Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (5:8)
Here is one of those passages of Scripture whose depths are immeasurable and whose breadth is impossible to encompass. This incredible statement of Jesus is among the greatest utterances in all of the Bible.
The subject of holiness, of purity of heart, can be traced from Genesis to Revelation. The theme is infinitely vast and touches on virtually every other biblical truth. It is impossible to exhaust its meaning or significance, and the discussion in this chapter is nothing more than introductory.
The Historical Context
As discussed in some detail in earlier chapters, when Jesus began His earthly ministry, Israel was in desperate condition—politically, economically, and spiritually. For hundreds of years, with only brief respites, she had been under the oppression of foreign conquerors. The country had limited freedom to develop its economy, and a large part of income and profit was paid to Rome in taxes. Those were problems that every person saw and felt.
The less obvious problem, however, was by far the worst. For longer than she had suffered political and economic oppression, Israel had suffered spiritual weakness and faithlessness. Yet that problem was not recognized by many Jews. Jewish leaders thought their religion was in fine shape, and believed the Messiah would soon solve the political and economic problems. But when Re came, His only concern was for the spiritual problem, the problem of their hearts.
At the time of Christ the most influential religious force in Judaism was the Pharisees. They were the chief managers and promoters of the pervasive legalistic and ritualistic system that dominated Jewish society. Over the centuries various rabbis had interpreted and reinterpreted the Jewish Scriptures, especially the law, until those interpretations—known as the traditions of the elders—became more authoritative than Scripture itself. The essence of the traditions was a system of dos and don’ts that gradually expanded to cover almost every aspect of Jewish life.
To conscientious and honest Jews it had become obvious that total observance of all the religious requirements was impossible. Because they could not keep all of the law, they doubtlessly developed terrible feelings of guilt, frustration, and anxiety. Their religion was their life, but they could not fulfill everything their religion demanded. Consequently, some of the religious leaders devised the idea that, if a person could perfectly keep just a few of the laws, God would understand. When even that proved impossible, some narrowed the requirement to one law perfectly kept.
That idea may have been in the mind of the lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). Perhaps he wanted to see which of the many hundreds of laws Jesus believed was the single most important one to keep—the one that would satisfy God even if a person failed to keep the others.
This oppressive and confusing religious system probably contributed to the initial popularity of John the Baptist. He was radically different from the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and priests, and it was obvious that he did not bother to observe most of the religious traditions. He was a breath of fresh air in a stifling, never-ending system of demands and prohibitions. Perhaps in this prophet’s teaching they would find some relief. They did not want another rabbi with another law, but someone who could show them how to be forgiven for those laws they had already broken. They wanted to know the real way of salvation, the real way to please God, the true way of peace and relief from sin. They knew that the Scriptures taught of One who would come not simply to demand but to redeem, not to add to their burdens but to help carry them, not to increase their guilt but to remove it. No doubt it was such expectations as those that caused many people to think John the Baptist might be the Messiah.
The people knew from Ezekiel that someday God was going to come and sprinkle their souls with water, cleanse them from their sin, and replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:25-26). They knew the testimony of David, who cried out, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Ps. 32:1-2). They knew of those truths, and they longed to experience the reality of them.
Nicodemus was one such person. He was a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews,” that is, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. We are not told specifically what his intentions were in coming to Jesus, because his first words were not a question but a testimony. The fact that he came at night suggests he was ashamed of being seen with Jesus. But there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of his words, which showed unusual spiritual insight: “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Nicodemus knew that, whatever else Jesus might be, He was a teacher truly sent from God.
Though he does not state it, the question that was on his mind is implied both from his testimony and from Jesus’ reply. The Lord knew Nicodemus’s mind, and He said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3). Nicodemus wanted to know how to please God, to be forgiven. “How can I be made righteous?” he wondered. “How can I be redeemed and become a child of God? How can I become part of God’s kingdom?” Had he not had a deep, compelling desire to know God’s will, he would not have risked coming to Jesus even at night. Nicodemus was honest enough to admit his sinfulness. He was a Pharisee, a teacher of the law, and a ruler in the Sanhedrin; but he knew in his heart that all of that did not make him right with God.
After Jesus had fed the great multitude near the Sea of Galilee, some of the people who had seen the miracle asked Jesus, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28). The same question troubled them that had troubled Nicodemus: “How can a person get right with God? What must we do to truly please Him?” Like Nicodemus, they had been through all the ceremonies and rituals. They had attended the feasts and offered the required sacrifices. They had tried to keep the law and the traditions. But they knew that something was missing—something crucial that they did not know of, much less had experienced.
