A sermon by Steve Cooper
I’ve been thinking about the sayings of Jesus which we call The Beatitudes. In each of these 8 sayings Jesus begins with the words ‘Blessed are..’, and he commends those of his followers who show character.
The Beatitudes challenge the way we see life. In his profound book Your God is too small, J.B. Phillips shows how radical the Beatitudes are by contrasting them with the normal views of most people. He describes the normal view like this: ‘Happy are those who are pushers, hard-boiled, complainers, blasé, slave-drivers, knowledgeable people of the world, trouble-makers.’ When Jesus describes the character of people he commends, it would have unnerved his first hearers, and should startle us too as radical demands.
This morning let’s explore one of these Beatitudes, and reflect on the radical call Jesus gives in this saying.
This morning let’s think about a radical saying of Jesus. It’s one of his Beatitudes, where he says ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Matthew 5:5). It’s a saying which confronts us, challenges us, searches us, yet also comforts us. Most of the message of Jesus as a whole is about forgiveness and grace, but his grace should transform those who meekly embrace it. This commendation of the pure in heart confronts us with the challenge of whether we are really being transformed in character in response to God’s grace.
So Jesus said ‘Blessed are the pure in heart.’ When we do stop to think about purity – not something modern people, including Christians, do very often – we usually think of sexual purity. We remember the dark, impure thoughts that have plagued us, and we feel ashamed to look Jesus in the face. It’s understandable why we think immediately of sexual purity, for Jesus later said ‘I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matt. 5:28). But Jesus’ words in this Beatitude are not primarily about sexual purity. Jesus appears to have drawn this Beatitude from Psalm 24, so we need to see what being ‘pure in heart’ means there.
Psalm 24 refers to the person ‘who has clean hands and a pure heart.’ This kind of person ‘does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord and vindication from God his Saviour. Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.’ (Ps 24:4-6) In this psalm the primary reference is to sincerity. Those with ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ are truthful, and actively seek for God. They are free from falsehood and deceit, both in relationship with God and with people.
J.B. Phillips gets it right in his translation: the pure in heart are ‘utterly sincere.’ Their whole life, public and private, is transparent before God and people. Their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them. The pure in heart are single-minded in commitment to the kingdom and its righteousness. Jesus urged his disciples to ‘seek first [God’s] kingdom (in other words, God’s gracious rule), and his righteousness (right relationships with God and people).’ That is the focus of the pure in heart – they have a sincere devotion to Christ.
One person I know who is pure in heart is my wife. She wouldn’t want me to share this with you on radio, and I certainly didn’t ask her permission! But I’ve been married to her for 35 years, and she is certainly a sincere Christian. She committed her life to the Jesus as her Saviour and Lord when she was very young. She’s always had a sense that God is watching and observing her, so she is careful about what she says and does. Her whole aim in life is to please God. She’s not perfect, and she would be the first to acknowledge that! But those who know her well, including me, agree that she is transparent before God and people, with nothing deceitful or devious. When our children were young she insisted that, very importantly, they should always tell the truth and never tell lies. That’s part of what it means to be ‘pure in heart.’
Jesus commends those of his followers who are ‘pure in heart.’ This means they are sincere, honest, transparent before God and people, with no deceit or hypocrisy. One result of this sincerity in relationship with God and people is seeking after inner moral purity as opposed to merely external piety or ceremonial cleanness.
This is an important theme in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their obsession with external, ceremonial purity (Matt 23:25-28). He used the illustration of a cup and dish – he said there is no point in cleaning just the outside of the utensil while the inside is dirty and grimy. So with these Pharisees – they were not attending to their own motives, attitudes, and thoughts. As Jesus debated with them about purity he challenged them about the state of their hearts, which matters much more than ritual observance (Matt 15:1-20).
It’s a temptation for us today to be satisfied with mere external or ritual cleanness – we may feel we do the right thing by attending church, knowing the Bible, serving in a church ministry, and avoiding obvious evil. But God is pure and holy, he sees all, and in his light the darkness of deceit must vanish. He wants us to deal with the deeper things inside us which cause us to be unclean and impure. The apostle James commanded: ‘purify your hearts’ (Ja 4:8). Paul wrote, ‘let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God’ (2 Cor 7:1).
