by Shane Rosenthal
What are we to make of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:8 when he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Is this good news, or bad news? First of all, we need to take a look at the larger context of Jesus’ statement, which appears in the opening section of his Sermon on the Mount, often referred to as the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Mt. 5:3-8).
Too often I think many of us read these words as if Jesus had said, “You will be blessed if you become meek, merciful and pure in heart” but that’s not actually what Jesus is saying. He’s not promising his followers future rewards on the condition of obedience to his commands. In fact, that’s the basic structure of the Mosaic covenant. In that covenant, Moses did say “You will be blessed if you keep the words of this law, and you will be cursed if you do not” And after hearing the law read, the people of Israel responded by saying, “All this we will do” (cf. Ex. 19:5-9, Lev. 26:3ff, Deut. 28:9ff).
But Jesus is not a new Moses. Rather than offering blessing as the reward of obedience, Jesus first blesses his people and calls them to live in light of that new reality. This is the new covenant that was proclaimed by God centuries in advance in Jeremiah 31: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…” (31:31-32).
So in other words, Jesus does not begin his Sermon on the Mount with legal obligations, but rather, with gospel blessings. And this comes into full focus when we consider Jesus’ audience. After witnessing Jesus’ miraculous power, Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Levi was a tax collector who likely gained his wealth by means of extortion and intimidation. These are the men who are blessed in the Beatitudes. We also see this in Jesus’ parables. The prodigal son who squandered his father’s wealth was blessed, rather than the outwardly obedient older brother; the tax collector, rather than the outwardly obedient Pharisee, went home justified.
Addition proof that the Beatitudes should be seen as gospel, rather than law, can be found in Matt 5:17 in which Jesus says pointedly, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.” Now why does Jesus have to stop here for a moment to say this? Likely because he has been pronouncing Gospel blessings without requirements or conditions to sinful tax collectors and fishermen! In his letter to the Romans, Paul makes a similar point when as anticipates the question of those hearing the gospel of free justification by grace alone. He says “What shall we say then? Shall we sin that grace may abound?” And as you may recall, he doesn’t answer by pointing to back to the law, but rather he points his readers to the new identity they have in Christ. He points to a better understanding of the Gospel, which not only includes forgiveness and justification, but also the fact that we’ve been raised with him in newness of life.
And so anticipating this same sort of question, Jesus says to his chosen followers, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” You see, Jesus was not going to be lowering his standards. Rather, he had actually come as the second Adam in order to fulfill all righteousness. When Satan tempted this new Adam in the wilderness, he was unsuccessful. And on the banks of the Jordan river we’re told that the Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, as the Father pronounced his heavenly benediction, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
But if Jesus is really preaching the Gospel in the Beatitudes, then what are we to do with verse 8 of chapter 5: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”? How can this possibly be heard by anyone as good news? In order to answer this question, we first need to do a little Old Testament background study. First, let’s take a look at to Psalm24, which was written by David probably some time around 1000 BC:
The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers. 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. He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob (Ps. 24:1-6).
In this text, the blameless one (namely, the man with clean hands and a pure heart), is the one who will receive the promised blessing. The problem, however, is that not only do the people Israel fail both individually and collectively to remain pure, and thereby to obtain the blessing of God, but various biblical writers often admit that this is an impossible task. For example in Ps. 143:2, David pleads to God saying, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” In Proverbs 20:9, Solomon asks, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’”? And the prophet Jeremiah confesses that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).
Jesus himself acknowledges all this as he explains to the religious leaders of his day, that “whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled…But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Mt 15). And though Psalm 24 offers a blessing to “the generation of those who seek God,” Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans that in reality, “no one who does good, not even one” (3:12).
But the most important Old Testament passage for us to interact with on this topic is David’s prayer of repentance and confession found in Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (51:1-2). In verse 7, David goes on to say, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The word hyssop reminds us of the Exodus account, in which the Israelites were called to dip the branches of this plant in the blood of the lamb to mark the doorposts and thus be spared from the wrath of the angel of death. David is asking to be purged, purified and cleansed with the blood of the lamb, so that he can be spared from God’s just and holy wrath. In verse 10 he prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Not only is David longing for ultimate purification and cleansing from the blood of the lamb, that all his sin and impurity may be wiped away, but he also asks for the implanting of a new heart, for new affections, for a a right spirit to be given to him. In other words, he is not only asking to be forgiven and declared righteous while still yet a sinner, but he is also asking to be changed here and now, to be sanctified and renewed.
