"Hungry for Holiness"
(Delivered Sunday, July 4, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we return to our study of that portion of the Sermon on The Mount known as The Beatitudes. And we come to the fourth of the beatitudes - the one that is in many ways the key to all the others. It presents to us one of the shortest and tidiest statements of the gospel you'll find anywhere in the Bible. It contains only ten words in the Greek; but it gives us the greatest affirmation of the Good News that any sinner could hear.
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Before we look at it, let's just take a moment to review what we've learned so far. We've been saying that The Beatitudes - taken as a whole - gives us a portrait of a disciple of Jesus Christ. It shows us the pathway to true blessedness (or true happiness in God's favor); because it shows us the kind of person we must be in order to become one of Jesus' followers. And we've discovered that the focus of the first three of the beatitudes has been to show us that we must begin with a sense of our deep need for God's grace.
Jesus first told us, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"; and there, we were taught that the first step is to recognize that we stand before God as spiritual paupers - that, in and of ourselves, we have nothing to offer God that would earn His favor; that we are, in fact, utterly bankrupt before Him. Recognizing this is the first step toward true blessedness before God.
Then, Jesus taught us, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted"; and there, we were taught that we must have a sense of deep sorrow and remorse over the sin in our lives that caused us to stand in such bankruptcy before God in the first place. He teaches us that it's not enough to know that we are "poor in spirit" before a holy God, but that we must also feel sincerely bad about our sinfulness before such a God - that we must feel the pain He feels over our sin, and grieve over it as He does.
And then, Jesus told us, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"; and in this third beatitude, we were told the frame of mind that should characterize us as a result of coming to terms with the first two. If we truly realize that we stand before a holy God in a state of absolute abject poverty of spirit, and if - admitting the truth of that poverty - we are also genuinely broken-hearted over our own sin and the dishonor we have caused to God because of the things we have done, then we will approach Him in a certain frame of mind. We will not come to Him boldly and arrogantly, as if we were worthy of His favor; but meekly and humbly, as people who are dependent only upon His mercy and grace. We will - as we have said - become "tamed" in our spirits before Him.
Those first three beatitudes together expressed the depth of our need for God's grace. If I can put it this way, they revealed to us the "bad news" that we need to hear before we can hear the "Good News" of the gospel. In fact, I'll stick my neck out and say that no one can ever be a true follower of Jesus Christ without first allowing themselves to be made - to some degree - the kind of person described in those first three beatitudes.
And that leads us to the fourth. It's the great affirmation that the first three were building us up to. It's the one in which we hear the very same "Good News" that the bad news was preparing us for. If you are the kind of person that is described in those first three beatitudes, then you'll realize that the one thing you need more than anything else before such a holy God - the one thing that you know that you do not have in and of yourself, but want above all else - is righteousness. It's the one thing that you were made by such a holy God to be characterized by; and yet it's the one thing that you cannot have in any other way than by His giving it to you as a free gift. It's the thing that you will most long for; the thing that you will crave from Him; the thing that you cannot live without. It's the thing, in fact, that you will hunger and thirst after from the very depths of your being.
And it's then that Jesus gives us the greatest and most remarkable promise that any poverty-stricken, broken-hearted, meek and humble sinner could ever hear: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
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Have you ever been really "hungry" and "thirsty" in a physical sense? (I mean, of course, far more so than you probably are right now, sitting here in church.) I have to admit that I haven't had that experience to any great degree. I've had some experiences of self-imposed hunger; and I've had times when I've been hungry enough to be a little dizzy and woozy. And there have been lots of occasions when I've worked or played outside, or walked in the hot sun, and became quite thirsty; and dry enough to almost feel the cool water going down into my body and refreshing it. But I can't say that I've experienced really painful hunger and really intense thirst - certainly not as some people in some very desperate parts of the world are experiencing it right now.
