“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is then the pivotal beatitude (Matt. 5:6). If disciples know their sin and weakness, they will also ask God to meet their need for righteousness.
“Hunger and thirst” is a metaphor that doesn’t resonate today as it did in Jesus’ day, when food and water were scarce and people were often hungry and thirsty. In our culture, food and water are plentiful, so we miss the urgency Jesus intended. Hungry, thirsty people work hard, urgently, to gain food. To hunger and thirst for righteousness, then, means we should urgently pursue righteousness.
Righteousness has several senses in Scripture. Paul emphasized the legal righteousness that we receive through the atoning work of Christ. That is certainly present in Matthew. He calls Jesus a “ransom for many” (20:28) and he describes the atonement itself (27:38–46). But in Matthew 5, Jesus primarily describes the personal righteousness of disciples, who put aside murder, anger, and adultery. They give to oppressors and love their enemies (vv. 22–48). Thirsty disciples also pursue the mercy, purity, and peacemaking of the next few beatitudes (vv. 7–9).
The language of hunger and thirst is well known in Scripture. God says, “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! . . . You will delight in the richest of fare” (Isa. 55:1–2). Jesus offers, “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
To hunger for righteousness is to yearn for God’s rule in our lives (Matt. 6:33). It is to have a thirst for God’s Word and for the company of the godly. In Scripture, righteousness has several aspects. First, there is the personal righteousness, which we just stressed. This hunger leads us to uproot our sin by the power of the Holy Spirit and become more like Jesus. This is sanctification.