Christ spent His entire public ministry subverting Israel’s expectations for the Messiah. The various religious and political sects in Israel each were anticipating their own version of the long-awaited Messiah. But Christ wasn’t a monk, a sorcerer, a politician, or a violent renegade.
Instead He was meek and mild. He preached about a spiritual kingdom instead of establishing a physical one. Basically, Christ completely failed to live up to Israel’s short-sighted, man-centred expectations.
Both the Pharisees and the Zealots were awaiting a catastrophic intervention of God. They knew the Scriptures said in Daniel 7:13–14 that the Messiah would come in clouds and great glory, and while they did not know how it would happen, each group had its own ideas.
Even the twelve apostles expected it. In Acts 1:6 they asked, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” They wanted to know when they were going to see either the miraculous or the military action. But this was not Jesus’ purpose.
The seeds of Israel’s disappointment were sown in the Sermon on the Mount. No one expected the Messiah to come with a message like this:
Matthew 5:5-6 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Perhaps the last thing the Jews expected was for the Messiah to preach the virtue of meekness. They were looking for a strong champion, not a gentle shepherd. They wanted a leader to sweep in and overthrow Rome, but Christ saved His only outbursts for the abusive behaviour of the religious elite.
Here, in His third Beatitude, Christ utterly undermined Israel’s expectations for the reestablishment of God’s kingdom on earth. Far from wrenching control of Israel back from Rome through military might, Christ promised that it was the meek who would inherit the earth. Imagine what a disappointment that would have been for Jews hoping for the Messiah to muscle Rome out of power.
So what is this unexpected character quality Christ was extolling. What does it mean to me meek? A meek person is someone who is gentle, mild, tender-hearted, patient, submissive. Meek was often used to describe a soothing medicine, a gentle breeze, a colt that had been broken and domesticated.
Meekness is a gentleness, a mildness and a subdued character – but it is not weakness. It is power under control. Get that definition: Power under control. It is a by-product of self-emptying, of self-humiliation, of brokenness before God. It is the taming of the lion.
And the Lord wasn’t just subverting the hopes for the Messiah – He was undercutting the pride and the self-satisfaction of Israel’s entire religious system of works-based righteousness. His words were a direct hit against anyone who thought he could manufacture his own righteousness through piety and self-discipline.
Meekness is different from being broken in spirit, though the root word is the same. In some places in the Bible these words could be used interchangeably, but I like to see a beautiful distinction. Broken in spirit focuses on my sinfulness. Meekness focuses on God’s holiness.
In other words, I am poor in spirit because I am a sinner, and meek because God is so holy in comparison. Broken in spirit is negative and results in mourning. Meekness is positive and results in seeking righteousness. That’s the beauty of the sequence, of the progression in the Sermon on the Mount. First, there’s the brokenness, the tremendous sense of sinfulness. But there is no despair because you begin to see the other side of it. You see a holy God and begin to hunger after His holiness.
Israel’s religious elite had deluded themselves into thinking they were the standard for righteousness – that their legalistic piety could merit God’s favour. But Christ’s words made it clear that the spiritually proud have no hope for an eternal inheritance.
What Christ means here is that when you enter the kingdom, you come into the original inheritance of dominion over the earth that God gave to Adam. It’s paradise regained. The people in the kingdom shall inherit the earth. The only ones who enter His kingdom are the ones who are broken over their sin, not the ones who think they have no sin. There is no inheritance for those convinced they don’t need an alien righteousness – for those who believe they’re good enough on their own.
By contrast, the Lord promises rich blessing to those, “… who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6).
Every person, saved or unsaved, has a built-in hunger for God. Of course, the unbelieving world attempts to satisfy that hunger with everything but God.
Isaiah 55:2 “Why do you spend your money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?”
Peter goes even further, describing the empty pursuits of the unsaved world:
2 Peter 2:22 “Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.’
Those impotent attempts to find satisfaction have even gained influence in the Church. Amos says that the people in the world pant after the dust of the earth (Amos 2:7). People are really after happiness, but the dusty earth is where they look for it
The number of amusements in our society always amazes me. Now, I’m not against Disneyland and all the rest. But our life is so full of amusements and entertainment possibilities. We are like a man with a painful disease who just wants to be relieved of the pain and doesn’t want to bother with the cause.
This has become true even in the Church. Many Christians are after some kind of ecstasy. They want an experience, a spiritual feeling. People run to seminars and conferences and counsellors trying to get some spiritual trip, but that is not what they are mean to seek. They try to find happiness, without realising that happiness is a by-product of hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
The hunger and thirst Christ described isn’t for temporal pleasures and distractions. Instead, it’s fixed on the only source of true satisfaction. The only real happiness in life is to walk in harmony with God and His purposes.
This points to two things: salvation and sanctification. Let’s talk first about salvation. Somebody who hungers and thirsts after righteousness seeks salvation. He sees his sin, he sees his rebellion, he sees himself separated from a holy God. He is broken, mournful, meek, and he wants very much to restore himself to God. He wants forgiveness, and so he hungers and thirsts after the righteousness that comes in salvation. It is a desire to be free from self. It is a desire to be free from sin – its power, its presence, and its penalty.
There’s a second element: sanctification. We hunger and thirst for sanctification, an increasing holiness. I do not know how to express this as strongly as I feel it, but I hope there is in my life this hunger that never stops – the desire to conformed to the image of Christ in every possible way. This is a mark of a Christian. We keep hungering and thirsting to desire more virtue, a greater purity and we never get to the place where we think, “I’ve arrived.”
The “hunger and thirst” Christ promised to bless isn’t some aimless, indeterminate craving. Nor was He describing an appetite that is easily satisfied. He’s talking about a continuous desire – one that leads us into His kingdom, and remains as a pattern long after we’ve been brought into His family. This divine discontent which draws us further and further towards God is a precious and sometimes painful work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus satisfies, and yet there is a blessed dissatisfaction that wants even more and will be satisfied only when we see Jesus Christ. A kingdom person has a consuming ambition, not for power or pleasure, not for possessions or praise, but for righteousness.
The fleeting pleasures and pastimes of this world offer no lasting happiness or contentment. The only true satisfaction comes in and through the work of God in our lives, as He saves us through His Son and sanctifies us through His Word and His Spirit.
Blessed are the meek and the hungry!