Blessed are the Pure in Heart (Matthew 5:8)
After a violent storm one night, a large tree, which over the years had become a stately giant, was found lying across the pathway of a park. Nothing but a splintered stump was left. Closer examination showed that it was rotten to the core because thousands of tiny insects had eaten away at its heart. The weakness of that tree was not brought on by the sudden storm; it began the very moment the first insect nested within its bark.
Thus, it is in our lives–impurity within the heart makes us weak. Jesus spoke this Beatitude to that extent: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
In many ways, this Beatitude forms the “heart” of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, is greatly concerned with the heart. For example,
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:27-28).
- “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:43-45).
- “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:17-18).
This morning, we want to look at the “heart” of the Sermon on the Mount and ask ourselves the question, “How pure are we?”
The Pure in Heart
The biblical heart is not the organ that pumps in our chests, but often refers to one’s thinking, the seat of one’s intelligence.
- It is with the heart that one imagines: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5).
- It is with the heart that one thinks: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matt 15:19-20).
- It is with the heart that one questions: When he healed a paralytic, Jesus asks the scribes: “Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, ‘Why do you question these things in your hearts?’” (Mk 2:8).
- It is with the heart that one believes: “Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
- It is with the heart that one loves: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pet 1:22).
What Jesus is calling for here, therefore, is purity in our thinking, heaving a heart that is purified from evil thinking.
Purity is an important concept, even in the Old Testament. “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully” (Ps 24:3-4). Therefore, the pure heart Jesus calls for in this Beatitude was not a new concept to those who heard him. Granted, Jesus–throughout the Sermon on the Mount–raises the bar in regard to Old Testament teaching.
In this Beatitude, Jesus contrasts his gospel with the “gospel” of the scribes and Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees were greatly concerned with outer righteousness, but they generally cared little for true, moral purity. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (Matt 23:25-26). “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt 23:27-28).
The scribes and Pharisees had a serious heart problem. They seemed to have believed that as long as they fulfilled the Law and their traditions, they were right before God. I have no doubt but that many were sincere. We know for a fact that Saul of Tarsus was sincere–he declared before the Sanhedrin that he had lived “before God in all good conscience” (Acts 23:1). Yet, no matter how sincere they were, the scribes and Pharisees had reality backwards–inner purity matters!
One serious criticism that has been leveled against us in the churches of Christ is that we, like the scribes and Pharisees, care more about outer purity than inner purity. That argument goes that by careful adherence to Scripture, we lose the heart of the gospel. We are told that when we stress acapella music, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, or proper church organization that we have become just like the scribes and Pharisees of old. We must understand that Jesus never condemned the scribes and Pharisees for careful obedience to Scripture. He did condemn them for careful obedience to Scripture without a proper heart: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt 23:23). Mint, dill, and cumin are small herbs and the scribes and Pharisees were quite careful to tithe even the smallest herbs they grew. Jesus does not say doing such was improper: “These [justice, mercy, and faithfulness] you ought to have done, without neglecting the others [tithing small herbs].” The tithing was appropriate; they hearts weren’t.
Jesus also condemned the scribes and Pharisees for their adherence to tradition. In their wealth of tradition, the scribes and Pharisees declared that one could keep from taking care of parents by giving a gift to God (Matt 15:3-6). Jesus says, “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God” (Matt 15:6). We must be careful that we do not elevate human tradition to the place of the Word of God.
However, I am confident that many of our brethren do have the same heart of the scribes and Pharisees. They seem to think as long as they are faithful in church attendance, take the Lord’s Supper each week, drop some money in the collection plate, don’t use an instrument to worship, and attend a building with a “church of Christ” sign over the door, they’re bound for heaven. We’ve already said that God cares about faithfully following his commandments, so please don’t misunderstand me. However, we must also care that our hearts are right before God. There are two extremes we can go to:
- We can say as long as we are sincere, God doesn’t care about how we worship and what we do. Tell that to Saul of Tarsus who had a pure conscience but was wrong. Tell that to Cornelius who was “a devout man who feared God” (Acts 10:2) but was lost until he obeyed the Gospel.
- The other extreme is to say that God doesn’t care about our hearts, but that he only cares about the “externals.” Tell that to the scribes and Pharisees who had many externals right, but whom Jesus condemned as hypocrites. It’s not that we either have our hearts right or the externals rights. It’s both/and. We must have both our hearts right and the appropriate externals to please God.
How right is your heart this morning?
It certainly also seems that Jesus means to declare that we must serve God with all of our heart. God has always required service with our whole heart. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. I give thanks to you, O LORD my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever” (Ps 86:11-12). It is unacceptable to have God locked in a box where he reigns over part of our lives but part of our lives are under our own control. God wants all of us. Have you given God all of you?
How can we have a pure heart? In a very real sense, we cannot have a pure heart. Because we are all sinful before God, we can never hope to have a pure heart on our own. “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin”? (Prov 20:9). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn 1:8). Thus, we need God to purify our hearts. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). When Peter spoke about Cornelius and his household at the Jerusalem Conference, he attributed the cleansing of their hearts to God: “God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts (Acts 15:8-9).
However, God only cleanses the heart when we respond to him. In a clear allusion to baptism, the author of Hebrews writes: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22). When we are baptized into Christ–with a pure heart–God cleanses our hearts. Purity of heart comes from obedience to the truth: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Pet 1:22). Thus, when we initially obey the gospel, God purifies our hearts through the blood of Jesus.
Yet, we have an obligation to keep that heart pure. We can keep our hearts pure through the Word of God. “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word” (Ps 119:9). If we want a pure heart, we must spend time in the Word of God. If we do not spend time with Scripture, we cannot possibly keep our hearts clean from the onslaught of impurity in our modern culture.
We must make a covenant with our hearts to keep them clean. Job made such a covenant with his eyes: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?” (Job 31:1). Job determined that he would not look upon a virgin lustfully; therefore, he did not. We need to make such a commitment to keep our hearts pure. “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov 4:23). Have you made such a commitment? Are you willing to make such a commitment?
They Shall See God
A pure heart provides entrance into heaven where God is. Speaking of the heavenly city, John writes, “Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27). In heaven, the redeemed of the earth shall see God: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev 22:4).
However, we do not need to wait until we are in heaven to see God. Granted, we cannot see God with the physical eye: When Moses asked to see God, the Lord told him, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Ex 33:20). Yet, we can see God with the eye of faith. Moses saw God through faith: “By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27). We see God through the glory of the gospel: Speaking of those who refused to accept the truth, Paul writes, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). Notice that those who fail to see the glory of Christ–the image of God–have impure hearts, for they have been blinded by the “god of this world.”
Doing what is right allows us to see God: “Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 Jn 11). By implication, the opposite would also be true: Whoever does good has seen God. Have you seen God through the eye of faith? Are you expecting to see him when this world is no more?