HUNGER AND THIRST AFTER RIGHTEOUSNESS
T. PIERCE BROWN
Not being a Bible scholar has its drawbacks, but those of us who are not scholars can still be students. As I read Matthew 5:6 in the original, I was struck by two things that seemed especially interesting. If I were a scholar, I would probably be able to comment properly on both of them. Being only a student, I have only a partial explanation, and trust that those who know more will add to this.
The text says, “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” I have access to no commentary that points out two significant points, or refers to another point that may or may not be significant. The first point is that the hungering and thirsting are present active participles. This means that the blessedness is only promised to those who continue to hunger and thirst after righteousness. In the natural realm, if a person ceases to hunger and thirst, he will not only not be filled, he will probably die very soon. It is no less true in the spiritual realm. When I preach about the matter, I point out such things as what this hunger and thirst involves, how it is evidenced, how it may be developed, how it may be lost, and the need for continuing to hunger and thirst. These are all worthwhile considerations for an article as well as for a sermon. However, this article proposes to deal with another aspect of the verse I have never seen or heard mentioned.
In the original text we find “the righteousness.” The fact that it has “the righteousness” suggests that he is not talking about a person trying to become righteous by doing righteous acts, even though it is very important for one to do righteous acts. First John 3:7 says, “Little children, let no man lead you astray: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous.” He does not mean that a sinner becomes righteous, or gets a right standing before God by doing righteousness. He is here talking to those who are children of God. A person who is already a child of God, but who does not continue to do righteous acts becomes unrighteous, or loses his righteous standing before God.
However, Paul makes it abundantly clear that it is “not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). An alien sinner may do all the righteous acts of which one may dream and still be lost. So, when Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are hungering and thirsting after the righteousness,” he is no doubt speaking about what Paul calls “God’s righteousness.” He says essentially the same thing in Matthew 6:33, “But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Almost every gospel preacher I have heard who has commented on this has quoted in that connection, Psalm 119:172, “For all thy commandments are righteousness.” The idea they seemed to have is, “Blessed are those who try to keep all the commandments of God.” No doubt this is true, and even if that is not what Jesus meant, it is certainly not “unsound doctrine.”
But we can be reasonably certain that is not what Jesus had in mind in either of those passages in Matthew. In Romans 10:3, he says, “For being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God.” It might be said that they were hungering and thirsting after righteousness, for they were going about to establish it (their own), but they were not hungering and thirsting after “the righteousness” of God. When Paul says they were ignorant of God’s righteousness, it should be evident that he is not speaking of the righteous quality of God. They knew of that. He is speaking of the righteousness that is imputed to us as a result of God’s grace when we accept that grace on the terms by which it is offered. Those terms are what we commonly call “the plan of salvation.” At least most preachers of the gospel in past years called it that. Now we have a group who ridicule the plan, and say it is all achieved by grace alone. It is achieved by grace, and not by any work of righteousness that we have done, but it has always been true that all that mankind ever had by God’s grace had to be accepted by an obedient faith, or on His terms, never by grace alone.
The point being emphasized in this article is that Jesus does not mean that a person is blessed just because he seeks to be righteous or have a righteous standing before God by doing good deeds, or even trying to do all the commandments of God, as Paul did before his conversion. He apparently means that a person is blessed who seeks “the righteousness” which God makes possible as one surrenders to His will in faithful obedience to the gospel.
Paul touches this idea in 1 Corinthians15:14when he says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not found vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” He knew he was saved by grace, and all that he was, had and did was by grace. This caused him to labor more abundantly than they all, not to get a righteous standing before God, but because he had that righteous standing by God’s grace. Let us continue to hunger and thirst after the righteousness that comes by accepting God’s grace on his terms, and not try to earn a righteous standing by the merit of our good works.