My sense is that physical hunger and thirst was a much more common experience in the times and culture of King David than it is in ours. But he also knew of an even greater hunger and thirst during a time when he was on the run, and was far away from the house of God in Jerusalem. He wrote about it in Psalm 63;
O GOD, You are my God;
The same sort of deep longing for God is expressed in Psalm 42. We often sing a chorus based on these words; but as I read them to you, ask yourself if you've ever looked forward to coming to church and to meet with God with this same kind of intens craving! The sons of Korah wrote;
As the deer pants for the water brooks,
This isn't describing a "take it or leave it" kind of attitude. Rather, it's describing a "cannot live without it; and must have it no matter what it costs" kind of longing! And it's a craving even greater than the one we would feel for food and water; because those cravings are only concerned with the need of our bodies, but this craving concerns the deepest and most profound need of our souls. It's a craving for a spiritual fulfillment that can only come through a relationship with the One who made us for Himself. It's an expression of what Augustine felt when he prayed his famous prayer: "Thou has made us for Thyself, O God, and the heart of man is restless until it finds rest in Thee."
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This is the kind of longing that Jesus is describing in this fourth beatitude. Look at it a little closer. Do you see that it has two parts? The first part affirms the thing longed for; and it points us back to the first three beatitudes that highlighted the depth of our need. It sums up that thing we lack before God - and desperately need - all in one word: "righteousness". And the second half promises to us the complete satisfaction of that need - that those who are brought to this intense state of hungering and thirsting after righteousness will be filled.
And do you know something else? Just as the first half of this beatitude pointed us backward to the first three beatitudes, the second half of that fourth beatitude points us ahead to the remaining four. All of those last four beatitudes are descriptions of the kind of person who has been brought into a state of righteousness by God and who now lives a completely different kind of life in God's grace. Such a person is now "merciful"; such a person is now "pure in heart"; such a person is now a "peacemaker"; and such a person is now - and especially notice this one! - "persecuted" for the sake of "righteousness".
So, can you see how crucial this one beatitude is? It's the one that stands as a bridge between the other two groups of beatitudes. The first three show us our need for God's grace; and the last four show us the life lived in response to God's grace. And joining them together is this one beatitude that shows us how we are granted the grace of God that we so desperately need: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
Isn't this truly the greatest news sinners could ever hear? No wonder those who hunger and thirst in this way are "blessed"!
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Now, Jesus is telling us here that it's an essential characteristic of a disciple of His that he or she come to Him "hungry" and "thirsty". Specifically, He says they must hunger and thirst after righteousness. This leads us to an important first question:
1. WHAT SORT OF 'RIGHTEOUSNESS' IS IT THAT WE ARE TO HUNGER AND THIRST AFTER?
The Greek word being used (dikaiosunã) is one of the most important words in all of the New Testament. It's the word that's normally translated "justice" or "justification"; or, as it is here, "righteousness". It's the word that gives us the great theme of many of Paul's letters - especially his letter to the Romans, in which he explains how a man or woman becomes "justified" before God by faith.
There are three main aspects to this word "righteousness"; and I believe that, to some degree, all three are being touched on in this beatitude. One aspect is what we might call the "legal" aspect of righteousness. It's focus is on an act of God's grace, whereby He looks down upon a guilty sinner and declares him or her to be "righteous" in His sight. That's what is meant by the Bible's great doctrine of "justification by faith"; that is, God's declaration that a guilty sinner who believes on Jesus is now "righteous" in His sight.
This is the greatest need that anyone could ever have - the need to be declared "righteous" in God's sight. It's a need that's built into us by our Creator. Sadly, many people have sought this "righteousness" before God in ways that cannot lead them to it. They have sought to earn it from God as many of the Jewish people had; that is, through a devotion to good works or by a strict conformity to the letter of His commandments. But the Bible tells us that such a declaration from God is achieved only through faith in Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote;
What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at the stumbling stone. As it is written:
So, there's one aspect of this word "righteousness" - the "legal" aspect. Another aspect is one that we might call the "moral" aspect. It's focus is on the way we live. It's the righteousness that's a pattern of life that is lived in conformity to God's expressed will. You could accurately call it the practical expression of the "legal" righteousness that comes from God's gracious justification of a sinner.
