Today, when we say that someone is hungry, we probably mean that someone is having to wait a few minutes longer than normal for lunch. For most of us, that’s the worst sort of hunger we experience on a regular basis. But when the Bible talks about being hungry, it means something very different. For the original audience, food instability was normal, and starvation was a true threat. Hunger meant real desperation. And it is this sort of hunger that we must have in mind when we read this statement in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)
As Jesus describes the truly happy person (who is necessarily a saved person), He describes them as hungering and thirsting for righteousness. And this is not simply the American idea of being peckish. This is starvation. This is desperation.
The blessed person is not desperate for prosperity. They are not desperate for healing. They are not desperate for success. They’re not desperate to have God come and tweak their lives a little bit to make them easier. There is a desperation in their lives, but it has nothing to do with those temporal matters. What they’re desperate about, what they’re hungry and thirsty for, is far beyond anything this world can provide.
The blessed person wants righteousness as much as a starving man who fears death wants food and a thirsty man who fears death wants water.
The Greek word translated “hunger” is peinōntes, which means to hunger, to suffer want, or to be in need. And the word translated “thirst” is dipsaō. Jesus used this word when He said, “I thirst,” on the cross. Together, these are two of the strongest impulses in the natural realm: the need for food and the need for water. And in this Beatitude they are both present-tense participles, indicating that this is a continual state; the blessed person is constantly hungering and thirsting for righteousness.
When people reach this point of desperation, I believe that this is when they become genuine Christians. A lot of people come and go in the church, making momentary commitments to Christ. They come for a while, show some minor responses to truth, and then disappear. And I believe the real issue is that these people aren’t desperate enough.
Oh, they may be desperate about a marriage problem. They may be desperate about their finances. They may be desperate about a health diagnosis. But these problems alone will never succeed in making a person cling faithfully to Christ. A person must be passionate about something much more fundamental; they must be driven by the deeply felt knowledge of their own spiritual bankruptcy.
The truly blessed person is not dispassionate or unambitious. They are characterized by a zealous pursuit of righteousness — and that’s because righteousness is to the kingdom citizen what food and water are to the natural person. That’s why the parallel is so good. Food and water are necessities, not luxuries. And the same is true of righteousness.
It’s impossible to live in this world without food and water. And it’s impossible to live in God’s kingdom without righteousness. Our physical life depends on food and water; our spiritual life depends on righteousness. And the people who come into God’s kingdom come because they feel the urgency of that need.
The unsaved person whose heart is moved, who hears and understands the message of the gospel, has awakened in him by the work of the Spirit of God an immense compulsion toward righteousness that nothing else can satisfy. In the heart of the non-believer, there is a hunger for sin. But God in His mighty power reaches into that heart at the point of conversion and takes out that hunger for sin and replaces it with a hunger for righteousness. And the person stops seeking that which is not bread and seeks the true bread of life.
We live in a world of hungry and thirsty people driven in their pursuit of things that they think will satisfy them. But the blessed person is blessed because he knows where to look for the thing that will actually satisfy him.
So ask yourself this question: What do I really hunger for? Because the answer to that question reveals whether or not you are blessed. What is the driving ambition of your life? What is the compelling desire of your heart? What is it that you long for most deeply?
J.N. Darby once wrote, “To be hungry is not enough; I must be really starving to know what is in [God’s] heart towards me. When the prodigal son was hungry he went to feed upon husks, but when he was starving, he turned to his father” (quoted in Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s Studies in the Sermon on the Mount).
To be blessed is to be desperate enough to reach out to the Lord. And when you do, you discover that He is indeed the God of Psalm 107:
Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
For He has satisfied the thirsty soul,
And the hungry soul He has filled with what is good. (verses 8-9)
Next time, we will look more at how this hunger isn’t only crucial to the moment God saves us, but also for the ongoing, everyday life of believers.
This blog post is based on Dr. MacArthur’s sermon “The Only Way to Happiness: Thirst for Holiness,” originally preached in 1998.
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