Years ago, Sherry’s mom and step-dad came to visit for a few days. Bill, Sherry’s step-dad, noticed that I was a bit preoccupied on Saturday. The truth was, I was struggling – wrestling with the sermon I was scheduled to preach the next morning. I think he was a bit frustrated with me because I would drift off into thought when he was talking to me. I was there – but I wasn’t there – if you know what I mean.
At one point Bill said, “Aw Mark step worrying so much about what you are going to say. It’s not just the words that matter. The heart behind the words is what matters most. Just go up in that pulpit tomorrow and speak to people from your heart. That’s what people need anyway. They need to see and hear your heart when you preach.”
I must be honest – that didn’t help – but I knew what he meant. And he was right. The heart reveals a great deal about who we really are.
Of course, as you well know, by heart Bill didn’t mean the one that pumps blood but rather that place that sits at the center of who we are.
The notion of the heart – as Jesus uses it in Matthew 5:8 – is an idea that posits the heart as the “home of personal feelings, willing, and thinking” (Bruner 175). It is the “center of each person’s thoughts (mind) and will…it is the inner person, the center of life, the center of our being…the seat and ‘master control center’ of human life. It is the center of our personality, the ‘real you’ who makes the decisions of life” (Austin).
But the human heart – the way Jesus means it in Matthew 5:8 – and even the way that Bill meant it – well – the human heart is a fickle thing – isn’t it?
One minute the heart is developing great ways to express our love toward our family, friends, God, and neighbor. The next minute the heart is pounding on the horn at someone who cut us off in traffic and it is contemplating the use of a single digit to express our truest feelings.
The Apostle Paul understood. In Romans 7:15 he wrote, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
The human heart is a fickle thing – and therein lies the problem because, as Billy Graham put it, “our heart – our inner being – is the root of all our actions…From our hearts come our motives, our desires, our goals, our emotions. If our hearts aren’t right, our actions won’t be either.”
And yet, here it is in Matthew 5:8. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” The trouble of course is the fact that we know our hearts very well. And we know that all sorts of things lurk within the recesses of our hearts.
But then again, the truth is, we know how to conceal those things.
We know how to behave when we are with other people.
We know what to say and what not to say in polite company.
We know how to behave.
We know how to navigate things so that others may or may not really be able to tell what we are really thinking or feeling.
We know how to follow the rules – even when we don’t like the rules and seethe on the inside – we can pass things off as if we are okay with everything going on – and yet – on the inside – we are rolling with anger or contempt.
We know how to use our actions to cover up what is going on in our heart of hearts.
Unfortunately – when Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God,” he’s pretty much blowing the lid off our ability to conceal what’s going on in our heart of hearts because the truth of the matter is that God doesn’t look on the surface of a person.
Where does God look? He looks at the heart.
Over in the Old Testament, a prophet named Samuel learned that quickly when “the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV).
In fact, in a few verses, Jesus will tell his disciples,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27–28 ESV).
Jesus isn’t interested in simply what’s on the surface. We are pretty good at concealing from one another what’s really going on in our hearts from one another. But – God doesn’t look on the surface. He looks at the heart.
And so, here in Matthew 5:8 – Jesus is once again telling us an essential quality of a Christian. And this one – this beatitude – like the one just before it – is incredibly important because – while it may seem like it is an internal, personal, thing – it is actually a quality that spills out into the broader world. Because – like it or not – while we may be pretty good at concealing what’s in our hearts – we aren’t perfect at it – and sooner or later the thing that is in our hearts – the things that control our decisions and our actions will spill out into public view.
And so – Jesus – in our text- is talking about being a real “what you see is what you get” sort of person because, as one theologian put it, “Purity of heart must never be confused with outward conformity to rules” (Carson 26).
The admonition to be “pure of heart” is one of being authentic – before God and before the world. Pure of heart has to do with motive, desire, and will – and less to do with a person’s ability to conform to a standard or a set of rules.
To get Jesus’ point we may need to think of purity the way that He meant it – otherwise, we might confuse it with perfection or with COVID running amok – we may be tempted to think of purity as clean – and that will not help us.
We should think of purity in terms of mixture or blends. The word that Jesus uses here can be thought of as something that is unmixed – unblended. For instance, remember Jesus is talking to people who lived in an agrarian society to some extent. In those days, folks took grain to the threshing floor where they would toss the grain up so that the chaff could be separated from the grain. They would do that until all they had left was pure grain – no chaff.
