Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

49. The Beatitudes - Blessed are the Pure in Heart (Matthew 5:8)*

The Law was a schoolmaster to lead Israel unto Christ. Yet it failed as a teacher-not because of any defect in itself, but because its pupils were unwilling to learn.

In a number of important respects, such as contact with the dead or with leprosy or with human issue, an Israelite was pronounced technically unclean. Special rites and ceremonies were provided by which such an individual might be brought back into the congregation of the Lord. All these ordinances were intended, of course, to teach Israel to recognize that all which has to do with sin and mortality estranges from God. The people were being led to ask themselves what other characteristics of their daily lives could similarly set a barrier between themselves and the awful majesty of their God. They were being bidden learn and learn again the lesson of holiness--

“holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord”(Heb.12:14).

But alas, they were well content to stop short at superficialities. It suited them fine, and especially their professional religionists, the Pharisees, to concentrate on outward technical cleanness, because it diverted the spotlight of conscience away from the least glamorous thing in all human life-one’s own inner depravity and unworthiness. It is always uncomfortable to contemplate honestly one’s own tawdry failures and ingrained perversity. Washing your hands is easier than repentance. Having a bath is vastly more pleasant than regeneration. Sprucing up for a party is a positive pleasure, but who can enjoy a contrite searching of the soul?

The Heart

So Jesus called-and still calls-his disciples from obsession with externals. He bids them

seek God’s help in a spring-cleaning of the heart. Yet, until one recognizes clearly just what it is that needs this renewal and where to turn for help in the process, there can be no worthwhile progress at all.

For centuries English language usage has figuratively associated the heart with the emotions and affections and sympathies. Consequently ever since King James’ men made their version of the Bible, inserting the word “heart” where the original texts have the Hebrew and Greek words for “heart”, most readers of Scripture have imported into many a familiar passage a seriously mistaken idea.

When an eye is cast thoughtfully over a number of representative passages like the following, the true significance of “heart”, as meaning “mind” or even “brain”, becomes evident:

“Apply thine heart to understanding” (Pr. 2:2).

“Bezaleel and Aholiab... in whose heart the Lord had put wisdom (planning ability and technical skill)” (Ex. 36:2). Solomon asked for “an understanding heart to judge thy people” (1 Kgs. 3:9). “Thy words (the Book of the Law) were found, and I did eat them: and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jer. 15:16). “What reason ye in your hearts?” (Lk. 5:22).

“If thou shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead...” (Rom. 10:9).
And especially Lk. 24:25, 32, 38: “O fools and slow of heart to believe... Did not our heart burn within us (did not our minds race?)... while he opened to us the scriptures? ... Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts?”

So then, to be pure in heart is to have a mind which God regards as fit for His fellowship, a mind not given to evil, defiling thoughts, a mind cleansed by the detergents of heaven.

This is the big problem, this is the soul-shattering discouragement. How is a man to make his heart a fit dwelling-place of God, “a temple meet for Thee”? Many have set about the cleaning-up process in their own resolution and enthusiasm, only to end up where they started, with resolution worn down by constant failure and enthusiasm wilted before endless discouragement. For, of course, self-regeneration (which is what it amounts to) is a task beyond the powers of any man. If it is to be

done at all, it must be through influences outside himself. When did a drowning man save himself by pulling at his own hair?

Friends of the Right Sort

One answer to this problem lies, then, in help from without, from above. It is universal experience that it is much easier to be a “good” person in the company of some people than of others. There are those who bring out the very best that is in you. In their company godliness and holiness cease to be impossibles. There are others who have a genius for evoking from you every latent devilry.

It is, then, a matter of simple prudence to choose the society of the better sort and to eschew the company of the rest. In the Bible there is Jesus, the peerless Son of God, the man in whose word or look was power enough to change a man’s personality and his whole way of life. And in that Book along with Jesus there is an immense and variegated assembly of the very finest men and women the world has ever known.

The transforming and purifying influence of such as these is past describing. To neglect the spiritual help available through them is foolishness indeed. Yet it means living with the Bible and the people in it. Merely to use them as a kind of respectable appendage to a life more worldly than godly is to get nowhere.

Purified by Faith

An illuminating phrase of Peter’s yields a further helpful emphasis: “God which knoweth the hearts... put no difference between us (Jews) and them (the Gentile believers), purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts. 15:8, 9). Here, once again, faith is the key virtue. Not just the faith which believes the Promises to the Fathers, but that which “endures as seeing him who is invisible”, the faith which sees God in action in all the diversity of life’s experiences.

Here, then, is an unexpected circle of cause and effect. The attitude of mind which is ever ready to see God at work in one’s own life is what makes a man pure in heart; and thus purified, the promise that he shall see God is more than ever his.

“Surely God is good to Israel, even to such as are pure in heart” (Ps. 73:1 RV). These are the true Israel. But they are not always as pure in heart as they might be. It was for this that Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. “He that is bathed (having sins washed away in baptism) needeth not save to wash his feet” (Jn. 13:10).And this renewal is granted, now as then, at the Breaking of Bread -- but again, only by faith; there is nothing mechanical or automatic about it.

Seeing God

The blessedness held out to those who commit themselves to heavenly katharsis is told in the simplest phrase imaginable. But the implications of it are profound beyond any powers of human exposition: “they shall see God”.

The fulness of God’s blessing for the pure in heart belongs to a future day of realisation. Yet even now, in a limited but still wonderful fashion, the child of God has eyes opened to see Him in the marvels of Creation, in the purposefulness of History, in the personal experience of the Ways of God’s Providence, and more especially in the pages of Holy Scripture. Yet even there he sees “through a glass darkly”. What will it mean when “face to face”?

The Old Testament helps only so far. Isaiah lamented: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (6:5). Moses, at a time when he was less worthy than Isaiah, “was afraid to look upon God” manifest in the burning bush. A better Moses, and with him seventy elders of Israel, was able to ascend mount Sinai to the presence of the Glory of God, and there “they saw God, and did eat and drink” -- this only because, blood-sprinkled, they had declared: “All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 19:5-9). Some months later a yet finer Moses was pressing with importunity for the privilege he formerly had feared: “I beseech thee, show me thy glory”-but all that was vouchsafed was a restricted manifestation*? of the heavenly splendour (Ex. 33:18-23).

Similarly in not a few other places when men were given the privilege of “seeing God”, what they beheld was the Shekinah Glory shrouding the Unseeable: “Tis only the splendour of light hidethThee.”

When Philip, like Moses, pleaded for the same surpassing experience as he-the plain reproving answer was: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9).

There were lots of people in Judaea and Galilee who saw Jesus, but saw no beauty in him that they should desire him. But the Twelve, believing in him and constantly with him, saw the Father in him, and became witnesses to the world. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Jn. 1:18).

So then, even though the Beatitude is couched in a future tense, enjoyment of the vision of God is possible in limited fashion in this day of small things. “But we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn.3:2). Even such an explicit declaration as this leaves much unexplained, unappreciated. And so also does the assurance in the Apocalypse: “He will dwell with them, and they (the pure in heart) shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (21:3). The reality and fulness of blessing behind these words will be known in God’s good time, only then.

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