This sermon is part of the sermon series "Beatitudes". See series.
Through the centuries there have been some people who have wanted to view Jesus' teaching in the Beatitudes as a kind of ladder that can carry us to heaven. If you are poor in spirit, you have passed the first rung. If you mourn, you have reached the second rung. If you are meek, you have come to the third rung, and so on. But then we come to the beatitude we are considering today and this whole approach breaks down. "Blessed are the pure in heart," Jesus says, "for they will see God." The system breaks down, not because we cannot understand Jesus' words, but because Jesus is entirely clear that our effort to climb into God's presence by way of this beatitude fails utterly. These words of Jesus pull the ladder out from under our feet and send us tumbling.
Purity of heart implies sincerity.
John Stott points out that Jesus' words in this beatitude have often been understood in terms of "inward purity." He notes that the popular interpretation is to regard purity of heart as an inner cleansing from moral defilement, as opposed to merely ceremonial cleansing. But Stott proposes that the core idea expressed in this statement has to do with singleness of heart. What Jesus portrays here is the "single self" as opposed to the divided self. It is the person who presents the true self to God and man.
If this is true, then the opposite of purity of heart is hypocrisy. John Stott describes the pure in heart this way, "Their very heart—including their thoughts and motives—is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior, or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them; they are without guile." What, then, must the hypocrite be like? We all know people who are hypocrites, and most of us are convinced that we aren't one of them. Hypocrisy is something that other people do. I'm not saying that there is no one willing to admit to being a hypocrite. Those who do admit hypocrisy, however, are usually trying to make the opposite point about themselves. What they really mean is, "I am the only person genuine enough to admit that I am inconsistent. I am not really a hypocrite. It is all you people who say you are not who are the real hypocrites." People who think such things are right in one respect. Hypocrisy is all about presenting a false face to God and man. The word hypocrite itself originated in the world of Greek drama and has come to refer to someone who is playing a role. This beatitude of Jesus presents a problem before it offers a promise, because it is very hard for me not to present a false face to God. I am sorely tempted to come into God's presence like an actor wearing a mask.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is the poem "In the Bleak Midwinter" by Christina Rossetti. In it Rossetti describes the nativity of Christ and asks:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him-
Give my heart.
Give my heart? My true heart? If you knew my heart the way I know my heart, you would understand why I would rather come into God's presence wearing a mask. On top of what I know of my heart, the Bible tells me that I really don't know it at all: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). This is our condition. This is what makes hypocrisy so easy to spot in others and so hard to self-diagnose. This is why even those who admit to being a hypocrite easily miss the mark. The admission itself is often a symptom of the disease. We take off the mask only to reveal another mask underneath.
In his book What's So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey writes, "As a child, I put on my best behavior on Sunday mornings, dressing up for God and for Christians around me. It never occurred to me that church was a place to be honest. Now, though, as I seek to look at the world through the lens of grace, I realize that imperfection is the prerequisite for grace. Light only gets in through the cracks."
Purity of heart must imply cleansing.
Where sinful people are concerned, there can be no singleness of heart without cleansing. The word that is translated "pure" in Matthew 5:8 is a word that also means "clean." Taken by itself, of course, it could refer to something that has always been pure—something that has been clean from the start. But if we look at the way this idea is treated throughout the Scriptures we find the biblical notion of purity always implies the need for cleansing. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Old Testament. One could say that the Law of Moses is obsessed with the need for cleansing. There are clean and unclean foods, actions and states that make a person unclean, and ceremonies for cleansing. In the Law of Moses, every approach to God begins with an act of cleansing. Not even the High Priest, the only worshiper permitted to enter directly into God's presence, was exempt from this. The message in this was clear: everybody stands in need of cleansing.
The other message of Old Testament worship was equally important: you can't cleanse yourself. Old Testament worship was built around the concept of a substitute. The ceremonial cleansing in the Law of Moses was mediated through the shedding of blood. The Book of Hebrews says: "The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." But there was a problem with this system. Even though it was blood shed prescribed by God, it couldn't fully and finally cleanse the believer from sin. Most importantly, these ceremonies, as significant as they were, couldn't reach the center from which all thoughts and actions flow. They were unable to cleanse the heart. And since they couldn't cleanse the heart, they were also unable to cleanse the conscience. The best they could do, really, is remind the worshiper of the need to be cleansed.
The New Testament, too, is concerned with cleansing but looks at it from a different angle. Old Testament worship looked forward to a sacrifice to come. New Testament worship looks back on a sacrifice that has been made once and for all. So Hebrews 9:13-14 says, "The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" Now that God has cut away my good intentions and exposed my mask, what do I have to offer him? I really have no choice. I only have one heart. If I cannot offer him a pure, single heart, I must offer him my divided heart.
My prayer must be that from the old Lutheran hymn by Ehrenfried Liebich:
Here is my heart!
—my God, I give it Thee;
I heard Thee call and say,
"Not to the world, my child, but unto me,"
I heard, and will obey.
Here is love's offering to my King,
Which in glad sacrifice I bring.
Here is my heart.
Here is my heart!
