“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Purity has been a sacred matter throughout the generations. It seems that almost every culture has some ritual declaring or making participants clean or pure; we tend to value pure, clean things. Insistence on cleanliness and sanitation is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the medical and public health fields. In general, we associate good, positive things with purity and cleanliness, and negative, evil things we portray in dirtier, filthier ways. Purity is good.
In order to communicate the value of purity in a physical way, God established many commands regarding cleanliness for Israel in the Old Testament. Certain foods were reckoned as clean, and others unclean and defiling (Leviticus 11:1-47). Many bodily discharges rendered a person ritually unclean, needing purification (cf. Leviticus 12:1-8, 15:1-32). Various skin diseases also rendered a person unclean (Leviticus 13:1-14:57). Many of these cleanliness laws were established to limit contagion and the spread of disease; others were designed to mark out Israel as a special people. All of the cleanliness laws, at some level, were designed to instruct Israel about God’s sanctity and the need for cleanliness before Him.
By the first century, the Israelites were quite faithful when it came to ritual cleansings. Many small pools used for such ritual cleansing, known as mikva’ot, have been discovered through archaeological digs; some are mentioned in John 5:1-4 and John 9:7. The Israelites understood the concept of ritual cleansing; they placed a high priority on remaining ritually clean and pure.
External cleansing is great, well, and good, but Jesus’ radical message in Matthew 5:8 is that it is not enough. External cleansing can only remove the symptoms of defilement, not the cause.
Jesus considers those who are pure in heart to be blessed, or happy. It is the internal purity which allows for external purity and righteousness; despite whatever pretense people may try to maintain, as long as there is impurity and defilement within, impurity and defilement must come to the surface some day. True defilement is not something a person can ingest; defilement comes out from what is within, which is Jesus’ powerful message in Mark 7:14-23.
This “beatitude” is as much a challenge as it is a declaration of blessedness. None of us can be fully pure in heart; we all fall short of God’s glory and sin (Romans 3:23, 7:14-25, 1 John 1:8). There is always a strong temptation to foster and harbor impure thoughts and attitudes within ourselves; we easily deceive ourselves into thinking that since no other human can perceive our thoughts, no one else knows what we are thinking. To this day people face strong societal pressures to make sure that their outward actions conform to societal norms; this is why we rarely tell others how we really feel about them, and very few of us feel comfortable admitting the darkness that is often present deep within us. Thus, we keep things inside.
But God does see and know; all things in darkness will be revealed by light at some point (Ephesians 5:7-13). Meanwhile we labor under significant burdens, trying to save face and keeping up a false exterior. It never works out; it always collapses somehow.
This is why God throughout the New Testament insists on a complete cleansing and renewal of the individual. It is not as if people are generally good and just need a little help here or there; we must come to terms with our sad reality. Sin has corrupted and defiled not just our deeds but also our thoughts and feelings, and we must fully repent, changing our minds so that our attitudes and actions will follow (Acts 2:38). This is why we must capture every thought unto obedience in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5); this is why we must mentally dwell on that which is good, holy, and profitable (Philippians 4:8). We must in every way seek to remove all that which is unholy, impure, and defiled from our thoughts and feelings; then we can live without hypocrisy, allowing our exterior to shine with the interior light which comes from Christ (Matthew 5:13-16).
Those who are pure in heart shall see God. We are not intended to understand this verse on a physical, concrete level: after all, the heart is merely an muscle pumping blood, and no man can see God (John 1:18). Purity in heart involves purity of mind and emotion, and none of this is possible without purity in soul. Little wonder, then, that the Risen Jesus speaks of the saved as those who have not soiled their garments and who walk with Him dressed in white (Revelation 2:4-5), and Paul speaks of Jesus presenting a church to Himself which is pure and unblemished (Ephesians 5:25-27). Those who are pure shall be with God forever and will stand in His presence in the resurrection (cf. Revelation 21:1-22:6).
Such purity cannot come from our own futile efforts; we can try to cleanse ourselves all we want, but the stain of sin remains. None of us will walk in white because we, by our own power, have kept from defilement. We all need cleansing, and continuous cleansing at that, from Jesus through the blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 5:25-27). We must seek after purity in Christ; we must seek to align our will to His so that we can be conformed into His image (Romans 8:29), and thus maintain our cleansing. Let us seek to be pure in heart so that we may see God!
Ethan R. Longhenry