We can get a good understanding of this "moral" righteousness from some of the things that Jesus says later on in His Sermon on The Mount. In Matthew 5:10, for example - in the eighth beatitude - He says, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake . . ."; and there, He's talking about a kind of "righteousness" that other people can see. The evil people of this world can't persecute us for a legal standing before God; because that's something that only God sees. But if, after having been declared "righteous" in His sight by faith, we then stand up and live the kind of righteous life that follows from that declaration, then the evil people of this world will hate us and persecute us for what they can see. As Paul wrote, "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Tim. 3:12).
Jesus also spoke of this "moral" aspect of righteousness in Matthew 5:20; "For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven." This, of course, is speaking of a kind of "righteousness" that is active and can be seen - a pattern of life in conformity with God's will. Jesus goes on to show (in verses 21-48) that this is a "righteousness" that's impossible to achieve fully in practice. But it is, nevertheless, the kind of righteousness for which God has saved us. God has graciously granted us "legal" righteousness through faith in Christ, so that we should then seek after "moral" righteousness by the power of Christ. Paul wrote, "For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . ." (Titus 2:11-12).
So first, we should hunger and thirst after "legal" righteousness, and second after "moral" righteousness. And there's a third aspect to "righteousness" that we should hunger and thirst after; and I believe it should be mentioned third, because it can't truly be "righteousness" unless it follows on the heels of the other two. It's an aspect that we might call "social" righteousness. It's a righteousness that has its focus on other people - that is, upon loving our neighbor as ourselves, and upon doing unto others as we would have done unto us. It is concerned with seeking to see oppressed people set at liberty, or with the promotion of civil rights, the pursuit of justice in our laws, compassion toward the down-trodden, and integrity in our business practices.
I believe that this "social" righteousness is what the Bible is talking about in Micah 6:8: "He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Without question, a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ will look upon this dark world of cruelty and injustice, and will "hunger" and "thirst" after "social" righteousness for all. But we should stress again that it must be an outflow of the others - that is, a "legal" standing of righteousness before God, and a "moral" pursuit of righteousness in one's own life. It would be hypocritical to "hunger" and "thirst" after "social" righteousness, without having a greater hungering and thirsting after the justification by God's grace that leads to righteousness in our own lives first.
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Now, stop and think about all the other things that the people of this world hunger and thirst after. They long for such things as power over others, the possession of material things and riches, influence, attention, admiration, the freedom to gratify their sinful lusts, and - of course - revenge. These are the sorts of things that people of this world sinfully "hunger" and "thirst" after. But they don't hunger and thirst after "righteousness". And when you think about it, it was the hunger after something other than righteousness - that hunger after the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil - that brought about the fall of all humanity in the first place.
But then even we, who name the name of Christ, hunger after lessor things without having "righteousness" as our first longing. We can hunger after good things like "spiritual maturity", or "happiness", or "spiritual power", or "effectiveness in ministry", or "a deep and meaningful spiritual experience", or "a greater knowledge of God's word", or even after "a deeper consciousness of the person of God" - and yet never have genuine "righteousness" as the thing we "hunger" and "thirst" after most of all.
In this beatitude, Jesus is letting us know that real blessedness before God doesn't come through a pursuit of these other things. Instead, He's letting us know that the pathway to blessedness before God comes through being consumed with an earnest longing and desire for righteousness. Blessedness comes through seeing righteousness as the thing that we were made for, but do not yet have realized in us as God desires it to be. And blessedness comes through longing for such righteousness and chasing after it with all our being, as that thing that we cannot live without.
Do you hunger and thirst after righteousness? If you say, "No; and I don't care to either"; then you're clearly on the wrong side of this beatitude. You haven't passed through the first three beatitudes yet. If you say, "No; because I've already fully achieved it"; then we've still got a problem. But if you say, "I do desire righteousness; but I admit that I don't desire it enough yet. I now realize that I don't hunger and thirst after it as I should"; then be encouraged. Realizing that you're not yet where you should be, and wanting to grow closer to that place you should be - or even wanting to "want" to - indicates the first rumblings of real hunger in the soul.
