“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.” What Matthew 5:6 is saying is, “Blessed are those who earnestly desire righteousness and justice because they will have what they desire.” This is one of the clear verses in the Beatitudes that shows that Jesus was speaking about the future Hope—his future Millennial Kingdom and his reign on earth—and not about this life. To “hunger and thirst” for something is idiomatic, and means to earnestly desire something, to long for it. But it does not matter how much people hunger for justice in this life, they will not be “filled,” that is “satisfied.” We live in an evil world and the Devil is the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4) and the earth is under his sway (1 John 5:19). There will not be justice on earth until Christ reigns as king over the earth, and then there will be justice for everyone, just as the Old Testament prophecies say. When Jesus reigns as king over the earth, those who hunger for righteousness and justice will be filled.
It is important to note, however, that even though there will not be justice on earth until the Lord Jesus reigns as king, people who “hunger and thirst” for righteousness and justice on earth should do their best to accomplish what they can here and now. We can make a difference to some people, and the Lord will reward people for their efforts on his behalf.
“righteousness.” To understand what it means to hunger and thirst for “righteousness,” one must understand that there are two aspects, two meanings, to “righteousness” and they both apply here. “Righteousness” refers both to having a right standing in the sight of God and also acting in a godly and just manner towards others. To fully understand that, it is important to know that in Hebrew the word “righteousness” could mean either or both being right in the sight of God and doing what was right, while in Greek, both “righteousness” and “justice” are usually translated from the same Greek words. It has been a general convention in translating the Greek New Testament that when the context is one’s relationship with God the translators use the word “righteousness,” and when the context is how one treats other people the translators use “just” and “justice.”
The meaning that most Christians think of when they think of “righteousness” is being righteous in the sight of God, that is, being accepted by God. In the minds of most Christians, righteousness in the sight of God is equivalent to, or almost equivalent to, being saved. A person who is righteous in the sight of God is saved, and a person who is saved is righteous in the sight of God. So, for most Christians, being “righteous” means having a solid vertical relationship with God and being “right” in His sight. Based on that understanding of “righteousness,” most Christians read Matthew 5:6 as if it said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for salvation, for they will be saved.” While it is true that people who seek salvation will find it, that is not the primary point that Jesus was making in this Beatitude in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, people don’t have to “hunger and thirst” for salvation to be saved. There are things to do to be saved, but “hunger and thirst” are not necessary.
The primary meaning of “righteousness” here in Matthew 5:6, as well as in the Old Testament, Gospels, and even many verses in the New Testament Epistles, is “doing what is right to God and to others.” God sets the norms of what is right and godly, and He determines how to treat God and others. When we understand that we can see why there are verses in the Old Testament that say that God acts righteously—He keeps His own laws and norms and treats others “rightly.” God has “righteous acts” because He acts rightly and justly (Judg. 5:11; 1 Sam. 12:7; Micah 6:5). Nehemiah said God was “righteous” because He acted rightly toward others and treated them as they deserved to be treated (Neh. 9:33).
Similarly, “righteous” people do what is right to God and to fellow humans. They act as God would have them act, in a loving and godly manner, and with justice. In contrast, “wicked” people are “wicked” because they defy God and do terrible things to other humans. God the Creator set the laws and standards of life, and He sets the definition of right and wrong. Thus, people who love and obey Him and treat other people in a godly and just manner are “righteous,” while people who defy God and hurt other people are “wicked.” Many verses in the Bible contrast the righteous and the wicked, and a study of those verses shows that “righteous” people treat others justly, while “wicked” people hurt others and take advantage of them (cp. 1 Kings 8:32; Ps. 7:9; 11:5; 37:21; Prov. 10:11, 32; 11:23; 12:5, 10, 12, 26; 13:5; 14:32; 15:28; 24:15; 29:7; Hab. 1:4).
This second meaning of “righteous”—treating people in a just and godly manner—is the primary meaning in Matthew 5:6. Based on the use of “righteous” in the Old Testament and many other places in the Gospels, and remembering that Jesus was speaking to a mostly Jewish audience early in his ministry, the people who were hungering and thirsting for “righteousness” wanted “justice” on earth. They were tired and worn down by the evil and injustice of their leaders, the injustice in the courts, and frankly, the injustice everywhere in their lives. By the way, that situation has not changed, and even Christians who know they are saved and are right with God hunger and thirst for the future time in which Christ will reign and there will be justice on earth.