Luke tells of another lawyer who asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25). He asked the question to test Jesus (v. 25a), and after Jesus gave an answer the man tried “to justify himself” (v. 29). But despite his insincerity, he had asked the right question, the question that was on the minds of many Jews who were sincere.
A rich ruler asked Jesus the same question: “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). This man apparently asked sincerely, but he was unwilling to pay the cost. He wanted to keep the wealth of this life more than he wanted to gain the wealth of eternal life, and he went away “very sad” (v. 23). He knew he needed something more than outward obedience to the law, at which he had been diligent since childhood (v. 21). He knew that, with all his devotion and effort to please God, he had no assurance of possessing eternal life. He was seeking the kingdom, but he was not seeking it first (Matt. 6:33).
Others were asking, “what must I he to belong to the kingdom of God? What is the standard for eternal life?” All of those people, at various levels of understanding and sincerity, knew that they had not found what they sought. Many knew that they had not kept even a single law perfectly. If honest, they became more and more convinced that they could not keep even a single law perfectly, and that they were powerless to please God.
It was to answer that need that Jesus came to earth. It was to answer that need that He gave the Beatitudes. He shows simply and directly how sinful man can he made right with holy God.
The Literary Context
At first glance this beatitude seems out of place, inserted indiscriminately into an otherwise orderly development of truths. Because of its supreme importance, a more strategic place—either at the beginning as the foundation, or at the end as the culmination—might seem more appropriate.
But the sixth beatitude, like every part of God’s Word, is in the right place. It is part of the beautiful and marvelous sequence of truths that are here laid out according to the mind of God. It is the climax of the Beatitudes, the central truth to which the previous five lead and from which the following two flow
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (5:8)
The word blessed implies the condition of well-being that results from salvation, the status of one who has a right relation to God. Being accepted by Him is a matter of internal transformation.
Heart translates kardia, from which we get cardiac and similar terms. Throughout Scripture, as well as in many languages and cultures throughout the world, the heart is used metaphorically to represent the inner person, the seat of motives and attitudes, the center of personality. But in Scripture it represents much more than emotion, feelings. It also includes the thinking process and particularly the will. In Proverbs we are told, “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7, kjv). Jesus asked a group of scribes, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts?” (Matt. 9:4; cf. Mark 2:8; 7:21). The heart is the control center of mind and will as well as emotion.
In total contrast to the outward, superficial, and hypocritical religion of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said that it is in the inner man, in the core of his very being, that God requires purity. That was not a new truth, but an old one long forgotten amidst ceremony and tradition. “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life,” the writer of Proverbs had counseled (Prov. 4:23). The problem that caused God to destroy the earth in the Flood was a heart problem. “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).
David acknowledged before the Lord, “Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom”; and then he prayed “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Ps. 51:6, 10). Asaph wrote, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart!” (Ps. 73:1). Jeremiah declared, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds” (Jer. 17:9-10). Evil ways and deeds begin in the heart and mind, which are here used synonymously. Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, slanders. These are the things which defile the man” (Matt. 15:19).
God has always been concerned above all else with the inside of man, with the condition of his heart. When the Lord called Saul to be Israel’s first king, “God changed his heart” (1 Sam. 10:9). Until then Saul had been handsome, athletic, and not much more. But the new king soon began to revert to his old heart patterns. He chose to disobey God and to trust in himself. Among other things, he presumed to take for himself the priestly role of offering sacrifice (13:9) and refused to destroy all of the Amalekites and their possessions as God had commanded (15:3-19). Consequently, the Lord took the kingdom from Saul and gave it to David (15:23, 28). Saul’s actions were wrong because his heart rebelled, and it is by our hearts that the Lord judges us (16:7). It was said of David’s leadership over Israel, “He shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them with his skillful hands” (Ps. 78:72).
God took the kingdom from Saul because he refused to live by the new heart God had given him. He gave the kingdom to David because David was “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). David pleased God’s heart because God pleased David’s heart. “I will give thanks to the Lord with all my heart,” he sang (Ps. 9:1). His deepest desire was, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). He prayed, “Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart” (Ps. 26:2). When God told David, “Seek My face,” David’s heart replied, “Thy face, O Lord, I shall seek” (Ps. 27:8).
Once when David was fleeing from Saul he went to Gath, a Philistine city, for help. When he realized that his life was also in danger there, he “acted insanely in their hands, and scribbled on the doors of the gate, and let his saliva run down into his beard” (1 Sam. 21:13). Thinking him to be mad, the Philistines let him go, and he went to hide in the cave of Adullum. He came to his senses and realized how foolish and unfaithful he had been to trust the Philistines for help instead of the Lord. It was there that he wrote Psalm 57, in which he declared, “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast” (v. 7). He rededicated his heart, his innermost being, single-mindedly to God. David often failed, but his heart was fixed on God. The evidence of his true-hearted commitment to God is found in all the first 175 verses of Psalm 119. The fact that his flesh sometimes overruled his heart is the final admission of verse 176: “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek Thy servant.”