We can think of it in terms of metal. We know that metal that has an alloy in it – that’s not pure metal. When we want to refine metal – we want to get all the impurities out. We only want metal. We don’t want the impurities; we don’t want anything else mixed in.
It’s like the difference between whole milk and skim milk. Theoretically – there is nothing added to whole milk – it’s just milk. It is pure milk – nothing else. It is one thing and one thing only – but if you add water to whole milk – well – its milk but it isn’t whole or pure milk.
Pure, here, means nothing else is mixed in. It is only one thing. A single, solitary thing.
When Jesus is talking about people being pure in heart, he isn’t talking about perfection or being clean – he’s talking about being totally devoted to one thing. He’s talking about a heart that is about one thing – a singular thing without anything else mixed in – no impurities. Given that Jesus is referring to the heart as the center of the self – the center of desire – the place where all our decisions are being made – Jesus is talking about the heart as being about one thing – purely devoted to God without anything else mixed in.
An essential quality of the Christian man or woman is that in their heart of hearts – they are purely devoted to loving God, purely devoted to walking with Jesus with every aspect of their heart, mind, soul, and strength. The pure in heart let nothing else mix into their desire to walk with God.
And – just like that – Jesus once again says something that interrogates us – without even asking a question. It is impossible to read “blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” without immediately examining our hearts to see if we are indeed pure of heart. And even before we start we know the truth. We know we’ve got some things mixed in. We know we’ve got some chaff, some impurities in our hearts. There is no use denying it. So, what do we do with it? What do we do with the impurities?
First, let me encourage you. If, as you begin to examine your heart for impurities, you can recognize a desire – even a small desire – to want to be pure of heart – to be pure in your devotion to God – then be encouraged. If you truly desire – more than anything else – to be of purely devoted in your heart to God, then you should know that God’s Spirit is already at work within you. You see, the desire to be purely devoted to God – purely devoted in your walk with Jesus – that desire doesn’t originate from within us – it comes from God himself. And he who has begun this work within you will not stop until it is complete in Jesus. If that desire to be purely devoted to God is within you, God is at work getting rid of the chaff – getting rid of anything that tries to mix in to keep you from walking purely with Him.
Martin Luther may help us a bit here. He said, “Jesus’ promise that the pure in heart will ‘see God’ means…that the pure in heart will see God’s fatherly, friendly heart toward them through faith; for whoever believes in Christ and yet regards God as angry is not seeing God correctly. ‘In scriptural language ‘to see His face’ means to recognize Him correctly as a gracious and faithful Father, on whom you can depend for every good thing” (Bruner 176). And part of that every good thing is that when we confess who we are, God is faithful and just to forgive us.
And so, secondly, we come to those impurities – we come to the chaff of our hearts – those things we know are keeping us from being purely devoted to God and we can’t simply ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist or deny it. What do we do with it?
I think the Psalmists help us understand what to do with the chaff within our hearts. David provides the most help – at least he helps me. We know a lot about David. He was a mess of a human being, but the Bible says he was a man after God’s own heart. After reading his story in 1 & 2 Samuel and throughout the Psalms, it seems clear that David – impure of heart as he was – had a desire to know God and a desire to love him purely. Granted, other things mixed in but even in the middle of his worst days, he seems to have desired to purely devoted to God.
When David – a man after God’s own heart – was made to recognize the impurity of his heart – he owned the chaff, owned the impurity, confessed it, and prayed “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a resolute spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). We might think of David’s prayer in this way: create in me a heart that is totally, purely devoted to you, oh Lord, with nothing else mixed in – and then Lord – make me resolute in that devotion to you. Perhaps that ought to be the constant prayer of everyone who longs to be pure of heart in their devotion to God.
I think there will always be a little chaff floating around our fickle hearts, which is why preaching from the heart can be tricky. Yet, we can be encouraged that since the desire to be purely devoted to God is within us we know that God is at work and we will see God at work within the threshing floor of our hearts. But we need to let this beatitude interrogate us. It asks us to examine our hearts – to see if we are indeed pure of heart or to see if the desire to be pure of heart – to be purely devoted to God is present.
And so, once again, I leave you with a question. Do you desire above all things to be purely devoted to God -without anything else mixed in?