There are two important ways believers should view righteousness. The first is the positional righteousness imputed to us resulting in our salvation, the second is a righteous lifestyle by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the former that empowers us to do the latter, and both are beautifully connected.
Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to just tune out and find a comfortable space in life where nothing bothers us internally and we don’t have to deal with anybody else. Have you ever tried “not caring”, i.e. “Forget about justice and right living, I’ll just let things go the way they are and focus on my own comfort?” How long does that last before some internal yearning draws you back to a state of concern?
A true believer should have a desire, a hunger even, for everything to be in right standing according to God’s revealed will. Hunger and thirst means that even if we try to tune it out, run from it, or deny it, the body’s craving for sustenance will prevail. If one does not eat or drink, she dies. If this is the case, what scripture says we hunger and thirst after is essential to our nature.
Kingdom citizens (what I like to call believers in Matthew’s gospel in particular—whose thesis is “Jesus is King of the Jews”) not only desire to be made righteous, they crave it like food and drink. Righteousness in the context of this beatitude is speaking of kingdom ethics, of kingdom qualities. This is evident by the way “righteousness” is used throughout the rest of the sermon as well as by the grouping with the other seven beatitudes.
Will those who hunger after true righteousness be justified/declared righteous in terms of their salvation by Jesus Christ? Absolutely, and that is part of the promise; but this passage is promising us that we who have an inescapable, consuming desire for God’s justice and right-standing in our lives and for everyone around us are blessed, fortunate, or “deeply happy”!
This is a promise from holy scripture, but when a promise is forgotten or misunderstood, frustration and doubt can take its place. What am I to do with this righteous hunger? Is it of God or myself? It is my prayer that this examination of Jesus’ sermon will put what it means for us to “hunger and thirst” for righteousness into perspective, and in doing so we will receive the promise that we are truly blessed/happy.
3 Questions to Answer
- What does righteousness mean in the Sermon on the Mount?
- How does my righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees?
- What am I to do with my righteous hunger in the face of world problems?
1. What does Righteousness mean in the Sermon on the Mount?
Breaking Down the Text
Blessed are Those…
Blessed or “Happy”. That this word means a deep happiness should not be overlooked by religious talk of only a future “blessing”. Jesus is telling those poor and hungry that they will be happy now and should take joy because these qualities are finding their fulfillment in the Kingdom of Heaven. “Believers’ God-given happiness is not based on physical circumstances but inner joy.” Remembering this helps us from seeing the second part of the Beatitudes as only for the end times. I stress that for this verse in particular as we tackle what to do with our internal urges for justice and righteousness. Happy are those who hunger and thirst now… Let’s believe this promise as we learn more about God’s righteousness
…Who Hunger and Thirst…
“Hunger and thirst” in the Greek is a present active participle and describes an ongoing hunger and thirst. E.g. Blessed are those who are hungering and thirsting…”
Jesus is fulfilling prophecy:
[Isa 55:1 NKJV] 1 “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, Come to the waters; And you who have no money, Come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk Without money and without price.
This is the one beatitude where the quality could be replaced with Jesus himself. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after me, for they shall be filled.”
John records Jesus saying something similar on multiple occasions. Jesus himself is referred to as the one who satisfies spiritual hunger as the bread of life (Jhn 6:35), living bread from heaven (Jhn 6:51), and the giver of living water that will quench forever those who thirst (Jhn 4:14).
“?????????? dikaiosýn?, dik-ah-yos-oo’-nay; from G1342; equity (of character or act); specially (Christian) justification”
“Equity = justice according to natural law or right; specifically : freedom from bias or favoritism”
- of whatever is right or just in itself, whatever conforms to the revealed will of God, Mat 5:6, 10, 20; Jhn 16:8, 10;
- whatever has been appointed by God to be acknowledged and obeyed by man. Mat 3:15; 21:32;
- the sum total of the requirements of God, Mat 6:33;
- religious duties, Mat 6:1 (distinguished as almsgiving, man’s duty to his neighbor, Mat 6:2-4, prayer, his duty to God, Mat 6:5-15, fasting, the duty of self-control, Mat 6:16-18).
Based on its definitions and usage, I believe an accurate definition of the word righteousness in the sermon on the mount is: What is right and just according to the revealed will of God.
…For they Shall Be Filled…
Shall be filled: “satisfied” Literally “gorged,” this term was used of fattening cattle ?for market.
2. How Shall my Righteousness Exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees?
Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is quite purposeful regarding how he arranges his gospel. The book could be divided into five major teachings or sayings of Jesus, each ending with “And when Jesus had finished these things… (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1). So let’s attempt to examine “righteousness” within Jesus’ first sermon and see how Matthew answers is own question.
[Mat 5:20 NKJV] 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.
After the Beatitudes the word righteousness pops up rather quickly in this startling statement in Jesus’ opening. Let’s assess:
Is this passage talking about doing more of what the Scribes and Pharisees do in terms of quantity?
If we were to equate righteousness to time spent doing charitable deeds and religious activities this would be a tall order indeed. If this were the case, it seems strange of Jesus to leave out the exact requirements to help our righteousness exceed that of the Pharisees. For instance, if the average Pharisee prays 6 hours a day, we’d need to know that so we can pray 7. If they give offerings of 30% of their income, we’d need to know so that we can do at least 31% and our lives will have enough good deeds to tip the scale in our favor.
This is (thankfully) not what the passage is saying if we follow the above train of thought to logical conclusion. Matthew will give us a fuller answer as we proceed through the sermon. There is a reason he puts this sobering saying (remember that Matthew is writing to Jewish audience) towards the beginning of the sermon. As listeners we are thinking, how can this be, I’d better pay attention to the rest of Pastor Jesus’ sermon…
Jesus enters a series of “you have heard that it was said, but I say unto you…” statements. These are the righteous acts we should be doing:
- The law (soon to be fulfilled in Christ – 5:17) towards our fellow man—do not murder, commit adultery or lie, and love you enemy—is inward in the hidden places of the heart where only God sees (5:18:48).
