Most of us have not experienced life-threatening hunger and thirst. So, we tend to think of hunger in terms of missing a meal, and thirst as not having something to drink on a hot day. But we all understand what it means to be hungry and thirsty to one degree or another. There are times where we crave a certain food—we hunger for it—or we desire our thirst to be quenched, and we thirst after our favourite beverage to satisfy us.
Jesus spoke of hunger and thirst to His disciples and the large crowd who had gathered around Him as He preached on the mountain, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied" (Matthew 5:6). This hunger and thirst Jesus speaks about are much more intense than simply missing a meal. It is a deep, passionate desire in our souls; it is a spiritual hunger and thirst, not for our own righteousness (which is never true righteousness according to God’s law) but for the righteousness of God.
Hunger and thirst represent what is needed for physical life. Food and water are essential for life. Jesus' analogy shows us that righteousness is required for spiritual life just as food and water are required for physical life. Righteousness is not just one of many options for spiritual life. It is the only option. In other words, it is essential for spiritual life.
The context in which we find this verse, Jesus is teaching the difference between life with Christ and life without Christ. He shows us the difference between living for ourselves and living for the glory of God. And if you read all eight of the beatitudes, you will notice that they all tell us what we are if we are in Christ. Sometimes they are read or taught as “you need to be this.” But what Jesus is saying to His disciples is, “If you’re in my kingdom, this is what you are, and I want to tell you what a blessed life it is.”
It is important to remember this; otherwise we will see “hungering and thirsting after righteousness” merely as a moral guide, and somehow or another think we will achieve the level of righteousness Jesus refers to on our own strength. But that falls far short of the mark as soon as we come to verse 20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees trusted in a self-righteousness, which was their own ability to keep the law; we are to seek God's righteousness rather than trying to be righteous in and of ourselves. Paul explains this concept to the Philippians in Philippians 3:7,
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."
Both the hunger and thirst Jesus speaks about are intense. The Psalmist describes it this way: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalms 42:1-2).
This hunger and thirst for righteousness is proof or evidence that we are in the kingdom of God. If we have no hunger and thirst for righteousness, we must seriously question whether we are really in the kingdom at all.
Furthermore, when we know what God’s Word says and deliberately disobey it because God will forgive us anyway, we are doing the opposite of hungering and thirsting after righteousness. If this is the case, we can have no confidence that we are in Christ at all. Believing that those who depend solely on the righteousness of Christ to be their own righteousness are blessed should cause us to ask the question, “What is the right thing to do?” And not only that, but we will desire to, then, go and do it.
Jesus says that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. This is a wonderful promise that as we trust in Christ, we are fulfilled. We are happy when we have no confidence in our own flesh but full confidence and satisfaction in His righteousness. It is a wonderful paradox. The more we hunger and thirst for God's righteousness, we will be satisfied. Just like we may eat our favourite meal until we are completely satisfied, yet our taste for it continues or increases. It is the satisfaction that makes us desire more. We want to eat more of our favourite meal precisely because it is so satisfying. As we genuinely hunger and thirst for God's righteousness, we will find it so satisfying that we continually desire more and more. May God grant you a hunger and thirst for Him, finding your satisfaction in His righteousness alone.