Blessed Are The Pure in Heart?
What are we to make of Matthew 5:8? Should this part of Jesus' teaching be seen as good news or bad?
How should we interpret Mt 5:8 which says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”? This teaching comes from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and it appears in the opening section of that sermon commonly referred to as the Beatitudes (which is an old English way of referring to the state of “sublime blessedness”). But most of the time I’ve interacted with this verse over the decades, I must admit that I’ve often come away feeling condemned rather than blessed, for if only the pure in heart end up seeing God, then what hope is there for someone like me?
What’s odd is that the Bible itself raises this very question in Prov. 20:9 when it asks, “Who can say I have kept my heart pure, that I am clean from sin?” Jeremiah appears to answer this question negatively when he says, “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9). So then, how should we interpret Jesus’ words in Mt 5:8?
In the first 8 verses of Matthew chapter 5, we read the following:
Seeing the crowds, [Jesus] went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: ‘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.’
Too often, I think, we read the Beatitudes as if Jesus had told his followers that they would be blessed if they become meek, contrite, or merciful, and insofar as they work hard to purify their hearts, etc. But this isn’t what Jesus is saying in this passage. Unlike Moses, Jesus isn’t promising his followers future rewards on the condition of obedience to his commands. In fact, as you study these words closely, you’ll discover that there aren’t any commands or imperatives to be be found here in the Beatitudes. Commands and imperatives lied at the very heart and center of the Mosaic covenant. Moses, you may recall, told the people they would be blessed if they kept the law, and that they would be cursed if they did not. After hearing the law proclaimed by God himself at Mt. Sinai, the people responded by saying, “All the words Yahweh has spoken we will do” (Ex 24:3).
But Jesus is not a new Moses. Rather than promising future blessing as the reward of obedience, Jesus first blesses his people and calls them to live in the light of this new reality. This is the fulfillment of the “new covenant” prophesied by Jeremiah: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…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, my covenant that they broke” (Jer 31:31-32). This covenant, according to the prophet, was NOT going to be like the Sinai covenant. Here in Matthew 5, it’s important for us to notice that Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, not with legal obligations, but gospel blessings. And this becomes even more clear when we consider Jesus’ audience.
At the opening of Matthew 5 we’re told that as Jesus saw the crowds, “he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them…” For most of my Christian life I pictured Jesus standing on the top of a hill as he delivered the Sermon on the Mount and addressed the crowds below. But the words of this passage instead make clear that when the crowds began to follow Jesus on this occasion, he decided to leave them behind as he climbed to the top of a nearby mountain. Then he called for his disciples to join him (Mt 5:1, Mk 3:13, Lk 6:13), and when they arrived, he sat down and began to teach them (Mt 5:2).
Have you ever pictured it this way? Jesus isn’t standing, he’s sitting. And he’s not preaching to the masses, but to a smaller group of disciples who specifically responded to his call. He’s in a remote location, away from the crowds, teaching his followers while he’s in a seated position. In other words, it’s actually a much more intimate setting.1 According to Mark, while Jesus was on the top of the mountain, “he appointed twelve whom he also named apostles” (cf. Lk 6:13). In my thinking, therefore, the Sermon on the Mount was first intended as a kind of ordination sermon at the time the twelve were selected and appointed as apostles.
And yet, who were the men Jesus ended up appointing to this new office? Recall for a moment Peter’s comment when he first saw Jesus perform a miracle. “Depart from me,” he said, “for I am a sinful man” (Lk 5:8). This is the kind of person Jesus selected to become one of his apostles. He didn’t choose super-saints, but ordinary sinners like you and me. But how could Mt 5:8 possibly be received by someone like Peter as good news? If Peter is truly aware of his sin, wouldn’t this statement throw him into despair?
First, I think we need a quick refresher course in the theology of the Old Testament, starting with Psalm 15. This Psalm was penned by David sometime around 1000 BC, and in the first few verses we read the following:
O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill? 2 He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart; 3 who does not slander with his tongue and does no evil to his neighbor, nor takes up a reproach against his friend…”
As numerous other passages make clear, the people of Israel continually failed to live up to this standard, both individually and corporately. No one walked blamelessly and did what was right from the heart. Even the “holy” prophet Isaiah was forced to admit that he was “a man of unclean lips, and that he lived among a people of unclean lips” (Is 6:5). And this is why the people of Israel were so frequently exiled and banished from God’s presence.
This is the state of affairs that led David to say in Ps 143:2, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” And it’s why his son Solomon asked the question, “Who can say I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?” (Pr 20:9). Jesus, of course, acknowledged this disturbing reality as well: “Out of the heart,” he said, “come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are what defile a person” (Mt 15:19-20).