May God keep at us until we're "hungry" and "thirsty" for nothing less than righteousness! May the Holy Spirit show us increasingly how short of righteousness we are in our lives, and how much of a blessing it is to become more and more like Jesus. And may He build that hunger and thirst into us so much that we cannot rest, but must pursue it. May we pray like the old Scotsman once cried out to God in prayer, "O God, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be!"
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So, Jesus tells us that we're to come to Him hungering and thirsting after this thing called righteousness. This is the true pathway to blessing - to hunger and thirst after it. This leads us to another question . . .
2. WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO 'HUNGER' AND 'THIRST' AFTER SUCH RIGHTEOUSNESS?
Let me just suggest a few thoughts. First - as should be obvious - you can't hunger and thirst after something that you're already in full possession of. Even if I sit down at a huge meal that has been set before me; before I eat it and as I'm picking up my silverware, I may still be able to say, "Man, am I ever hungry!" And that's because, even though it's sitting there in front of me, I haven't really gotten it into myself yet. I may "have" it; but I haven't gotten a fully satisfying possession of it until I eat it. I never pat my belly immediately after I've eaten a huge meal and say, "Boy am I hungry".
This underscores the idea that "hunger" and "thirst" are very picturesque ways of describing a desire and longing for something that I do not yet satisfyingly possess. In fact, it would be a way of describing an intense and almost painful kind of desire and longing to have that full possession of it. It's interesting that Jesus didn't just say, "hunger after righteousness". It was as if He wanted to intensify the desire in our understanding by pointing at the strongest sort of physical kind of desire we can experience - both "hungering" and "thirsting" after righteousness. When you're hungry and thirsty in the way that Jesus is describing, you can think of nothing else. It becomes a singular focus to have your hunger satisfied and your thirst quenched. It's as if the pursuit of righteousness is to be an all-consuming passion in our lives.
There are two points of grammar that help us understand what Jesus means in an even deeper way. First, the form of the Greek verb used for "hungering" and "thirsting" is the present tense. This tense of the verb describes a continuous, ongoing kind of action. In other words, it's a hungering and thirsting that is to characterize our lives before Him all of the time. Never do we come to a point in our lives when we feel contented that we've finally achieved "righteousness"; because that wont happen to us until we're in heaven. The pursuit of righteousness is to be a life-long pursuit for a disciple - so long as we're in our bodies and on this earth - ever seeking to grow to live more and more like Jesus.
And another point of grammar is in the form of the noun "righteousness"1. Ordinarily, if you want something to satisfy your hunger, you would speak of it in what would be called a "partitive" way. For example, if I came to your home for dinner, and you placed a hot apple pie on the table (I'll bet that this illustration is making you want me to hurry up and finish my sermon!); the way I would properly ask for a helping would be to say, "May I have some of that apple pie, please?" I would ask for a "part" of it; which illustrates the idea behind a "partitive" noun. It would be very rude of me to say, "May I please have that apple pie?" - as if I were asking for the whole thing (although, just between you and me, that's what I would really want).
But when Jesus says that we're to "hunger and thirst for righteousness", He doesn't use the "partitive" form of the noun. He doesn't say that we are to "hunger and thirst" for merely "some" righteousness. He uses the form of the noun that indicates we are to hunger and thirst for the whole thing! All of it! Nothing less than complete righteousness before God! Jesus said, "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (v. 48). I believe Jesus set those words before us as the standard of righteousness - not according to the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 21), but according to the righteousness of our heavenly Father Himself. We're not supposed to be satisfied with just a "little righteousness". Our Father is fully righteous; and we are to hunger and thirst after full righteousness as well.
Now that certainly shows how far short our "hungering" and "thirsting" is, doesn't it? But I praise God that Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the righteous . . ." We'd never be blessed, if that were the case. How grateful we should be that Jesus said, "Blessed are those" - not who have achieved righteousness - but "who hunger and thirst for righteousness"!
