The people that the world calls great are generally inaccessible. You don’t just walk up to the President. You don’t just invite yourself to have lunch with a famous athlete or actor. In the Bible, we read of the Persian King Ahasuerus – to have an audience with him you had to be personally called, and if you walked in without an invitation, you really might lose your head, even if you were close family!
On the other hand, there are a lot of people that make themselves inaccessible and we really don’t care. The grumpy man next door would make life a lot simpler if he would just keep to himself! The reason why we notice the inaccessibility of the famous is because we enjoy being in the presence of greatness. That’s just part of human nature. It’s why most of us have heroes. It’s why we have autographed baseball cards and books. It’s why we stand in line to meet a famous scientist or soldier.
And yet, when you look at famous people closely, you realize that though some really are gifted in ways that we are not, at the end of the day they are just human. The best of men are men at best. In fact, some of the great men and women of history really were rather unsavory characters. Every idol has feet of clay.
And when you do meet them, you realize that a lot of the time they really don’t care about you that much. It’s more about publicity with a lot of them than it is interest in you. I remember one time Nolan Ryan came to my hometown to speak at a political event. Someone tipped my dad off and he took my brother to hear him speak. As he spoke, the lady who invited us told my brother to hold a baseball card up to the great ball player as he was speaking. Well, he took the card and signed it I think without even looking at my brother – and maybe without even looking at the card!
You would think, then, that if this is the case with the great and famous, that God would have absolutely nothing to do with us mortals. After all, who is like God? The prophet Isaiah asked this question: “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? . . . Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. . . . Have your not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable” (Isa. 40:18, 21-23, 28). As the puritan John Flavel once put it, the distance between men and worms is not so great when compared with the distance between God and men.
In fact, God is so great, that when he reveals himself in a theophany to men, those who write down what they saw are so overcome with holy terror and awe that they don’t seem to be able to adequately describe it. This happened to Isaiah when he saw the Sovereign God on his throne (Isa. 6). “As in Exod. 24:10, where the pavement under God’s feet is described, so here [in Isaiah 6] the description of God’s appearance can rise no higher than the hem of his robe. It is as though words break down when one attempts to describe God himself. When we press the elders of Israel, they tell us how blue the pavement under God’s feet was; when we press Isaiah, he tells us how immense God’s robe was. Did the robe fill them temple? No, God did!” (John Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, p. 178) Language just broke down. Isaiah is left trembling with his mouth open and his knees shaking.
Or think about the greatness of nature. I would really like to go the Grand Canyon someday and have my breath taken away. And I will never forget the first time I saw the Rocky Mountains. Let me tell you, having lived in Texas all my life, it was a breathtaking experience. The majesty of the mountains left me with a sense of awe. And there was a real, deep enjoyment that I had just in seeing them. Or the first (and only) time I stood on the beach in front of the ocean. Even though it was night, I stood there transported by its expansiveness. In each case, my soul was made happy by its smallness as I stood before something greater than myself.
As Isaiah put it, God is greater than the greatest show the universe can put on. He made it. He named the stars. The heavens are just a curtain to him.
And yet the really amazing thing is that God invites men and women into his presence, to see him. The great reality that Scripture teaches us is that God wants small and sinful human beings to see him. He wants them to see him so that their souls are made everlastingly happy and satisfied by his glory.
This is what Jesus said the purpose of his death was: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24).
What Christ desires we ought to desire. Because his desire to get glory is not at odds with our desire to experience greatness. Because we don’t experience greatness by being great but by seeing it outside ourselves. Ultimately, we can only experience greatness by seeing the glory of God. And as we experience our own smallness in front of God’s greatness we find ourselves unspeakably blessed. Like Isaiah. God’s getting glory by our seeing it is the key to our everlasting happiness and satisfaction.
In fact, you see this all over Scripture. David wrote, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness” (Ps. 17:15). “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4).
The apostle John indicates in the Revelation that what will characterize the perfection of the new heavens and new earth is that “no longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-4).
And how does growth in godliness and closeness to the Lord take place so that we experience this blessedness now? According to the apostle Paul, “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 Cor. 3:18).
Of course, we can’t see him with our eyes now. The greatest manifestation of his glory awaits the age to come. But we do see him in the gospel. That’s what Paul is talking about. He is contrasting the gospel with the Law. And he says that as we look at the gospel and really believe it, we see the glory of God and are transformed by it.
Thus we see that our present growth in godliness and the happiness that that brings, as well as our eternal felicity in heaven, mostly consists in our seeing and enjoying the glory of God. Our souls are fed and satisfied as we taste and see that that Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). Seeing God and his glory is something which we ought to desire above all things. Thus the Scripture echoes the reality of which our Lord speaks: they are truly blessed who see God.
Which means that we should desire above all things to have a pure heart. For according to our Lord, this promise of seeing God belongs to those who are pure in heart, and to no one else.
It is clear that what our Lord intends by this statement is that those who see God are those who are holy. “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Holiness proceeds from the heart if it is pure. And the only way real change can happen, the only way that we can become more holy and grow in grace is by changes that happen at the heart level. That’s why God was always exhorting the children of Israel to get new hearts: “Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!” (Ezek. 18:30-31). And it’s why the New Covenant is a successful covenant: because God promises to do this in us. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jer. 31:32). “I will give them on heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them” (Jer. 32:39).
