A Commentary by John Stott

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

It is immediately obvious that the words ‘in heart’ indicate the kind of purity to which Jesus is alluding, as the words ‘in spirit’ indicate the kind of poverty he meant. The ‘poor in spirit’ are the spiritually poor as distinct from those whose poverty is only material. From whom, then, are ‘the pure in heart’ being distinguished?

The popular interpretation is to regard purity of heart as an expression for inward purity, for the quality of those who have been cleansed from moral – as opposed to ceremonial – defilement. And there is good biblical precedent for this, especially in the Psalms. It was recognised that no-one could ascend the Lord’s hill or stand in his holy place unless he had ‘clean hands and a pure heart’. So, David, conscious that his Lord desired ‘truth in the inward being’, could pray, ‘Teach me wisdom in my secret heart,’ and, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God.’ (Ps.24:3,4;51:6,10;cf. Ps.73:1; Acts 15:9; 1 Tim. 1:5). Jesus took up the theme in his controversy with the Pharisees and complained about their obsession with external, ceremonial purity. ‘You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness.’ They were ‘like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’. (Lk.11:39; Mt.23:25-28).

Luther gave this distinction between inward and outward purity a characteristically earthy turn. For he contrasted purity of heart not only with ceremonial defilement, but also with actual physical dirt. ‘Christ…wants to have the heart pure, though outwardly the person may be a drudge in the kitchen, black, sooty, and grimy, doing all sorts of dirty work.’ Again, ‘Though a common labourer, a shoemaker or a blacksmith may be dirty and sooty or may smell because he is covered with dirt and pitch…and though he stinks outwardly, inwardly he is pure incense before God’ because he ponders the word of God in his heart and obeys it.

The emphasis on the inward and moral, whether contrasted with the outward and ceremonial or the outward and physical is certainly consistent with the whole Sermon on the Mount which requires heart-righteousness rather than mere rule-righteousness. Nevertheless, in the context of the other beatitudes, ‘purity of heart’ seems to refer in some sense to our relationships. Professor Tasker defines the pure in heart as ‘the single-minded, who are free from the tyranny of a divided self’ (cf. Ps.86:11, 12). In this case the pure heart is the single heart and prepares the way for the ‘single eye’ which Jesus mentions in the next chapter (6:22, AV).

More precisely, the primary reference is to sincerity. Already in the verses of Psalm 24 quoted above, the person with ‘clean hands and a pure heart’ is one ‘who does not lift up his soul to what is false (sc. an idol), and does not swear deceitfully’ (4) That is, in his relations with both God and man he is free from falsehood. So the pure in heart are ‘the utterly sincere’ (JBP). Their whole life, public and private, is transparent before God and men. Their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base. Hypocrisy and deceit are abhorrent to them; they are without guile.

Yet how few of us live one life and live it in the open! We are tempted to wear a different mask and play a different role according to each occasion. This is not reality but play-acting, which is the essence of hypocrisy. Some people weave round themselves such a tissue of lies that they can no longer tell which part of them is real and which is make-believe. Alone among men Jesus Christ was absolutely pure in heart, being entirely guileless.

Only the pure in heart will see God, see him now with the eye of faith and see his glory in the hereafter, for only the utterly sincere can bear the dazzling vision in whose light the darkness of deceit must vanish and by whose fire all shams are burned up.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:9. The peacemakers.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.