- Our charitable deeds (KJV alms) are done in secret to the glory the Father (6:1-4)
- Our prayer is done in the secret place to the glory of the Father (6:5-6)
- Our fasting is done in secret to the glory of the Father (6:16-18)
This is still a tall order for righteous living… thankfully this list leads us to a comforting scripture which rests in the middle of the sermon:
[Mat 6:33 NKJV] 33 “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
His righteousness. Matthew is implying that there is another type of righteousness that could be sought other than God’s. This confirms our definition of righteousness being what is right/just according to God’s revealed will.
This central passage also helps the reader process and understand the bold saying of 5:20: unless our righteousness exceeds the Pharisees we won’t make it into the Kingdom of heaven. Here Jesus says we are to seek the Kingdom of God and his (God’s) righteousness. How will our righteousness exceed that of the most pious people of the day? It will be God’s righteousness that he has given us working through us for his glory.
Paul sums up this operation beautifully in this concise gospel presentation:
[2Co 5:21 NKJV] 21 For He made Him who knew no sin [to be] sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
We have been made the righteousness of God in Christ and are being made more Christ-like day by day (this is the will of God, your sanctification 1 Thes 4:3a). Those with the capacity to receive this righteousness and continue on in righteous works are those who possess the beatitudes. Those who do not possess the beatitudes will also do religious works, but not according to God’s righteousness. Jesus ends his sermon by comparing the two.
Two houses stand, both seemingly sound on the outside, but one has been built up fraudulently because of a bad foundation (cf. Matt 23:28), the other’s foundation was right (poor in spirit, meek, etc.), so the house was in right-standing as well. The final judgement will reveal the foundation. Both will be shaken, one will remain. My prayer is that those who don’t see the seeds of these 8 beatitudes in their lives will be shaken now instead of later, and examine their faith.
3. What am I to do with my righteous hunger in the face of world problems?
Blessed/Happy/Fortunate are those who hunger after God’s righteousness.
Hopeless/Angry/Deceived are those who seek after righteousness apart from God.
Jesus died for all people, all genders, all social status’, all ethnicities. Everyone was created in God’s image and likeness, and all are now deficient due to sin. Hence there is a natural and often unconscious desire to somehow will the void, to one again become whole or “perfect”. Those without the acknowledgement of their need for our savior and king Jesus will continue in vain to passionately do what is right or just in their own eyes. This often manifests itself in idolatry, boasting, racism, wrath, bigotry, hatred, speaking evil of dignitaries, sexism, and slavery; but what truly drives these things are a strong delusional form of self-righteousness in the name of progressive good apart from the revealed will of God. Or to phrase it another way, everyone is doing what they think is right, but righteousness apart from God’s will is enmity against God (Rom 8:7).
Our frustration that things aren’t “right” or “just” according to God’s revealed will should provoke us to lead those who are unrighteous to the source of all that is right: Jesus the Christ. He is the living water; he is the drink offering “poured out” for the sins of the world. This is why “the second mile” and “love your enemies” are included in Jesus’ sermon. What better time to let our light shine and salt season than in the midst of the present distress?
When we do our righteous deeds in secret we are doing it to glorify God. When God is glorified, his salvation is glorified and visible. When we do our righteous deeds to be seen of men or go about to establish our own practices of what is right and just apart from God’s revealed will, we cover the light of salvation, or as Matthew says, we in a sense “put our lamp under a bushel”. The same way the Son sought to glorify the Father in everything he did, the light in us will seek to glorify Christ in everything we do. This is a test of our righteous living and deeds: Do they glorify Christ?
If it does, we are to be happy! Yes, this is a life of putting Christ and others first, but Jesus’ point is that this type of lifestyle is the only kind that will bring satisfaction.
The coming of the King involves a delay in judgement of the wicked (Matt 13:36-42, 47-50), and this can lead to frustration as we groan with all of creation (Rom 8:22-23) for redemption. It’s understandable to be grieved and frustrated. At the center of the Sermon on the Mount is the topic of secret prayer and the Lord’s prayer.
It will be nearly impossible to keep a soft heart and a clear mind without the habitual practice of secret prayer during this season of trials. Open answers are the results of secret prayer; this is scripture. Furthermore, Paul urges Timothy to instruct the church that we are to pray for our government leaders (1 Tim 2:1-2), to those who God has given to bear the sword (Rom 13:4). As a church, let us continue praying that the righteousness of God would continue to be revealed in us and in our nation. Happy and blessed are we, but should we neglect our secret prayer time, it’s possible to lose perspective and our hunger and thirst will result in frustration instead of fulfillment. Let us now enter into a time of prayer:
 Merriam Webster
 Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words
 ????????, in Greek originally a term reserved for the gods, in Koine can hardly be distinguished any longer from ???????? and means “happy” in the fullest sense of the word. But the translation “happy” sounds somewhat banal, and it obscures the eschatological character of the promises in the second clauses. The traditional interpretation as “blessed” is not only a “religious” term that is hardly in use any longer; it also evokes in a much too unilinear way associations with the beyond: in German “the blessed” is a common designation of the dead. However, these beatitudes are not designed to give comfort by making promises about the next life; they are an authoritative language act that pronounces people happy in the here and now.54 In short, there is no ideal translation in German [or English]. – Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1–7: A Commentary on Matthew 1–7, ed. Helmut Koester, Rev. ed., Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 191.
 Robert James Utley, The First Christian Primer: Matthew, vol. Volume 9, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2000), 36.
 Ibid, 37.