It’s important that we understand that in Scriptural language, heart does not have the same connotation that it does in our culture. Today, to have a heart means to have feeling. It has primarily to do with the emotions. That’s not the way Jesus or the Biblical writers use the term. In the Bible, the heart is the center of the soul. Therefore, though it includes the ability to feel emotions, it also includes the ability to perceive – the mind – and the ability to choose – the will. Thus, Solomon wrote that we are to keep our hearts with all diligence, for out of it are the springs or issues of life (Prov. 4:23).
Therefore, purity of heart is not only feeling the right way, it is also thinking the right way, and choosing the right things.
And we can see why God requires purity of heart – because unless God has the heart, he does not have us. It’s why King David prayed that God would work on the heart level. He had gone astray from God and he clearly saw that his troubles did not lie so much in his circumstances or the people around him as they did in his heart: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. . . . For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:10, 16-17). It’s why elsewhere he asks God to unite his heart to fear his name (Ps. 86:11).
God’s word very clearly states that unless we pursue God from the heart, we will not find him. “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). On the other hand, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” to my prayer (Ps. 66:18).
Now, at this point, I think I hear an objection. “This is impossible! No one has a pure heart! Everyone sins. No one has a pure heart. How can Jesus ask us to be like this?”
In answer, I would say that the Bible holds before us two realities. One is that God expects us to have a pure heart. The other is that, no matter where we are at on the spiritual spectrum, we sin. The question is how to hold these two truths together so that one does not negate the other. And that is a danger. On the one hand, we can take truths like our text and use them to conclude that it is possible to be sinlessly perfect. Which would lead to self-righteousness and a superficial holiness that wasn’t even real. On the other hand, we can take the witness of the Bible to our depravity and use it to excuse our sin. Which leads to selfishness and a superficial humility that isn’t real, either.
To get at the truth of what Jesus is saying, we have to understand that part of purity of heart is being honest about our sin and confessing and forsaking it. In other words, as soon as you say you have no sin, you can’t even take the first step to purity of heart. Listen to what the apostle John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:8-9). How does purity, the product of cleansing, take place? It happens as we confess and forsake sin. This is part of what it means to walk in the light (v. 7). Walking in the light means we are continually being cleansed of sin as we bring to Jesus in brokenness and faith.
Thus, purity of heart doesn’t necessarily mean that we are sinless – though ultimately that will take place in glory. It means we are honest before God with our sin, it means that we are honest before God as we confess it – that we are not saying we will forsake our sin while secretly cherishing it. It means we are not hypocrites, that we are sincere in our seeking after God. It is what Jesus will later call the single eye (Mt 6:22).
But why is it that only the pure in heart shall see God? Well, John tells us, again in chapter 1 of his first epistle: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (v.5-6). It is the same reason why those who belong to him will be merciful. If God is merciful then those who partake of his nature – who are being recreated in the image of God (Eph. 4:24) – will be merciful. In the same way, since God is pure and holy, those who are being conformed to his Son will also be pure and holy. And this process does not begin in heaven, it begins here. Those who live unto themselves will perish. That is just what the Bible says. “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6).
Furthermore, seeing someone is indicative of intimate fellowship. Like the apostle writes to his friend, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy might be complete” (2 Jn. 12). In the same way, we cannot see God, have real fellowship with him, if we are wallowing in sin. God hates sin, he loathes it, and until we do we should never expect the blessing of his countenance to rest upon us.
How then do we get this way? First of all, we have to come to the end of ourselves. You start with poverty of spirit before you become pure in heart. Unless we are broken before God, we will never see him. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell I the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite’” (Isa. 57:15). The way to clean your house is not by hiding the dirt but by exposing it so that it can be swept out. The first thing to do to achieve purity of heart is to be honest about the sin that lurks in the shadows of our soul.
Second, realize that you cannot do it on your own. No man can cleanse his own heart. If Jesus had only required external purity – if he had just asked us for civility – we could do that. But he asks the impossible of us. “Be therefore perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). Thus, with David, ask God to create in you a clean heart. Most of all, look in faith out of yourself to Jesus Christ who cleanses us from our sin. Because of the atonement that he made on the cross, he washes us from the guilt of our sin and purifies our soul by his Spirit.
Third, work hard against the sin in your life. Faith in Christ does not preclude hard work on our part. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Paul said that he disciplined his body and kept it under control – in the Greek, it says that he pummeled his body and made it his slave (1 Cor. 9:27). If you are not making a conscious effort against the sin in your life, you will make no headway against it. As the hymn puts it, “Take time to be holy.”
Fourth, bring yourself to hate sin and love Jesus. “Sin not only blinds us, it defiles us. It is called filthiness (James 1:21). And to show how befilthying a thing it is, it is compared to a plague-sore (1 Kings 8:38), to spots (Deut. 32:5), to a vomit (2 Pet. 2:22). . . . A sinner is a devil in man’s shape” (Thomas Watson). We will never forsake what we love. Do not be content merely to turn your feet away from evil, but turn your mind against it. Make what was once your friend into your enemy. Reason against it. Speak to your soul all the judgments of God against sin. Do not dwell upon the pleasures that sin offers now, but look ahead to the misery that it leads to.
On the other hand, look to Christ until you see a friend that sticks closer than a brother, one who loved you so much that he died for you. Look to him until you see his worthiness to be trusted and obeyed. Believe his word. Speak his truth to your heart again and again. Preach the gospel to yourself. See him on the cross, see him exalted at the right hand of God, see him interceding for you, and see him coming again in glory. Be like Moses, who “endured as seeing him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). The author of Hebrews sums it up nicely: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1-3).