Following the Beatitudes: Why Are the “Pure in Heart” Blessed?

Dave Jenkins
| Blogger
25 Feb
Woman holding a hand heart over the sun

The miracles made Jesus popular. But Jesus wanted disciples, not crowds, so he called a few men to himself. To do so, he separated them from the crowds, for the crowds did not necessarily follow him for the best reasons. They were curious and eager for healing. But mere popularity and miracle-working could not fulfill the purpose of the incarnation.

Jesus never intended to heal all the sick in Israel. He sought to raise up true disciples. So, Jesus called his disciples to himself, sat down, and began to teach them (Matthew 5:1–2). The crowds were free to listen in (Matthew 7:28), but the Sermon on the Mount was given primarily to Jesus’ disciples. It describes the heart, mind, outlook, and values of a disciple.

Matthew 5:8 says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

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Woman holding a hand heart over the sun

What Does "Blessed Are the Pure in Heart" Mean Exactly?

Purity of heart has two distinct but related senses in Scripture. First, it is that inner moral holiness that is the opposite of external piety. Old Testament prophets contrasted ritual observance of the law (especially laws of sacrifice and circumcision) with covenant obedience that flowed from love and sincerity of heart. Moses called on Israel to circumcise their hearts, not simply their flesh (Deut. 10:16; 30:6). Samuel said, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam. 15:22). In a psalm of worship, David asked:

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? … He who has clean hands and a pure heart. … He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation” (Ps. 24:3–5).

Second, purity can mean simplicity and freedom from double-mindedness. The pure, on this view, are those who show mercy because they love mercy, not to gain a reward. The pure show kindness to children who cannot thank us, to strangers whom we will never see again.

Joel Gilbert writes that: "In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus promotes purity in both senses. As for the first, Jesus expects our internal purity to match our external purity. For example, we must shun adultery in thoughts and deeds (Matthew 5:27–30). We should pray in public but should be more intent on praying in private (Matthew 6:5–6)." Jesus accuses the scribes and Pharisees for their merely external religion: “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). They look righteous on the outside but are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 6:1–18). Gilbert continues: "As for the second sense of purity, Jesus blesses the eye that is set on one thing, the will that determines to serve one master (Matthew 6:22–24)."

Our motives must be correct before we begin the practice of discipleship. We hope to make a difference in this world, but we also hope to gain recognition for it. As D. A. Carson (The Sermon on the Mount: An Evangelical Exposition of Matthew 5–7) says:

“We human beings are a strange lot. We hear high moral injunctions and glimpse just a little the genuine beauty of perfect holiness, and then prostitute the vision by dreaming about the way others would hold us in high esteem if we were like that. The demand for genuine perfection loses itself in the lesser goal of external piety; the goal of pleasing the Father is traded for its pygmy cousin, the goal of pleasing men.”

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Woman holding a hand heart over the sun

What Is the Context of Matthew 5:8?

Dustin Benge writes that "Each beatitude begins with the words 'Blessed are.' The Greek term translated as “blessed” is makarios. It can mean 'happy' or even 'carefree.'” But since Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” we know he does not have ordinary happiness, the happiness that comes from food or entertainment, in mind.

Jesus’ “happy” disciples are poor and hungry; they mourn and suffer persecution. For disciples, happiness means wholeness and integrity, even in the darkest hour.

Jesus says that real happiness—blessedness—comes from mature character. Disciples principally care about character because the Lord cares. Jesus says that God  blesses a mature character.

The Beatitudes do more than describe a disciple; they also describe Jesus, the master. This passage asks disciples to pattern their lives after Jesus (Matthew 10:24–25). The goal of becoming like the master is evident in almost all of the Beatitudes:

1. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn,” and he mourned when he saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd (9:36; cf. 23:37).

2. Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek,” and Jesus was meek and humble (11:28–30). He laid a gentle, easy yoke on his people.

3. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and he hungered for righteousness. He fulfilled all righteousness (3:15). No one could convict him of any sin (John 8:46).

4. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful,” and he was merciful. What most often moved Jesus to perform his miracles? He had compassion for the sick and needy. When he saw people in need, he empathized and healed them (Matt. 14:14–21; 20:34; 9:36).

5. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” and he was so pure that no one could find a legitimate charge against him at his trial (26:59–60).

6. Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and he often offered peace in healing and salvation to the people he met (Mark 5:34; Luke 8:48; John 14:27). Jesus offers peace, though not at any price (Matt. 10:13, 34).

7. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,” and he was persecuted constantly, even to the point of death.