—surely the gift, though poor,
My God will not despise;
Vainly and long I sought to make it pure
To meet Thy searching eyes:
Corrupted first in Adam's fall,
The stains of sin pollute it all.
My guilty heart!
Here is my heart!
—my heart so hard before,
Now by Thy grace made meet;
Yet bruised and wearied, it can only pour
Its anguish at Thy feet;
It groans beneath the weight of sin,
It sighs salvation's joy to win.
My mourning heart!
Here is my heart!
—in Christ its longings end,
Near to His cross it draws;
It says, "Thou art my portion, O my friend!
Thy blood my ransom was."
And in the Saviour it has found
What blessedness and peace abound.
My trusting heart!
Here is my heart!
—ah! Holy Spirit, come,
Its nature to renew,
And consecrate it wholly as Thy home,
A temple fair and true.
Teach it to love and serve Thee more,
To fear Thee, trust Thee, and adore.
My cleansed heart!
Do you see the progression? Here is my heart, Lord. My guilty heart! My mourning heart! My trusting heart! My cleansed heart! If these beatitudes are a ladder, it is not a ladder that we ascend. It is a ladder by which we descend. Christ's words take us down into the depths of our hearts until we see ourselves as we truly are, recognize our need, and offer our true selves to Christ. Like children who stand at the top of the stairs, afraid to descend into darkness and shadow, we don't want to go there—but we know we must. It is our only hope. There is a promise that comes with these words: "Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God."
Purity of heart implies transformation.
This promise gives us confidence to finally remove the mask. This is what gives us courage to make the descent into the depths of our heart. We know that someone else has made the descent before us; Christ will meet us in that dark place. More importantly, we know that Christ alone has the power to transform our house of darkness into an abode of light. "Come near to God and he will come near to you," we are told in James 4:8-10. "Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn, and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up." Notice that this is not an invitation to the pure but to those in need of purity. The invitation is addressed to those whose hands and hearts need cleansing—those who are grieved by the state of their hearts.
Draw near to God and take off your mask. Offer him your true heart. Offer it not in hopeless resignation, but in hope: he will lift you up. Offer Christ your sins and he will bear them away. Offer Christ your hands and he will wash them clean. Offer Christ your divided heart and he will give it back to you whole. This is our hope when we come to Christ for cleansing—the hope that he will receive us and lift us up. It is the hope of transformation. John Ortberg writes in his book The Life You've Always Wanted:
The primary goal of spiritual life is human transformation. It is not making sure people know where they're going after they die, or helping them have a richer interior life, or seeing that they have lots of information about the Bible, although these can be good things. Let's put first things first. The first goal of spiritual life is the reclamation of the human race.
So why are we so little changed? Perhaps it's because we have been willing to settle for half-measures. In Matthew 23:25, Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his day for being content with merely cosmetic changes: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence."
The Pharisees were scrupulous in observing the purity laws of the Old Testament. So scrupulous, in fact, that they added laws of their own to make sure they didn't transgress. In time, their laws began to supersede God's laws and eventually became a substitute for them. But their extra measures didn't go far enough. "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!" Jesus says in Matthew 23:27-28, "You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness."
What makes this approach to purity so appealing is that it deals with things on the surface, the things that are most accessible; it focuses on externals. It is also attractive because it's quantifiable. I can count the laws. I can keep score. It's easy for me to compare myself to others. It makes it easy for me to delude myself into thinking that if I look holy to others, I am holy. My spiritual life then becomes more about keeping up appearances than about transformation. But it doesn't take long for the façade we have constructed to start showing cracks. The outside looks good, but the inside hasn't changed.
Another reason we may not be as transformed as we would like to be is because we are still in process. The transformation of character that comes to us through Christ is a progressive work of the Holy Spirit. It happens over time and with experience. What's more, there is a cooperative dimension to it. It is a work of the Spirit, but I participate in his work. Second 2 Corinthians 7:1 says, "Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God." But these things do not always come easily to us; there is often an element of struggle. Like the apostle Paul, we often find that when we want to do good, evil is right there with us. We start the day telling ourselves we will do better, and before we are even out the door, like an uninvited guest who shows up just in time to ruin the party, sin makes its presence known. My spouse says something that irritates me and I snap back, matching anger for anger and hurt for hurt; I look innocently in someone's direction and suddenly find my mind is moving towards a realm I know is wrong; I put my money in the plate and regret it just a little; I sing the hymn with every intention of concentrating on God, but find myself comparing my voice to that of the person behind me. Like a rude relation we had hoped would move out, evil comes sidling up to us with a smirk to remind us that it hasn't left yet. That's when we need to remember these words of Jesus: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." Ultimately, these are words of promise. Yes, they show me my need. They motivate me to call out to Christ for cleansing. But they also show me my destiny. They point to the day when the struggle will be over and the transformation will be complete.
In the end, we find that these Beatitudes are a ladder after all, and every blessing a rung. It's not a ladder by which we ascend into God's presence, but a ladder by which Christ descends to us and grants us his blessing. Come as you are. Offer your divided heart to Jesus, and let him change it.
John Koessler is professor and chair of the Pastoral Studies Department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.