Pure translates katharos, a form of the word from which we get catharsis. The basic meaning is to make pure by cleansing from dirt, filth, and contamination. Catharsis is a term used in psychology and counseling for a cleansing of the mind or emotions. The Greek word is related to the Latin castus, from which we get chaste. The related word chasten refers to discipline given in order to cleanse from wrong behavior.
The Greek term was often used of metals that had been refined until all impurities were removed, leaving only the pure metal. In that sense, purity means unmixed, unalloyed, unadulterated. Applied to the heart, the idea is that of pure motive—of single-mindedness, undivided devotion, spiritual integrity, and true righteousness.
Double-mindedness has always been one of the great plagues of the church. We want to serve the Lord and follow the world at the same time. But that, says Jesus, is impossible. “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other” (Matt. 6:24). James puts the same truth in another way: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). He then gives the solution to the problem: “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (v. 8).
Christians have the right heart motive concerning God. Even though we often fail to be single-minded, it is our deep desire to be so. We confess with Paul, “For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good…. So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Rom. 7:15, 21, 25). Paul’s deepest spiritual desires were pure, although the sin dwelling in his flesh sometimes overrode those desires.
Those who truly belong to God will be motivated to purity. Psalm 119 is the classic illustration of that longing, and Romans 7:15-25 is the Pauline counterpart. The deepest desire of the redeemed is for holiness, even when sin halts the fulfillment of that desire.
Purity of heart is more than sincerity. A motive can be sincere, yet lead to worthless and sinful things. The pagan priests who opposed Elijah demonstrated great sincerity when they lacerated their bodies in order to induce Baal to send fire down to consume their sacrifices (1 Kings 18:28). But their sincerity did not produce the desired results, and it did not enable them to see the wrongness of their paganism—because their sincere trust was in that very paganism. Sincere devotees walk on nails to prove their spiritual power. Others crawl on their knees for hundreds of yards, bleeding and grimacing in pain, to show their devotion to a saint or a shrine. Yet their sincere devotion is sincerely wrong and is completely worthless before God.
The scribes and Pharisees believed they could please God by such superficial practices as tithing “mint and dill and cummin”; but they “neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). They were meticulously careful about what they did outwardly but paid no attention to what they were inwardly. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! “Jesus told them, “For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also” (vv. 25-26).
Even genuinely good deeds that do not come from a genuinely good heart are of no spiritual value. Thomas Watson said, “Morality can drown a man as fast as vice,” and, “A vessel may sink with gold or with dung.” Though we may be extremely religious and constantly engaged in doing good things, we cannot please God unless our hearts are right with Him.
The ultimate standard for purity of heart is perfection of heart. In the same sermon in which He gave the Beatitudes Jesus said, “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). One hundred percent purity is God’s standard for the heart.
Man’s tendency is to set the opposite standard. We are inclined to judge ourselves by the worst instead of the best. The Pharisee who prayed in the Temple, thanking God that he was not like other men, considered himself to be righteous simply because he was not a swindler, an adulterer, or a tax-gatherer (Luke 18:11). We are all tempted to feel better about ourselves when we see someone doing a terrible thing that we have never done. The “good” person looks down on the one who seems to be less good than himself, and that person looks down on those worse than he is. Carried to its extreme, that spiral of judgment would go down and down until it reached the most rotten person on earth—and that last person, the worst on earth, would be the standard by which the rest of the world judged itself!
God’s standard for men, however, is Himself. They cannot be fully pleasing to God until they are pure as He is pure, until they are holy as He is holy and perfect as He is perfect. Only those who are pure in heart may enter the kingdom. “who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?” David asks, “and who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:3-4).
It is impurity of heart that separates man from God. “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; neither is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2). And just as impurity of heart separates men from God, only purity of heart through Jesus Christ will reconcile men to God.
Basically there are but two kinds of religion—the religion of human achievement and the religion of divine accomplishment. There are many variations of the first kind, which includes every religion but biblical Christianity. Within the religions of human accomplishment are two basic approaches: head religion, which trusts in creeds and religious knowledge, and hand religion, which trusts in good deeds.
The only true religion, however, is heart religion, which is based on God’s implanted purity. By faith in what God has done through His Son, Jesus Christ, “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7). When God imputes His righteousness to us He imputes His purity to us.
As we look at Scripture we discover six kinds of purity. One may be called primal purity the kind that exists only in God. That purity is as essential to God as light is to the sun or wetness is to water.
