We continue with our series on the Beatitudes. Today we examine our Lord’s words, “Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God”.
We note immediately that the usual rendering of this Beatitude begins, “Blessed are the pure of heart”. The word usually rendered “pure” in this version is the Greek katharos. The word katharos has a slightly different feel and nuance than the Greek word for “pure” (agnos). The word katharos is used to describe the clean water used in the Law’s rites of purification (in Hebrews 10:22), the clean linen shroud in which Christ was buried (in Matthew 27:59), and the clean state of those who have just bathed (in John 13:10). The verb form of katharos is katharizo, meaning “to cleanse”, and it is the word used to describe the cleansing of the leper in Mark 1:42.
This latter use of the term provides a clue to the meaning of the word in this Beatitude. Though foreign to today’s understanding of religion (which consists almost solely of conformity to ethical teaching), much of religion in the ancient world was concerned with ritual purity. In Judaism, for example, if one touched a dead body, one was rendered ritually unclean. If one had a bodily flow (such as from menstruation), one was rendered ritually unclean. If a woman gave birth, she was ritually unclean afterward. In the thought of the Pharisees, coming into contact with ritually contaminated material in the market place rendered one unclean, which is why they took such great care to cleanse their vessels and to wash their hands before a meal (see Mark 7:1-4).
This state of ritual uncleanness had nothing to do with sin—the one who was ritually unclean was not regarded as sinful, rebellious, or in need of repentance. It was just that certain physical circumstances (such as menstruation) had rendered the person ritually disqualified to take part in religious activities such as the offering of a sacrifice. That is why people like the Pharisees went to such lengths to avoid ritual contamination. To us moderns, such scrupulosity seems almost bizarre, but the categories of clean vs. unclean were basic to Judaism and to all religions of the world at that time. If a person had become ritually unclean, certain actions were required to cleanse the person (such as bathing). Only then could that person approach God in sacrificial worship.
It seems as if our Lord’s words in this Beatitude have this concept of ritual cleanness as their background, and were intended as a polemical response to them. Christ Himself had little time for the Pharisees’ obsessive concern with possible ritual contamination (as said above; see Mark 7:5), and He blamed them for combining such outward scrupulosity with blindness toward the inner state of the soul. Like the hypocrites they were, they were careful to cleanse the outside of the cup and the plate, while inside their souls were full of extortion and greed (Matthew 23:25).
In contrast to this disparity between outer ritual cleanness and inner spiritual filth, Christ focused entirely upon the inner state. It was the clean of heart who would see God and be able to truly approach Him in worship. Approaching Him in a state of ritual cleanness while one’s heart was unclean was useless and worse than useless. If one cleansed one’s heart of stain, one could confidently approach God. Indeed, the sight of Him was guaranteed.
This is what the Lord meant when He said that the clean of heart would “see” God—not that the Father has a visible form which could be seen by eyes of flesh. The God of Israel was the invisible God, whom no one had seen or could see (Colossians 1:15, John 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:16). By “seeing God” Christ meant “experiencing God”, as when He said that the one who kept His word would never “see death”—i.e. experience death (John 8:51). If we approach the Father with hearts cleansed by repentance, we will experience Him and His transforming grace and power—and not otherwise. The heart uncleansed and impure can never see God or experience His salvation.
This Beatitude therefore reveals the importance of repentance in cleansing the heart. Most of the world remains resolutely impenitent. They refuse to purify their hearts (as James counselled; James 4:8). They therefore remain far from God, and the religion which they imagine brings them close to God remains largely an illusion, a consoling fantasy. The blind man whom Christ healed knew as much: “God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does His will, God listens to him” (John 9:31). We cleanse our hearts when we wash them in our tears, doing works worthy of repentance. That is why Christ said, “Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give alms for those things which are within, and behold!—everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41). In other words, a heart cleansed by repentance will beat differently in the world than a heart untouched and uncleansed by repentance. God looks upon the heart, for He made the inside as well as the outside, and it is with the inner heart that we approach the invisible God. If we cleanse our heart, Christ promises that we will see God in salvation, both in this age and in the next.
Next: Blessed are the peace-makers.