A Decade in the Making: Rightly Understanding Matthew 5:8

pureNo verse of Scripture has been more effective in keeping me sexually pure than Matthew 5:8.

When I first became a believer, I went to a weekend retreat called Purity & Holiness. It was a two-day seminar designed to teach young people about dating, sex, and marriage.  I bless God for its impact on my life. And—not surprisingly—one of the key verses impressed upon us that weekend was Matthew 5:8.

The impact of this singular verse has been massive in my life. But not because I rightly understood its meaning at the time. In fact, I would say, that I misunderstood much of its true meaning because I took Jesus’ words as a command ordering me to purify myself . . . or else I wouldn’t see God.

Yet, that’s not exactly how the beatitudes work. Matthew 5:8, like all the beatitudes, has imperatival force, but the beatitudes are not commands. They are (speaking of their genre here) blessings that Jesus pronounces on his disciples. They are qualities that his followers must have to enter the kingdom, but they are also qualities that he gives to his followers.

When I first heard this verse, without understanding how Jesus used these words in his Sermon on the Mount, I took it as a command to stop being impure, and to begin pursuing purity. By reading it that way, Jesus’ words though emphasizing purity, did not give me any power to be pure.

As I will get to in a minute, there was something that empowered my purity, but it wasn’t the lawful command. As Paul often states, the law of command never effects holiness. Therefore, we need to see just what Jesus is saying here, if we are going to experience true purity and holiness.

What Does Matthew 5:8 Mean?

If we are going to understand Matthew 5:8, it might help to break it down into three ideas—(1) purity, (2) the heart, and (3) seeing God.  And we need to see the meaning of each to rightly walk in purity and holiness. 

To introduce what Matthew 5:8 means, let me share how I misunderstood the first two parts, because I would suspect I am not alone in approaching this verse wrongly.

First, I thought purity was strictly related to sex. That’s not surprising since I learned the verse in a weekend seminar intended to convince teenagers to be sexually pure. But as I have come to find out, the purity that Jesus has in mind is far more than sex.

It includes purity from anger, materialism, self-glory—everything else Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). More positively, purity of heart is a singular devotion to God, his glory (5:16; 6:9) and his kingdom (6:10, 33). It is a desire to receive the Father’s reward, and a willingness to be overlooked by the world (6:1-18).

From the context of the Sermon, we can discern what “purity in heart” means when we compare the matters of the heart in Matthew 6:21 to the matters of the eyes in v. 22-24.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (6:21)

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! (6:22-23)

In context, “heart” and “eye” speak of the same thing—the inner disposition of a man. And in both cases, what makes a “good” heart or a “good” eye is singular devotion to God.

In fact, the word translated “healthy” or “good” literally means single, sincere, or straightforward. So we might take Jesus to mean that a good heart is a singular heart—one that is singularly motivated to live for God. This is the essence of purity. Naturally, it concerns sexual purity, but it also touches every other area of life, too.

Second, I had confused inward purity for external behaviors. Clearly, Jesus says that purity is a matter of the heart, but for some reason, the application I took away from this verse when I first encountered it was purely behavioral. I thought to myself, “If I could eliminate ‘R’-rated movies . . . if I didn’t go to the beach . . . if I could stop looking at or thinking about girls, then I would be pure.”

To my folly, this sort of self-prescribed purity is the exact opposite of what Jesus had in mind. Purity of heart is not something we can acquire for ourselves; it is the gift of God.

In fact, speaking to a crowd where Pharisees were either present or nearby, Jesus would have known about the men who were so zealous for external purity that they walked with their heads down to avoid eye-contact with women. This self-imposed blindness invited head wounds (i.e., bumping their heads into things), and thus they were called “Bleeding Pharisees.”

Sadly, in hearing the great importance of purity, I had assumed the same posture. If I could simply keep my head down, I could avoid lust, sexual temptation, and impurity. But of course that is not possible, and that is not the kind of purity that Jesus describes here.

The purity of heart of which Jesus speaks is the purity that comes from the purifying work of the new covenant. Indeed, there is a glorious string of promises in the Old Testament which speak of God purifying impure hearts. In passages like Jeremiah 24:7 and Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:25-27, the prophets foretell of a day when God would replace the impure hearts of men with the pure hearts of God. Indeed, the source of purity is not the external works of the flesh; it is the gracious power of God to give new hearts.

Only with pure hearts can men pursue purity with any measure of endurance and desire. Which thankfully was the enduring effect of this verse in my life.

Last, even though I wrongly understood what it meant to pursue holiness, the desire to see God empowered me to pursue purity. For all that I did not understand about the broad-ranging nature of purity and the fact that purity is a new covenant blessing, God had opened my eyes to behold the wonder of his Son. The word of God had become, as Psalm 119 tells, a fountain of delights. And by beholding him, Christ made me pure (cf. 1 John 3:2-3).

While I struggled with the flesh—and still battle the flesh—my desire to see God impelled me to sow seeds to the Spirit and not the flesh. In other words, by the power of God’s grace, God had purified my heart by giving me a new affection for him and a new set of appetites for his word. Consequently, in spite of my rather legalistic attention to purifying myself, I found true purity by setting my eyes on Christ.

How God Purifies Us All

This pattern of purity is not just my experience. It is the case for all his children. God opens our eyes to behold the splendor of his glory (2 Cor 4:6), and when he does, he circumcises our hearts and replaces vile unbelief with a simple, pure trust in him. With this simple desire for him, God begins an ongoing process of purification in the Christian.

More than a decade later, I continue to bless God for the place of Purity and Holiness in my life, and for the way it introduced me to Matthew 5:8. God’s word does more in us than we can ask or imagine, and sometime God’s word works on us even when we don’t quite “get” its true meaning.

May we continue to strive to comprehend the word of God, but even more may God apprehend our hearts with the power of his purifying love.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss