Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

Righteousness is one of the most significant ideas in the Bible. As such it has been complicated through over-thinking and under-pursuing. I am talking about theological speculation. I could fill these lines with summaries and analyses of what everyone has written on the subject, but that wouldn’t help me to recognise righteousness more clearly let alone stir me to pursue it. One of the imbalances has come about from the very worthy discussion about our relationship with God, commonly referred to as salvation (justification, regeneration). I will always be thankful for the fact that a German Augustinian priest named Martin Luther was scared witless during a severe electrical storm in July 1509.[1] It was the beginning of a long journey to discover how a person could be assured of his salvation. That journey changed the shape of the church forever when he read Paul’s quote from a prophecy of Habbakuk in the Letter to the Romans: “the righteous shall live by their faith.”[2]  Those of us whose Christian journey has been shaped in part by the evangelical movement will be pressured to think that all references to righteousness must be connected to the work of Jesus that brings the opportunity for our salvation.

I want to urge us to see righteousness in its broadest sense – inclusive of salvation but not restricted to it. I think a basic understanding comes directly from the English word itself. Righteousness exists when things are right, and unrighteousness, when things are wrong. For followers of Jesus, right and wrong are defined by God – his nature, his purposes, his deeds and his desires. In the Bible, I think righteousness and holiness are almost interchangeable. My reading of the New Testament makes it hard for me to distinguish between the two – especially in the practical sense. I can’t see how someone can be righteous and unholy or holy but unrighteous. My longstanding thesis that “Jesus is our hermeneutic” reminds me that he was called “the righteous one.”[3] Jesus is referred to constantly as the “Righteous one” through the preaching of the apostles recorded in Acts.[4] John makes it quite clear: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.[5]

So I need to ask a simple question. Which day and which particular set of actions demonstrate Jesus as being righteous. The answer can only be – all his actions every day. Not just his actions but his desires, his thoughts, his feelings, his attitudes and his relationships. He was the One who lived entirely as a righteous Son of God. And this is my point. If I asked what it was that defined Jesus as being righteous, what might the answer be? I think the righteousness modelled by Jesus is “indiscriminate redemptive love.” It is the only definition that covers all the different things that Jesus said, did and taught. Whenever I hold attitudes or carry out actions other than those that display indiscriminate redemptive love I am being unrighteous. When I tolerate or show indifference to those things, I will not qualify for the blessing Jesus talked about here in Matthew 5.

Jesus had a definite attitude to the unrighteousness he witnessed, especially religious unrighteousness, and it was not just anger and frustration. It was a hunger and a thirst for God’s people to see the difference between sin and righteousness. It’s not only Satan who dresses up as an angel of light. The sin he promotes in a thousand different “respectable looking” forms will often be mistaken for righteousness. Every day of the three years of Jesus’ ministry he WAS the revelation of genuine righteousness, yet he was accused of being the devil and/or being in league with the devil. He was criticised, challenged and finally crucified by those who defined righteousness differently. Jesus’ life and ministry exposed the true nature of their wickedness. If you read through any chapter of the gospels, you will see Jesus hungering and thirsting after righteousness. You will see him teaching about righteousness, imparting righteousness and responding with redemptive love. This love was driven by his desire to see sin defeated and righteousness imparted. It wasn’t just about external behaviour, but the attitudes and desires of the heart. His hunger for righteousness was the back story to what Hebrews says of him, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” [6]

The compelling aspect of Jesus’ righteousness is the impact it had on others. It was because Jesus was righteous that he loved unrighteous people. Similarly, it was the same righteousness in Jesus that attracted unrighteous people to him. The Jesus kind of righteousness repelled those who thought themselves to be the standard of what is righteous. Jesus loved sinners and sinners loved Jesus and Jesus was totally righteous. How sad that so much of our righteousness drives sinners away from us and keeps us away from them. Whatever argument we might put up to support either of those two things, we will find ourselves challenged by the righteousness modelled by Jesus.

And the final thing to say about righteousness is the fact that it defines the way we were designed to live by our Creator. It is the life calling we are given by our Redeemer. This isn’t some dreary duty roster that we have to commit to. Righteousness is beautiful and desirable. It produces the deepest form of wholeness. It is the very definition of genuine humanity. We hear a lot about humanity these days. There is always a deep sense of what it means to value and honour humanity. Well, God is the one who designed us, and he created us to live righteous lives and to work for righteousness wherever we are and whatever sphere we belong to.