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Woman holding a hand heart over the sun

How Will the Pure in Heart "See God"?

"The second and sixth beatitudes form a pair," writes Joel Gilbert, "The disciple who mourns over sin will desire to be pure in heart. If we recognize our sins, both sinful deeds, and sinful thoughts, and if we hate those sins, then we will try to rip them out, like so many noxious weeds. ... We will become pure in heart; we will see God."

The great blessing of those who are pure in heart is that they shall see God. What Matthew means here is that intimate knowledge of and fellowship with God is reserved for the pure. When our hearts are purified at salvation, the people of God begin to live in the presence of God. They begin to see and comprehend Christ with new spiritual eyes. Like Moses, who saw God’s glory and asked to see more (Exodus 33:18), the one who Jesus purifies sees again and again the glory of God.

Pastor John MacArthur explains it this way: "To see God was the greatest hope of the Old Testament saints. Like Moses, David wanted to see more of God (Psalm 42:1)." Job rejoiced when he was able to see God (Job 42:5). Purity of heart cleanses the eyes of the soul so that God becomes visible.

One sign of an impure heart is ignorance because sin obscures the truth (John 3:19-20). Evil and ignorance come in a package. Faithlife Sermons explains that "Other signs of an impure heart are self-centeredness (Revelation 3:17), pleasure in sin (2 Timothy 3:14), unbelief (Hebrews 3:12), and hatred of purity (Micah 3:2). However, those who belong to God exchange all of those things for integrity and purity" rooted in the finished and sufficient work of Jesus.

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Woman holding a hand heart over the sun

What Does It Look Like to Have a Pure Heart?

We may find ourselves at a party where we do not belong. Inebriated guests may tell lewd or racist jokes and embarrass themselves with clumsy dancing. Or we may be with society mavens eating cucumber sandwiches and waxing eloquent about Hungarian linens. God also has a party, a feast for the redeemed. The party is grand and happy for all who feel at home at God’s kind of party. That sense of belonging comes not from our race, gender, social class, or musical tastes, but from a desire to see the pure God and share his holiness.

To be pure in heart means to live without compromise. In Jesus’ house, men and women seek purity and single-mindedness. We shun dual loyalties. We do not serve two masters, God and mammon. To pursue the Lord is to pursue his purity.

The only beatitude that Jesus did not claim for himself is “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” But to be poor in spirit is to know one’s spiritual neediness—especially our sinful nature. Jesus certainly needed the Spirit’s sustaining strength for his ministry, but he was not poor in spirit in the ways that we are. This reminds us of an important point: we can progress toward Jesus, but a gap always remains between the Creator and his creatures. Jesus does not share that gap with us; he bridges it. Jesus reaches out to the poor in spirit, to teach and heal them—to teach and heal us.

Incidentally, Paul also says we should aspire to be like Christ. For Paul, maturity means reaching “the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Believers know Christ and therefore should put on the new self, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:20–24). We are “imitators of God,” loving one another and forgiving each other as Christ did (4:32–5:2). So we are transformed into the likeness of Christ.

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Blessed to Come before Jesus

It is God’s design that we should aspire to a character that is ever more like the character of Jesus. God permits us to pursue that goal; more importantly, he gives us grace for the journey, making it a privilege rather than a burden. By grace, God sent his Son. By grace, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. By grace, he atoned for our sins. By grace, the Father raised Jesus from the tomb and sent the Spirit to testify to him. By grace, God completes his work by changing our hearts so that we love him and believe in him.

The Beatitudes are not a list of isolated virtues, nor a list comparable to classic virtue lists. Any review of the Beatitudes is daunting, for it reveals our inability to attain the qualities that Jesus outlines. Yet, if we take that burden to Christ, admitting our weakness, the blessing has already begun. After all, the first beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” 

We are blessed when we take our poverty to Jesus. The Beatitudes enumerate seven facets of a character grounded in the desire to share Jesus’ righteousness. Our desires have consequences. The desire for a better shoe led to the creation of Nike, Inc. A desire for evangelism led to the creation of written languages, Bible translations, and teaching illiterate people to read. The desire for righteousness leads us to hunger and thirst for righteousness. That hunger leads us to the gospel, and the gospel leads us to the godly character that Jesus both has and inspires.

Related articles
5 Things You Didn't Know about the Sermon on the Mount
How Can Christians Be the Blessed Peacemakers Found in Matthew 5:9?
Why Does Jesus Call the 'Poor in Spirit' Blessed?

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Dave Jenkins is happily married to Sarah Jenkins. He is a writer, editor, and speaker living in beautiful Southern Oregon.

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