We must examine ourselves, constantly, to see if there is any hypocrisy, play-acting, cover-ups, inward sham, lies, or moral filth. Jesus describes the things which lurk in our inner hearts, which pollute us. He mentions ‘evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander’ (Matt 15:19). We can take a list like this in the Bible and meditate upon it, and ask the Lord to show us if there is any of this kind of impurity in our minds and thoughts.
The Beatitudes of Jesus contrast radically with the world around us, and this particular saying commending the pure in heart is part of that radical call. Modern society is obsessed with appearances; with maintaining a veneer of respectability over the corruption that lurks beneath. Jesus calls his followers to be different. We are to abandon this pretence. The road to purity of heart commences when we receive God’s offer of forgiveness in Christ. When we trust in Jesus as our Saviour, who died on the cross so our sinful, unclean hearts can be cleansed, we are purified from sin (Heb 10:22). Having commenced the journey, we develop purity of heart as we deal with God and each other on a ‘heart basis’ – with sincerity.
The idea of purity makes us think of gold and silver. In making precious metals ready to be shaped in objects of beauty it’s necessary to put them through the fire and get rid of impurities. So with us. As we allow God to make us more pure, we will reflect more of God’s own beauty. He will look at us and delight to see a reflection of himself. Other people will see something beautiful in us too – a sincere person who radiates the beauty and purity of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus commends those who are ‘pure in heart’, he adds a marvellous promise: ‘they will see God.’ This is the goal of those who are pure in heart – the vision of God. Back in Psalm 24 those with clean hands and pure hearts ‘seek God’, and ‘seek God’s face’ (Ps 24:6).
In what sense can Christians ‘see God’ in this life? Most of us will never see God physically before we die. Here on earth the people of God can see God now with the eye of faith. Like Moses, we may find strength ‘as if seeing him who is invisible’ (Heb 11:27). This means we can know him, feel he is near, enjoy his presence, and sense his gracious hand upon us.
In exceptional cases there may be visionary experiences in this world which include ‘seeing’ God, as for John on Patmos. In Revelation chapter 1 John records an astonishing vision of the majesty and glory of the Lord Jesus, which God revealed uniquely to John. But such ‘seeing’ remains only a foretaste of the true vision of God in heaven, which is currently the privilege of angels around God’s throne (Matt 18:10).
Believers will need to wait for the new Jerusalem before they are given this privilege of ‘seeing God’s face’. In Revelation 22 we read this magnificent description of the New Jerusalem: ‘The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face… There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light’ (Rev 22:3-5).
What a compelling and beautiful prospect for all believers in the Lord Jesus to look forward to! The apostle Paul put it like this, in his famous chapter 1 Corinthians 13, praising the nature of love: ‘For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known’ (1 Cor 13:12).
Here is the most wonderful promise which could be given to us – to see God. One day all believers will see the most wonderful reality: the beauty, glory, majesty, dazzling brilliance, and perfection of the eternal God. We will fall on our knees, and, as Charles Wesley put it in his hymn, we’ll be ‘lost in wonder, love and praise.’
C.S. Lewis captures this vision of God so well in his book The Screwtape Letters. As a senior devil writes to a junior devil, he describes what it’s like for a Christian to die. He writes: ‘…he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man. …the patient’s prostration in the Presence … [is like a man who] hears that his true beloved whom he has loved all his life and whom he had believed to be dead is alive and even now at the door.’ (ch.31)
We are destined for this, so spend time in meditating on the vision of God that awaits all believers. What an incentive this vision of God gives for purity of heart! The apostle John puts it so well: ‘we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’ (1 Jn 3:2-3).
Let me offer a prayer composed by Benedict of Nursia, an Italian Christian leader from the 6th century AD. It’s a prayer for purity of heart.
‘O gracious and holy God,
give us diligence to seek you,
wisdom to perceive you,
and patience to wait for you.
Grant us, O God,
a mind to meditate on you;
eyes to behold you;
ears to listen for your word;
a heart to love you;
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of the Spirit
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
St Benedict, 480-543