This attitude includes all of the different aspects of life we experience. Abortion is unrighteous because it generally focuses on the well-being of one person at the expense of another. Sexual immorality is unrighteous because it steals from our own and other people’s future for no other reason than self-indulgence. And so it continues.

Jesus tells us that the people of the kingdom will never be able to dwell comfortably where unrighteousness is wreaking its havoc. The corrupt world we live in needs people whose deep driving desire will not be sated until things are put right and until people begin to live according to what is right. As followers of Jesus, we are to lay down our lives so that others will get to see righteousness and we will work alongside them until righteousness exalts every nation on the earth.[7]

The whole atmosphere of Jesus’ words here is practical. The metaphor is pragmatic. What could be more concrete than the idea of hunger and thirst? These are entirely universal and basic to human existence. We are created in such a way that our bodies make sure we know when we lack food or water. The feelings of hunger and thirst begin and don’t go away until we eat food and drink water.

Other health problems do not make their presence known as easily. I have had an issue with blood pressure for many years. It is a hereditary trait in my family. So, I have to take one small white tablet each day, and my blood pressure stays completely normal. The problem is that if I forget to take the pill, I don’t feel any different. If I don’t take them for a week, I still don’t feel any different. The only way I can tell if my blood pressure is high is by using a machine. I can feel perfectly fine, but the machine will tell me that my blood pressure is dangerously high and at risk of a heart attack. So my self-awareness about this issue is totally unreliable.

Hunger and thirst are not like that. I will always remember the first time I tried to have a day of fasting and prayer. I was still working on our family farm, so we started early and then came in for breakfast. I didn’t come home but stayed working. When lunchtime came, I was beginning to feel very hungry. This body had not been without food for that length of time apart from a few bouts of sickness. Bravely I pushed on into the afternoon. We were fencing at the time, and it was reasonably hard work. By four o’clock I was almost dying with hunger. When I had to drive back to the house to pick up some more supplies, I couldn’t help myself. I screeched to a halt at the back gate, ran into the kitchen, opened the fridge and saw a roasted chicken sitting there before me. I ripped one leg off and then the other and wolfed them down. Then I made a sandwich with a bit more and then returned to the work site. I can tell you that I felt a dismal failure as a spiritual man, but I was no longer hungry. I was satisfied and worked away without a single pang of hunger (except a few feelings of guilt about failing God). Hunger is like that. The only thing that will stop the urgent pangs is food.

So Jesus is talking about the attitude kingdom people have to unrighteousness. A more common word for that is “sin.” Just think about the attitudes of a lot of Christian people to sin. Some don’t seem to care. Others choose a selection of sins and make sure everyone who commits one of the sins on that list is judged and condemned. Neither of those attitudes belonged to the ministry of Jesus. His attitude to sin was to do whatever was possible to enable the sinner to be aware of their sin and choose to become righteous. For that reason, he was criticised. His accusers said things like this: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ ”[8]  The truth is, if you hunger and thirst for righteousness, you have to be where sinners are. Jesus was as committed among the non-religious sinners as we was to the religious ones. He ate with Matthews friends[9] as well as at the home of a prominent Pharisee [10] for precisely the same reason. He wanted his hunger and thirst for righteousness to be assuaged. 

[1]         On July 2, 1509, Martin Luther was returning to University and was caught in a violent electrical storm. He feared so much that he cried out to St. Anne. He promised her that if he was delivered from the storm, he would become a monk. It was the beginning of his journey, first as a priest. In October of 1517, he posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg marking the beginning of the Reformation.

[2]         See Romans 1:16 and Habakkuk 2:4

[3]         God is referred to as the “righteous one” in Isaiah 24:16, From the ends of the earth we hear singing: “Glory to the Righteous One.”

[4]         Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14

[5]         See First John 2:1

[6]         See Hebrews 12:1-3

[7]         See Proverbs 14:34 “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

[8]         See Matthew 11:19

[9]         See Mark 2:15

[10]       See Luke 7:36-50

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.