Psalm 51 is another important Old Testament passage to consider. In verses 1 and 2 David prays, “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!” But how was he to be washed and cleansed? In verse 7 he says “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
The word hyssop takes us back to the Exodus account, in which the Israelites were called to dip the branches of this plant in the blood of the lamb in order to apply it to their doorposts, and it is also referred to in Numbers 19, since the high priest would use it to sprinkle water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer to cleanse those who had become defiled in some way. In verse 10 David says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Not only does he long for ultimate purification and cleansing, but here we also find him asking for a completely new heart with new affections to be given him. In other words, he’s not merely pleading for forgiveness, but he’s also longing for transformation; he wants not only to be washed and cleansed, but also to be sanctified and renewed.
In verses 5 and 6, David says, “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, of course, had committed a great sin, and the more he was made aware of the gravity of that sin, the more he began to consider his need for mercy, grace, and pardon. This is the truth that God desires within each of us. He desires that we come face to face with our true condition, that we do not merely make mistakes, but that all of us are children of a fallen race. We’re conceived in sin; all of us have become like lost sheep who have wandered away from the true path. True inner deception, therefore, is to “cover up” our iniquity, just as our first parents tried to cover the shame of their nakedness with fig leaves. This is the point that John drives home in his first epistle: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us [but] if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1Jn 1:8-9).
So in light of all this background work, let’s return now to Mt 5:8. I think it’s important for us to recall that in the preceding verses, Jesus has been pronouncing his blessings on those who are poor and broken in spirit, on the meek and contrite, on those hungering for, not filled with righteousness. And in verse 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. Jesus is declaring to his newly appointed apostles that God is merciful, and that he will indeed pardon sinners. So in light of this, how are we to then interpret the line, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God?” Is Jesus now changing gears and promising to bless only those who have kept themselves pure, and who are completely without sin?
The word here that our English translations render “pure” is the Greek word katharos, which is also often translated by use of the word, “clean.”2 Jesus used this word katharos in what I believe is a very significant verse from 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 (Jn 15:1-4).
Specifically, I’d like to call your attention to verse 3 in which Jesus says, “Already you are clean (katharos) because of the word that I have spoken to you.” At the moment of creation, God simply spoke the words, “Let there be,” and it was. And we find something similar here as Jesus tells Peter, and all the other sinful disciples there in the upper room that they are “already clean,” not because they have always kept themselves pure; not because he knows they have good intentions; not because they have turned over a new leaf and are trying to do better, but because of his own declarative word. He speaks, and it is so.
There’s another fascinating passage in Hebrews chapter 10 that relates to all this:
But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For 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.’ (Heb 10:3-7).
The author of this epistle is interacting with Psalm 40, and he’s arguing that Jesus is the person who is being quoted. In other words, Jesus is the one who came to do God’s will, and he’s the one who perfectly treasured God’s law within his heart. Now take a look at verses 8-9: “When he said, ‘You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’…then he added, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will.’ …And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Mysteriously, in this text sanctification is spoken of in the past tense. We have been sanctified, purified, and cleansed. But how can this be? By trying harder, or turning over a new leaf? By coming up with some kind of new year’s resolution?
“By that will we have been sanctified.” Who’s will is being spoken of here? It’s the will of the one spoken of by David whose ultimate mission was to fulfill God’s law in our place (Mt 5:17-18). Jesus actually says 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 a perfect 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.” (Heb 10:19-22).
What a bold pronouncement! Here we are called not merely to have confidence but full assurance that Christ is enough to present us holy and blameless as we enter into God’s heavenly court. As Paul says in 1Cor 6:11, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Notice how God is the active party in every part of this equation, and we are merely the recipients of his gracious activity.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” If you are in Christ, these are not words of condemnation, since you have been washed and renewed in him. You are now already clean and pure, not because of your own merits, but because of God’s gracious intervention on your behalf. Do you still struggle with sin? So did Peter! In fact, not long after Jesus pronounced him clean and pure, Peter ended up denying Jesus three times. And yet, he was later completely restored. Our right standing before God is found exclusively in Christ. He is the Righteous One—Israel’s true vine—and we are clean and pure, not in ourselves, but only as we are united to him.
Shane Rosenthal is the founder and host of The Humble Skeptic podcast. He was one of the creators of a national radio broadcast called the White Horse Inn, which he also hosted from 2019-2021. Shane has written numerous articles for various sites and publications, including TableTalk, Core Christianity, Modern Reformation, Heidelblog, and others. Shane received an M.A. in Historical Theology from Westminster Seminary California, and he lives with his family in the greater St. Louis area.
Finding Christ in All the Scriptures
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After Jesus taught this material to his disciples, according to Lk 6:12 - 7:1, he came down the mountain and stood on a level plain, and addressed the large crowd of followers that had gathered there (using much of the same curriculum). This, I believe is the best way to make sense of the differences between the Gospels related to the Sermon on the Mount.
This is how the ESV renders katharos in Mt 23:26, Lk 11:41, Jn 13:10, Rom 14:20, and a host of other passages.