Another form of purity is created purity, the purity that existed in God’s creation before it was corrupted by the Fall. God created the angels in purity and He created man in purity. Tragically, some of the angels and all of mankind fell from that purity.
A third kind of purity is positional purity, the purity we are given the moment we trust in Jesus Christ as Savior. When we trust in Him, God imputes to us Christ’s own purity, Christ’s own righteousness. “To the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5; cf. Gal. 2:16). From that day the Father sees us just as He sees the Son, perfectly righteous and without blemish (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 9:14).
Fourth, imputed purity is not just a statement without substance; with imputed purity God grants actual purity in the new nature of the believer (Rom. 6:4-5; 8:5-11; Col. 3:9-10; 2 Pet. 1:3). In other words, there is no justification without sanctification. Every believer is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). Paul affirms that when a believer sins, it is not caused by the pure new self, but by sin in the flesh (Rom. 7:17, 19-22, 25).
Fifth, there is practical purity. This, of course, is the hard part, the part that does require our supreme effort. Only God possesses or can possess primal purity. Only God can bestow created purity, ultimate purity, positional purity, and actual purity. But practical purity, though it too comes from God, demands our participation in a way that the other kinds of purity do not. That is why Paul implores, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). It is why Peter pleads, “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:14-16).
We are not saved just for future heavenly purity but also for present earthly purity. At best it will be gold mixed with iron and clay, a white garment with some black threads. But God wants us now to be as pure as we can be. If purity does not characterize our living, we either do not belong to Christ, or we are disobedient to Him. We will have temptations, but God will always provide a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). We will fall into sin, but “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Finally, for believers there will also one day be ultimate purity, the perfected purity that God’s redeemed people will experience when they are glorified in His presence. All sins will be totally and permanently washed away, and “we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).
The Way to Holiness
Throughout the history of the church people have suggested various ways to achieve spiritual purity and holiness. Some have suggested monasticism, getting away from the normal cares and distractions of the world and devoting oneself entirely to meditation and prayer. Others claim that holiness is a second work of grace, by which God miraculously eradicates not only sins but the sin nature, allowing a sinless earthly life from that point onward. But neither Scripture nor experience supports either of those views. The problem of sin is not primarily the world around us but the worldliness within us, which we cannot escape by living in isolation from other people.
But God always provides for what He demands, and He has provided ways for us to live purely. First, we must realize that we are unable to live a single holy moment without the Lord’s guidance and power. “who can say, I have cleansed my heart, I am pure from my sin’?” (Prov. 20:9), the obvious answer to which is “No one.” The Ethiopian cannot change his skin or the leopard its spots (Jer. 13:23). Cleansing begins with a recognition of weakness. Weakness then reaches out for the strength of God.
Second, we must stay in God’s Word. It is impossible to stay in God’s will apart from His Word. Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).
Third, it is essential to be controlled by and walking in the will and way of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:16 says it clearly: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”
Fourth, we must pray. We cannot stay in God’s will or understand and obey His Word unless we stay near Him. “With all prayer and petition” we are to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18; cf. Luke 18:1; 1 Thess. 5:17). With David we cry, “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10).
The Result of Holiness
The great blessing of those who are pure in heart is that they shall see God. The Greek is in the future indicative tense and the middle voice, and a more literal translation is, “They shall be continuously seeing God for themselves.” It is only they (the emphatic autos), the pure in heart, who shall see God. Intimate knowledge of and fellowship with God is reserved for the pure.
When our hearts are purified at salvation we begin to live in the presence of God. We begin to see and to comprehend Him with our new spiritual eyes. Like Moses, who saw God’s glory and asked to see more (Ex. 33:18), the one who is purified by Jesus Christ sees again and again the glory of God.
To see God was the greatest hope of Old Testament saints. Like Moses, David wanted to see more of God. “As the deer pants for the water brooks,” he said, “so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” (Ps. 42:1). Job rejoiced when he was able to say, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee” (Job 42:5).
Purity of heart cleanses the eyes of the soul so that God becomes visible. One sign of an impure heart is ignorance, because sin obscures the truth (John 3:19-20). Evil and ignorance come in a package. Other signs of an impure heart are self-centeredness (Rev. 3:17), pleasure in sin (2 Tim. 3:4), unbelief (Heb. 3:12), and hatred of purity (Mic. 3:2). Those who belong to God exchange all of those things for integrity and purity.
- F. Bullard wrote,
When I in righteousness at last
Thy glorious face shall see;
When all the weary night has passed,
And I awake with Thee,
To view the glories that abide,
Then and only then will I be satisfied.
(Cited in William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1973], p. 278)
Source: MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Matthew 1-7.