The Beatitudes are definitely familiar and thoroughly challenging.
They place a mirror before us that reveals what kind of people we are. And with the Beatitude in Matthew 5:8, we arrive at what has been called the most demanding of them all:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Here Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are devoted to God with their whole heart and who serve him with single-minded devotion.
When Jesus speaks about the “heart,” He’s not talking about the blood-pumping organ in the middle of our chest. The Old Testament often speaks of the heart as the centre of life, the birthplace of all we think and do.
In Proverbs 4 Solomon says to his son, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life” (4:23). It is within the heart that we make decisions about what is important to us. Within the heart we set our goals and meditate on things both good and bad. This is what Jesus says in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
And naturally, our heart is a bustling factory of evil desires. Our heart is always drawn to depend on created things and to cling to idols. So Jesus exhorts us with this blessing, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
If something is pure, it is without blemish, like how people aspire to have ‘pure skin,’ no pimples or lines. Or if something is pure, it hasn’t been mixed with anything, like how you can buy ‘100% pure olive oil.’ When Christ speaks here of purity, He is describing how our motives should be free of the blemish of sin, fully devoted to God.
This high requirement collides with the reality of our sinfulness. God is holy, and we are most unholy. So already in the Old Testament, God built a way for people to be pure, that they might draw near and not perish. For instance, there were clean foods and clean practices, fitting for a holy people. And God showed his people how they could be cleansed from sins through the rituals of sprinkled blood and clean water.
The rituals of Old Testament law helped to make a person clean. But the trouble was that purity was externalized. People began to think that God merely wanted you to eat the proper kind of meat with your dinner, to wash your hands regularly, and to wear garments that weren’t made from blended cloth. If you did all that, you could consider yourself pure. By Jesus’s time, the emphasis on outward purity had become absurd, to the point that many people only cared about the appearance of purity.
This is not simply an Old Testament problem. It still happens that we measure a person’s holiness by outward observance. Do we conform to expectations and do we keep up appearances? Do we uphold the rules of being an upstanding church member, like wearing respectable clothing, doing Bible-reading at meal-times, having sound opinions and conservative views? By various external standards, we consider a person to be holy, to be pure.
Here is where Jesus calls us to examine ourselves: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” When we look within, do we find a pure devotion to God? That doesn’t mean being sinless or perfect, but that means living in authentic and committed service of Christ. It is when the thoughts and motives of our heart are unmixed—when what we’re doing, or we’re saying, or we’re planning, we’re doing for the Lord.
Here is the great struggle, for it is so difficult not to have mixed motives. Why do we do what we do? As Christians, what is our motivation and purpose? An action which looks good or appears generous may have in it some residue of pride, or self-satisfaction, or malice, even when we are hardly conscious of this.
Maybe there is a bit of pride when we make our monthly gift to the church—pride, because we can give so much. Or we sing the Psalms and Hymns, and it looks like we are genuine, but the entire time our hearts are busy with our plans for next week. We pray, but there’s a dash of bitterness in our prayers, a tinge of doubt, because God hasn’t been answering. Or perhaps we are praying, because that is just what we have to do at the end of another meal or the end of another class. Our heart is not in it.
And then there is this: perhaps we are doing many of the right outward things while still holding onto our sin in private. Perhaps we’ve got a godless habit that secretly consumes our thoughts and steals our devotion. If you are going to church and looking like you love God, but you are still cherishing an unconfessed sin, then your heart isn’t pure.
This beatitude sets before us a most challenging requirement. So we echo David’s Psalm 51:10 prayer:
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
And God has done this powerfully through the precious blood of his Son and the power of his Holy Spirit. God helping us, we can serve him truly. We pray for renewal. We pray for a clean, pure heart.
And when Almighty God works in us, we see this happening. We begin to love God with more and more of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We begin to seek his glory, not our own. We begin to be motivated by a delight in God’s will, and we long to walk more closely with Christ. We awake in the morning, and it is our prayer to live another day for God. Our hearts are being changed, and we see the effects.
If this Beatitude is the most demanding, then it is also the most rewarding. For Jesus says that when we love God with our whole heart, then we become heirs to a marvelous promise: the pure in heart get to “see God.”
To see God is to enter into a fullness of intimacy with God. It is to know God in the depths of his amazing character—to know his goodness, his mercy, his truth, his holiness. Though God is invisible and dwells in unapproachable light, we can be the people of his presence. Through Christ, we can enjoy a true fellowship with God and a loving friendship—our greatest joy!
For this is the God we long for, and live for, and the God we love.