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This leads us, finally, to consider . . .
3. WHAT PROMISE OF 'BLESSING' DOES JESUS GIVE TO THOSE WHO HUNGER AND THIRST AFTER RIGHTEOUSNESS?
In a word, it's "satisfaction"! If they desire righteousness - that righteousness without which they cannot live, but unto which they are incapable of attaining - He promises that they will be "filled". I found that the word Jesus uses for "filled" (xortazõ) occurs 15 times in the New Testament. And in all but two of those times (this passage, and the parallel to it in Luke 6:21), it refers to eating food until one is full. And so, metaphorically, the word here describes a state of spiritual satisfaction for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Jesus promises to give them the desire of their heart - even to the point of filling them to fullness.
Notice that it is not a satisfaction that they achieve for themselves or earn through their own efforts, but one that is given to them free of charge. This verb "filled" is in a passive voice; and this means that, with reference to the filling of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, it is something that is done for them by another.
How hopeless we'd be if it were up to ourselves to satisfy our own craving for righteousness! After all, we're the one's who got ourselves into the desperate need for righteousness in the first place! But how we should praise God that He Himself satisfies that craving in us. I love the invitation that God gives to all of us in Isaiah 55;
"Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
It's as if God says, "Come to the banquet of righteousness! Eat it all! I give it to you free of charge! And don't come to the table with anything but an appetite!"
And how does this satisfaction of our hunger and thirst - this fullness of righteousness as a gift of God's free and unmerited grace - come to be ours? Through Jesus! Jesus Himself said, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst" (John 6:35).
Do you hunger after righteousness? Then go to Jesus. He spoke of Himself as "food" in order to describe a deep relationship of trust in Him, through identifying ourselves with His death on the cross and with the shedding of His blood. He said, "Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me" (John 6:54).
And do you thirst after righteousness? Then go to Jesus. He cried out one day and said, "If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water" (John 7:37-38). The woman at the well gave Him a cup of water to drink; but He told her, "Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into eternal life" (John 4:13-14).
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This speaks of the full satisfaction of our hunger and thirst for righteousness that we find in Christ. But I have to warn you; it's a strange kind of satisfaction, because it leaves you hungering and thirsting for more.
The apostle Paul found that this was so. He hungered and thirsted for righteousness greatly; and for a long time, he pursued the satisfaction of that hunger through his own efforts. But his efforts at self-satisfaction ended when he came to Christ. He wrote to the Philippian believers and said,
But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:7-11).
I'd say Paul had that hunger and thirst satisfied in Christ, wouldn't you? But then, he goes on after that to say,
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfect; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (vv. 12-14).
There you have it! Paul's hunger and thirst for righteousness became finally and fully satisfied in Christ. And yet, he never, ever stopped hungering and thirsting for more; and wouldn't stop until he had fully laid hold of that for which Christ had laid hold of him.
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Let me close by asking you; does this kind of hunger and thirst characterize you? Do you long for righteousness - crave it with all your being? Then how willing are you to accept it on Jesus' terms?
If a man is starving and dying of thirst, he will accept that food and water on any terms that are presented to him. And likewise, if you and I are truly hungering and thirsting for righteousness, we will accept satisfaction on any terms that Jesus lays down. He offers it to us fully and free of charge. But if He says, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:11), then if we truly want righteousness we'll repent of the sins that we cling to and leave them behind. If He says, "Do not love the world or the things of the world" (1 John 2:13), then if we truly want righteousness we'll sever the ties that hold our hearts in bondage to this world. If He says, "Deny yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow Me" (Luke 9:23), then if we truly hunger and thirst for righteousness we will take up our cross, die to self, and follow wherever He leads.
May we truly hunger and thirst for righteousness. And being filled by Christ Himself, may we hunger and thirst for more! This is the pathway to real blessedness!
1See James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on The Mount (Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 1972), pp. 45-46.
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