Hearts That Can See God

These posts are summaries of the messages on Sunday and are put here mainly for the benefit of our regulars who either missed the service, or would appreciate the chance to review the big ideas.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’

Matthew 5.8

Maybe this is the most important of all the beatitudes. It speaks into the two greatest themes of the Bible: holiness, and the knowledge of God. But it’s also the most difficult beatitude. What does Jesus mean, ‘…they shall see God’? We’re going to start here and work backwards.

What is seeing God? What is Jesus promising here? 

First, there are exceptional examples in the Old Testament that Jesus must have had in mind. Jacob, that great trickster, met with God on two vitally important occasions, once when fleeing from Esau, and the next time on his way back (Genesis 28 and 32). Moses met with God often, but two occasions stand out in his life; once at his commissioning when he sees the bush burning but not being consumed, and later when God says he can see his back but not his face (Exodus 3 and 33-34). And Isaiah has a profound encounter with God that frightens the living daylights out of him, but also proves a pivotal moment in his extraordinary ministry (Isaiah 6). 

Are we, as Christians, meant to expect or hope to have such experiences of God? The obvious answer is ‘no’; these were exceptional even in Bible times! But there’s also a reason to say ‘yes’. When Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man to have been born, but that ‘the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ (Matthew 11.11), I understand him to mean that the weakest, most unimpressive Christian living on this side of the cross is more privileged than anyone before Jesus, including Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah. 

And if as Christians we are more privileged than Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah, there’s a sense in which even their experiences of the Living God don’t compare with the reality of knowing Jesus. They were experiencing a foretaste, we get the reality. This is true in one way in particular…

Second, these encounters were transformational. When Jacob, Moses, and Isaiah saw God they were radically changed by their experiences. Jacob was left lame. Moses was recommissioned (at the age of 80!) to do the thing he was born for. Isaiah entered a prophetic calling in which he saw more clearly than anyone before him the meaning and character of the ministry of the coming Messiah. And yet, and yet, the most immature baby Christian gets all of this in abundance the moment they come to faith! Like Jacob, their old life is killed and they are humbled to the ground through their experience of wrestling with God in repentance. Like Moses, their life is commissioned with a call no less significant than the Exodus: the call to rescue people from hell by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus. And like Isaiah, they have revelation and insight into the realities of Jesus, except with even more understanding and clarity than he ever enjoyed! So here’s my conclusion: everyone who has come to faith in Jesus has seen God in a way that eclipses even these experiences of these great men.

Third, a Christian has a future/present understanding of what it means to see God. We know that when we see Jesus ‘as he is’ (i.e. a completely unfiltered view) we’ll be transformed to become like him (1 John 3.2). No more sin, no more grief, no more self-loathing, no more selfishness at all. But what we’ll experience then in full we experience now to a lesser degree. Christians change because they’re looking at Jesus. 

‘And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Corinthians 3.18). 

This is what Jesus is talking about. Seeing God is the transformation that takes place as we grow in the knowledge of Jesus, an experience that will be complete when we get to see him face-to-face.

But look again at the beatitude; ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ It hits us with this amazing paradox. Is it the holy who get to see God? Or does seeing God make us holy? The only answer I am satisfied with is both.

Psalm 24.3-5 hits this balance so perfectly:

‘Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
        And who shall stand in his holy place?
    He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
        who does not lift up his soul to what is false
        and does not swear deceitfully.
    He will receive blessing from the LORD
        and righteousness from the God of his salvation.’

Look carefully at how David puts it. He asks, ‘Who gets to approach God and stand before him’, and answers, ‘Holy people’. But then he says, ‘He will receive… righteousness from the God of his salvation.’ So, it’s only as we’re made holy that we get to approach God and see him, but it’s only in seeing him that we’re made holy!

What, then, does Jesus mean when he talks about having pure hearts?

1. Sincere hearts

This purity of heart means sincerity, an absence of hypocrisy.

Now, it’s so important to understand that it doesn’t mean perfection. The Bible tells us that if anyone claims he’s without sin, he’s a liar, and the truth isn’t in him (1 John 1.8). So, this sincerity, this absence of hypocrisy, does not mean perfection.

Instead, it means that the holiness you’re seeking to live out is a holiness that springs from the heart and not a mere outward show. Jesus called the Pharisees ‘white-washed graves’ (Matthew 23.27) because while their actions seemed to show a real devotion to holiness, their hearts were full of death. But a pure heart is a heart that sees its faults and seeks to live in repentance. 

AW Pink put it like this: ‘Ah, Christian reader, the truth is, one of the most conclusive evidences that we do possess a pure heart is to be conscious and burdened with the impurity which still indwells us.’

2. Unpolluted hearts

Thinking back to Psalm 24 where David asks, ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?’ his answer is, ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false…’ He’s talking about idolatry. The people who get to approach God don’t worship idols. 

Jesus sees things the same way. A little later in the Sermon on the Mount he says, ‘The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!’ (Matthew 6.22-23). The verses before and after this are all about how we view money, and he is as explicit as possible when he says, in essence, you can either worship God or you can worship money. Money is an idol. If it fills your eyes, your life will be full of darkness.

So, here’s how I understand what Jesus means in a more general sense. The thing that fills your vision is your idol. Whatever it is in life that you are living for, that is your god. And if that happens to be a created thing, your whole life will be full of darkness; you only have light in the soul when it’s Jesus who fills your vision.

Paul takes up this teaching and twice calls covetousness ‘idolatry’ (Ephesians 5.5 and Colossians 3.5). 

Here’s the meaning for us: while we may not immediately identify with the problem of idolatry when we read Psalm 24 (few of us pray to blocks of wood), we soon realise that we can be every bit as guilty of it when we see that idolatry isn’t just bowing to some carved thing in the corner of your room; it’s putting anything before God! 

Whatever you most desire, that’s your idol. Whatever you most fear losing, that’s your idol. Whatever you think you can’t live without, that’s your idol. Whatever you daydream about, that’s your idol.

When Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ he was calling us, in effect, to have clear sight. What are you looking at? Thinking about? Consumed with? If it's not God, you're an idolater.

3. Focussed hearts

Look again at those verses from Matthew 6: ‘If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light…’ The word ‘healthy’ is literally ‘single’. It means that your eyes are fixed on one thing. Your life isn’t divided or pulled in lots of directions. 

‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth, unite my heart to fear your name’ (Psalm 86.11). This is holiness, this is purity of heart; having a united heart that doesn’t get drawn to the right or to the left, but is wholly fixed on Jesus.

Christians should be simple people. I don’t mean stupid. I mean simple as in ‘free of complications and divisions’. Your heart is pure when it is fixed on Jesus. That is a simple devotion.

So perhaps we could paraphrase the beatitude like this: ‘Blessed are those who look at me, for they shall see me’.