“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Matthew 5:8 (NRSV)
As far as Old Testament sentiments go, this Beatitude has a reasonably direct connection back to Psalm 24. In this Psalm, people with clean hands and pure hearts who have not allied themselves with what is false have come to Mount Zion seeking Him. In response, the gates of Jerusalem open and the Lord – presented in terms of military power – comes in to meet them.
This is certainly not the only Psalm to present the idea of a pure heart. Psalm 73 shows us a psalmist who is very concerned at the prosperity and power of the wicked when God is supposed to be good to Israel – the pure in heart. However, by the end of the Psalm, he shakes off these thoughts and takes comfort in the idea that God will bring down the wicked and be a refuge for those who remained faithful.
In both cases, purity is presented as steadfast loyalty. Faithfulness. This makes sense when we recall that the actual meaning of purity isn’t “not dirty,” but is “unmixed.” Water with dirt in it isn’t pure, but water with sugar in it isn’t pure, either. Purity means that a thing is unmixed with any other material – a relatively large dynamic in various Torah laws. It is being holy (set apart), free not just from stains but from anything that might define the material as something else.
So, as we look at the experience of the Psalmist, he looks at faithful Israel and knows God is supposed to be good to them, but the wicked are prospering. He decides he has to take a longer-term view of the situation, but he has to remain faithful. He knows the day of the prosperity of the wicked will come to a terrible end and God will keep His faithful safe on that day.
In Psalm 24, we see the arrival of the Lord to meet His faithful, but it is not some gentle, congenial meeting. The Lord of hosts has come to Jerusalem. The Lord, strong and mighty, mighty in battle has come with His armies to Jerusalem and demands the gates be opened to admit Him.
These concepts come together as Matthew looks back on Jesus and his message. Like the other Beatitudes, this one carries with it the promise of the reversal of fortunes. If you have remained faithful, you will see God. And what will this look like? It will look like God coming with His armies to Jerusalem. The wicked will be toppled, but God will keep safe those who have been faithful during this whole time – pure, unmixed, in heart.
This obviously resonates with Jesus’ primary warning to Israel – the day was coming when those who did not listen to Jesus and embraced paths of violence and retribution would provoke the Roman army to arrive and destroy the Temple. That would be a terrible day full of tribulation, but it would also be a day when the the powerful, prosperous wicked would be brought low and the followers of Jesus would have left the city.
The faithful would see God as a concrete, historical reality. A day of great calamity for the wicked, but also a day of refuge for the pure in heart.
And thus, we come back around to what John the Baptist was trying to do – purify the faithful who believed his message so that they might survive the coming judgement that would bury the power structure in Jerusalem. Jesus is on this mission as well. It’s not his entire mission, but it’s a huge part of it.
Our circumstances are somewhat different. We are not waiting for a day when God will arrive at our city with armies to disenfranchise the wicked. God can certainly still operate that way, but the Bible does not set that expectation for all believers everywhere.
At the same time, we have a mission to be a new creation people and a promise that the renewal of all things is coming, even the defeat of death itself. We, like the Psalmist, might look at the prosperity of the wicked in our present world system and wonder why we should even bother being faithful. How can we credibly say that God is good to the pure in heart when we see faithful Christians slaughtered in some countries, imprisoned in others, and the people on top of the heap are power hungry, wealthy exploiters of their fellow human beings?
Israel asked herself this question many times in her life experiences with God, and the answer was always to persevere and trust. We don’t turn to various ways of engineering the downfall of the wicked. We live (and die) as a faithful testimony, and God will move in His way and His time, bringing his people through the storms that threaten them and exalting His faithful dead, in history, until He banishes all that plagues the world and renews the entire creation. We will want to be revealed as Sons of God on that day.
- What does being a faithful community of God’s people look like, today? Does being the people of God in the world mean more than believing particular doctrines? What does it look like?
- What are the things in your culture and in your own life that tend to work their way into pure hearts? What materials from this present world have become alloys with the people of God?