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.
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.