We live in a world controlled by the Devil and there is no way that Jesus could promise that people who hungered for “righteousness”—justice on earth—would be “filled” (satisfied) in this life. Ever since Cain killed Abel there have been countless people who have been treated unrighteously through their lives right up to their death. But one of the great promises of the future kingdom of Christ is that there will be “righteousness” on earth, that is, people will be right in the sight of God and also there will be true justice on earth for everyone (cp. Isa. 1:26-27; 11:4; 16:5; 32:1, 16, 17; 33:5; 56:1; Jer. 23:5; 31:23; 33:15; Dan. 9:24; Zech. 8:8).
When we understand that “righteous” and “righteousness” refer to acting in a way that was “right” and godly in God’s eyes, and that were also “just” and fair, many New Testament verses become clear. For example, still teaching the Sermon on the Mount, just a little while after Matthew 5:6, Jesus said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the experts in the law and Pharisees, you will absolutely not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:20). Jesus was not saying, “Unless you are more saved than the Pharisees you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He was saying “Unless you live a life in which you do more right and godly things than the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom.” Considering the injustice of the Pharisees, he was also saying, “Unless you are more just and fair to other people than the Pharisees are, you will not enter the kingdom.”
Also, even later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “But seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:33). Here again, the primary meaning of seeking God’s “righteousness” was seeking to act like God and do what is right, godly, and just in His sight. The primary meaning of Jesus’ teaching was not, “seek to be saved.” Of course it is wonderful to be saved, but in teaching us to “seek God’s righteousness,” Jesus was teaching us to act like God acts, in a way that is right, just, and fair.
Matthew 25:31-46 is the record of the Sheep and Goat Judgment, at which time Jesus will judge the people who are left alive on earth after the Battle of Armageddon and will decide who is allowed to enter his kingdom and who is not. The “righteous” get to enter the kingdom (Matt. 25:37). But how were they said to be “righteous”? Jesus made it clear: they did what was right to other people. They fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, showed hospitality to people in need, gave clothes to the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison (Matt. 25:35-36).
Besides the Old Testament and Gospels, we also see “righteous” and “righteousness” with the meaning of “doing what is right” in Acts and the New Testament epistles. For example, Acts 10:35 (KJV) says, “But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” To “work righteousness” is to act rightly and justly. Ephesians says, “for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth” (Eph. 5:9 REV). The “fruit” of the light is doing what is right and just to God and humanity. In Philippians 3:6, Paul said he was blameless concerning “the righteousness that is in the law,” which was all the righteous acts covered in the law. Timothy says that the law was not made for a “righteous” person (1 Tim. 1:9). But that is not saying that saved people do not need law, it is saying that people who act in ways that are right and just in the sight of God and others don’t need law. 1 Timothy 6:11 (REV) says the godly person should “diligently pursue righteousness, godliness, trust, love, endurance, and meekness.” “Righteousness” in the list does not mean salvation, it means doing righteous acts; doing things that are “right” in the sight of God and people (cp. 2 Tim. 2:2). 2 Timothy 3:16 (REV) speaks of “instruction in righteousness.” That is not instruction in how to be saved and thus be in a righteous state before God; it means instruction in how to make right and godly decisions and do what is right and just for God and fellow humans. There are other verses in the New Testament Epistles besides those given above that use “righteous” or “righteousness,” with the sense of doing righteous acts (cp. Titus 2:12; 3:5; Heb. 1:9; 11:33; 12:11, James 3:18; James 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:23, 24; 3:12; 2 Pet. 3:13; 1 John 3:12; Rev. 16:7; 19:2, 11).
Jesus taught that people who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled because there is a time coming when the Lord will come from heaven, set up his kingdom on earth, and rule with righteousness and justice over the whole earth. That is a wonderful message of hope.
[For more on the Beatitudes being about the future, see commentary on Matt. 5:3. For more on the meanings of “righteousness,” see commentary on Rom. 3:22 and commentary on 1 John 1:9. For more on Christ’s future Millennial Kingdom on earth, see Appendix 3, “Christ’s Future Kingdom on Earth”].
“filled.” The Greek word is chortazō (#5526 χορτάζω) and it means “filled” or “satisfied.” When it is used in the context of eating, it means “filled, fully satisfied,” and Jesus used “filled” here because it fits with the idiom “hunger and thirst.” If Jesus had not used the illustration of hunger and thirst, he might have said something like, “Blessed are those who long for righteousness, because they will get what they want and be satisfied.” In the Millennial Kingdom people will get the righteousness and justice they long for.