him… with a dishful of hungry desires, until he feeds you.” Never let your frustration and angst and yearning die. Only the living feel it. And Jesus congratulates you this morning as being alive to his fullness, even in your emptiness. He wants you to know today that your desires for him are his prophetic word deep inside you, assuring you of eternal fulfillment in him.
If you’re not hungering and thirsting for righteousness, may God so ruin your life, may you sin so badly, that you wake up before it’s too late. The Bible says, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat” (Isaiah 55:1). Will you stop telling him how busy you are and how difficult he is? He promises to satisfy you freely and fully through his finished work on the cross, to the glory of his grace. But there is no other satisfaction anywhere in the universe. For every one of us, it’s Christ or nothing.