Sermon on the Mount: Those Who Hunger and Thirst (Matt. 5:6)
You’ve seen the late night commercials. Footage of children in countries like Sudan and Ethiopia who are malnourished and suffering due to severe hunger. According to World Food Programme, when it comes to the world population as a whole, “The vast majority of hungry people (827 million) live in developing countries, where 14.3 percent of the population is undernourished.” And for children, “Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.” (1) Hunger is a major problem today, and there are hundreds of organizations that exist to feed those who are hungry throughout our world. Hunger is a result of our broken and depraved world, and we need to support relief for those who are hungry by donating our time and resources, and we should always pray for them. But would you ever think of hunger as being commanded by Jesus? That’s right. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He tells His disciples, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Of course, this is a different kind of hunger than the starving state of so many countries in our world. But I wouldn’t dismiss those images of the starving just yet. Because if you’ve ever seen someone who was truly starving, they have a single, all-consuming passion for food and water. Nothing else has the slightest attraction or appeal; nothing else can even get their attention. This is the spiritual hunger and thirst about which Jesus is talking about. Let’s look at this further:
The Text: Matt. 5:6
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
The Meaning of Spiritual Hunger
So far in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount there have been three Beatitudes that have lead up to this point. The first is the recognition of spiritual poverty apart from God (Matt. 5:3), the second is the necessary result of that recognition of lowliness: godly mourning (Matt. 5:4). And then is humility in the way we interact with others (Matt. 5:5). What then, is the meaning of hungering and thirsting for righteousness? What is Jesus telling us about spiritual hunger? Jesus is talking in a way that we can relate. “Hunger” and “thirst” represent the necessities of physical life. In the physical realm, we hunger because we lack nutrients and food that our bodies know they need to survive. Food contains the vitamins and minerals necessary for our survival and functioning. So our stomach aches with hunger pains to notify us that we need food. It’s a natural desire. We hunger because we desire; we desire because we lack; we lack because we have not that which we need. It works the same way with thirst. But does Jesus say, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for food and water”? No, He says “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” So Jesus’ analogy demonstrates that just as a hunger for food and water are necessary for physical life, so hungering for righteousness is necessary for true spiritual life. Without the righteousness of Christ, you cannot be saved (2 Cor. 5:21). John MacArthur writes, “This Beatitude speaks of strong desire, of driving pursuit, of a passionate force inside the soul.” (2) Similarly, “This hungering and thirsting after righteousness is not a passing feeling or desire—it means something that keeps on until it is satisfied.” (3) Unlike Israel’s love for God in Hosea that was just coming and going: “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away” (Hosea 6:4). What do morning clouds do? They go away. What happens to dew? It goes away. It doesn’t remain. Our hungering and thirsting for righteousness will not just come and go, and the way to true happiness, the way to being truly “blessed,” is the way of spiritual hunger and thirst.
The Object of Spiritual Hunger
Jesus says that we are to hunger and thirst “for righteousness,” and righteousness is twofold here. The goal of hungering and thirsting for righteousness is both hungering and thirsting for salvation, and for sanctification. For Salvation. First of all, without a hunger/desire for salvation, you cannot be saved. The Scriptures say, “No one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Without Christ, we are in a state of spiritual depravity and dead-ness (Eph. 2:1-3). And as sinners, we are naturally bent towards sin and evil. We will always choose evil over good; sin over obedience. It’s not that we are as sinful as we could be, but every faculty of our being is corrupted by sin. So when it comes to the choices we make, we are always going to choose evil. It’s not that sinful man doesn’t do some good, but even that good he does is with wrongful intentions. In any moment of decision, your greatest desire (in that moment) will determine the decision you make. Let’s imagine that you walk in to McDonald’s for lunch. You realize that you haven’t been eating very healthy lately, so when you look at the menu, you have a desire to get a salad. But you also notice how delicious looking that McDouble is. Your desire to eat that McDouble is now greater than your desire to eat salad, so you order a McDouble. Even if you choose not to eat at all, still your strongest desire in that given moment determines the choice you make (your desire to not eat at all is stronger than choosing a McDouble or a salad). Everything that sinful, unregenerate man does in his rebellion against God, is sin. “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). Since we are so depraved, God in His grace must give us a spiritual appetite for Jesus Christ, the bread of life. No one has ever got up one morning out of bed and said, “Today, I think I am going to become a Christian!” Since man is prone to sin, God must give man spiritual hunger for the salvation that comes from the Lord. That hunger will lead to an acting on that hunger: repentance and faith, which is also by the grace of God. If you have a sincere desire to know God, you need to act on that desire; God gave it to you. For Sanctification. Not only should we hunger for salvation, but also sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which we become more and more like Jesus Christ. It’s the goal of our Christian lives. We should desire to know God more, to love God more, to be more for God. Peter writes, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Peter 3:18). Similarly, Paul says “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Do you hunger to be more for Christ?