In verse 14 and following he says, “Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (51:14-17). If you think about it, that last verse is similar to the opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus pronounces his blessings on those who are “poor in spirit.” Similarly, we should think of the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18, in which the tax collector, feeling the weight of his sin and guilt, stands far off in the distance, and refuses to look up to heaven. This man has a broken spirit and contrite heart, and like David before him, he prayed, “Have mercy on me O God.” This man was not despised by God, but actually “went home justified” (18:14).
In verses 5 and 6 of Ps. 51, David writes, 5 “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” David, you’ll recall, was guilty of adultery and murder, and his awareness of the gravity of his sin lead him to consider his need for grace and pardon. This is the truth that God desires within, that we come face to face with this grim reality, that we do not merely make mistakes, but that we are all conceived in sin, and are children of a fallen race. True inner deception is to “cover up” one’s own iniquity, just as our first parents covered the shame of their nakedness with fig leaves. This is the point that John makes in his first epistle when he writes that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn. 1:8-9).
So now, let’s now return to our examination of the words that we find in the Matt 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We have already seen numerous Old Testament parallels to the blessing that Jesus bestows on his flock. Those whom Jesus blesses are the meek and humble, the contrite and broken in spirit. And his word of benediction is being received as good news to this band of fishermen and tax collectors. But when Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” we should ask whether he is continuing with this gospel theme. For Solomon had asked a thousand years earlier, “Who can really say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?’” If only those who are pure in heart are blessed, then who among his disciples can actually celebrate?
We must remember that for the last few verses, Jesus has been pronouncing his blessings on the poor and broken in spirit, on the meek and humble, on those hungering for, not filled with righteousness. And in Matt 5:7, Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” Here we see beyond the shadow of a doubt that we’re dealing with a gospel announcement. So in light of all this good news, does Jesus then change gears in verse 8? Is he now promising to bless only those who have kept their hearts pure?
The word here that our English translations usually render as “pure” is actually the greek word katharos which can either be translated as pure or clean, so the sentence can just as easily be translated, “Blessed are the clean-hearted.” The question before us though, is whether this should be read a law or gospel. Is Jesus condemning his followers for not having pure hearts, or is he pronouncing blessings on the recipients of his own mercy? I believe that Jesus answers this question for us in the opening verses of John 15:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me (15:1-4).
In verse 3 of the above passage, Jesus says, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” At the moment of creation, God simply spoke the words, “let there be,” and there was. And we find something similar here as Jesus tells sinful Peter, tax collector Levi, and all the other disciples that they are clean, not because they have always kept themselves pure; not because Jesus knows that they have good intentions; not because they have turned a new leaf and are trying to do better. No. Because of the power of his own declarative word, Jesus is basically speaking a new reality into existence. He simply says it, and it is so. The word translated clean in Jn. 15:3 is the word katharos. “Already you are katharos — already you are clean and pure, because this is what I declare you to be.”
Hebrews chapter 10 clarifies this point even further. In verses 4 and following we’re told that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.’ Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” (10:4-7). The author of this epistle is interacting with the words of Psalm 40, and he’s basically arguing that this Psalm was a prophecy of the coming messiah whose mission was to fulfill God’s will. This is essentially what Jesus said of himself in the Sermon on the Mount: “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill all righteousness.”
In verses 8-10 of Hebrews chapter 10 we’re told that, “When he said above, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’ He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Notice that in verse 10, sanctification is spoken of in the past tense. We have been sanctified, purified, and cleansed. But how? By trying harder, or turning a new leaf… No, the text says, “and by that will we have been sanctified.” What will is this? It’s the will of the messianic deliverer himself, the one spoken of in Psalm 40 who came to do God’s will for us. Jesus said something to this effect in John 17:19 when he prayed, “For them I sanctify myself, that they may be truly sanctified.” It was Jesus who submitted to the will of his father, he fulfilled all the righteous demands of the law, and also offered himself as propitiatory sacrifice for our redemption. And so the author of Hebrews concludes by saying:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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” (10:19-22).
What bold pronouncements! Here we are called to have confidence and full assurance that Christ, both by his obedient life and sacrificial death, is enough to present us holy and blameless and pure. In short, we are pure, not because of anything we have done, but because of Christ’s own declarative word. He has washed us with his blood and has cleansed us with pure water. This is why in Romans 8:1 Paul says that “There is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” This is why we do not have to fear God’s coming judgment, or a period of indefinite suffering in Purgatory that purifies any remaining sins. If you are in Christ, “Already you are pure” (Jn. 15:3), because of the power of his declarative word. “Out of the anguish of his soul,” Isaiah wrote of the coming Suffering Servant, “he will make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is. 53:11). By his will, “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Shane Rosenthal is the host and producer of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast. He has an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California and resides with his family in the St. Louis area.