The Result of Spiritual Hunger
Jesus says that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness. . . shall be satisfied.” God will satisfy our hunger for Him. It is that very satisfaction from God that makes us want more. Think about your favorite food. Why is it your favorite food? Most likely you enjoy that food because of the satisfaction that it brings. You continue eating it because you delight in the satisfaction that it brings. Similarly, what Jesus is saying here is that the more you are satisfied by God the more you will want to be satisfied by God. John Piper has labored more than all to bring this truth out, and he is worth quoting at length:
“The more you know him, the more you want to know him. The more you feast on his fellowship, the hungrier you are for deeper, richer communion. Satisfaction at the deepest levels breeds a holy longing for the time when we will have the very power of God to love God. . . Yes, the more you know him and love him and trust him, the more you long to know him. . . The great old catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Enjoying God is the way to glorify God, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” (4)
Are we hungering and thirsting for God? Are we being satisfied by Him or by the temporary things of this “world [which] is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17)? Let us cry out with David, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Let us continue to be satisfied by God and the things of God and let us cease from dining at the table of the world where there are only worthless scraps.
The Testing of Spiritual Hunger
1. Dissatisfaction with Self
If you are satisfied with yourself, you will not be spiritually hungry. Again, this can be worked out in two ways: with regards to salvation, and with regards to sanctification. In salvation, the man who is satisfied with himself, and his own righteousness will not see the need for God’s. The great Puritan Thomas Watson wrote, “He has most need of righteousness that least wants it.” But the hungering sinner will be dissatisfied with himself and will seek after God.
But in regards to our sanctification, and our lives as Christians—if you are hungering for God, you will always want more. No matter how many Bible studies you go through—no matter how many fine sermons you hear—no matter how many chapters of the Bible you read daily—no matter how many times you serve in the local church—no matter how often you pray . . . You will always want more and more of God and continue to cry out with Paul, “O wretched man that I am” (Rom. 7:24). It’s not that God wont’ satisfy your longing for Him, but you will always be dissatisfied with yourself in the sense that God is the only One you recognize to satisfy you—and you will always want more of Him.
Are you dissatisfied with yourself? Are you wanting more of God? Sounds like to me you are hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
2. Freedom from Dependence on External Things for Satisfaction
Think about this: A hungry man cannot be satisfied by an arrangement of lovely flowers, by great riches, beautiful music, or pleasant conversation. Anyone hungry must have what they truly need to be satisfied. We understand that—but we are fooled by sin’s deception to think that we need more and more of it to be satisfied, when it is not sin that we need—but God and His righteousness. If you’re not free from depending on other things for satisfaction, you might want to let a little of His grace in and change a few things in your heart.
3. Craving for the Word of God
The Word of God is the most basic spiritual food God provides His children. The more you hunger for God, the more you will want to devour Scripture. Do you have a craving for the Word of God? If you’re hungering and thirsting for righteousness—you will for the Word.
4. Pleasantness of the Things of God
Do you find pleasantness in the things of God—or do they turn you away? What about when He disciplines you? Does that bring satisfaction—well it should; it’s assurance that you belong to Him.
5. Making No Conditions
When our spiritual hunger and thirst for righteousness is genuine and sincere—we will make no conditions on finding it—in whatever ways God chooses to dispose it to us. If His righteousness is in the Word of God—we will go to find it there, without making excuses. We will make no excuses or conditions for fulfilling our hunger and thirst for righteousness.
In 1908-09, Sir Ernest Shackleton and three of his friends attempted to travel to the South Pole. They set off with four houses to help carry the load. Within weeks, the horses died, their food had ran out, so they tried to get back to base. Altogether, miraculously, they traveled for 127 days total. Sir Ernest recorded this story in a book called The Heart of the Antarctic, and in it he talks about how much time was spent talking about food—elaborate feasts, gourmet delights, plentiful menus. As they staggered along, suffering from hunger, not knowing whether they would survive, every waking hour was occupied with thoughts of eating.
Well, Sir Shackleton made it back—and as you could imagine, ate like never before. We can understand his obsession with food, when he didn’t have any. Are you like that with spiritual hunger? Is God all you can think about because you are so hungry for Him? Jesus tells us here about a hunger more important than hungering for food—let’s feast on God and His righteousness like we’ve never had it before—and God will keep satisfying us.
Are you hungering for God?
1. World Food Programme, Hunger: Hunger Statistics (www.wfp.org/hunger/stats).
2. John MacArthur, Matthew 1-7/ John MacArthur . (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1985), 177.
3. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: InterVarsity Press, 1959-60; Reprinted 2000), Kindle Locations 1119-1128.
4. John Piper, Five Points (Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2013), 7-8.