Pure in Heart

The Sermon on the Mount (Part 5)

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  Are you pure in heart?  Because of how we hear this verse through condemning ears, we might answer, “It depends on the day.  Some days my heart is kind of pure.  Some days it is awfully dirty.  But even on my best days, I wouldn’t say it is completely pure.  That sounds a bit prideful.”

These thoughts are complicated by preaching that incorrectly hold up these words in Jeremiah as the current description of your heart.  “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).  This is describing your old heart, a heart that left the scene when you believed the gospel.

So what does God say about your heart now?  “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).  As Watchman Nee writes in The Normal Christian Life, “The old heart, God says, is ‘desperately sick’, and He must do something more fundamental than cleanse it; He must give us a new one.”  And this is exactly what Christ did.  He gave you a new heart when you believed the gospel.

The pure heart is not a goal to strive for.  It is a promise to claim.  A promise to believe.  A promise to celebrate.  Look at the back end of this promise, “for they shall see God.”  There is absolutely only one way this promise can come true.  Only those with a 100% pure heart will see God.  And this 100% pure heart came to us at our one-time belief in the gospel message of Jesus Christ; His death as our substitute in our place on the cross to take away our sin.

There is no ongoing aspect to this verse.  No in and out of a pure heart.  It is a prophetic statement by Jesus of the pure heart that is coming when we trust Him for salvation.  Our heart is now pure, not by works of righteousness but by the regeneration of the Spirit.  “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).

“For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14).  He gave you a new heart that is perfect.  Don’t let “perfect” scare you.  We are not perfect in our thoughts or actions.  But our heart is perfect and clean.  “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).  Regarding the Gentiles, Peter said, “and God made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9).

So once again, I believe this Beatitude of Jesus is a prophetic word about life in the kingdom of God that Jesus came to usher in.  His promise of a pure heart is for those who will believe in His gospel message.  It is not a plea to constantly check and evaluate the purity of our heart.  It is already clean.  And those who believe, those with a pure heart received freely by grace, can rely on the promise that they will see God.

Never Thirsty, Always Full

The Sermon on the Mount (Part 4)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).  This is my favorite promise of the Beatitudes.  But again, we often get this turned around in our preaching when we put the burden on us to “keep” this promise.  Let me explain.

We often come to Matthew 5:6 with this mindset.  What is your level of “hunger and thirst” for righteousness?  How serious are you about living a righteous life?  I have even heard a radio preacher question our salvation if we are not feeling the “hunger” for righteousness.  This completely flips the promise around and puts the shame on us if we are not hungry enough.  How much hunger is enough?

At the risk of sounding crass, my “hunger and thirst” is now zero.  It has been completely satisfied in Jesus.  In the incredible great exchange, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (II Corinthians 5:21).  When you believed the gospel message, you became filled to the full with the righteousness of God.  There is no pride in this.  You had nothing to do with this level of full to overflowing.  It is a complete gift of God’s grace.

Do you see how this Beatitude is looking forward?  When Jesus spoke this promise, its fulfillment was still in the future.  It is pointing ahead to the day when through Christ’s death and resurrection the great exchange of our sin for His righteousness would be made available to us.  Jesus foretold this day would come in the gospel of John as well.

“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’ ” (John 6:35).  And again in John chapter 7, “Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.  He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.” ‘  By this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:37-39).

Notice the requirement for experiencing the river’s flow in John 7 is the same as the prerequisite for never thirst in John 6; believe in Jesus Christ.  That is it.  To experience the promise of never thirsting is only contingent on being a believer; embracing the gospel message of Jesus Christ.  There is no continuing or further requirement.  No level of spirituality.  No keeping a New Testament version of the law.  No expression of still being hungry or thirsty.  Only believe.

How does Jesus keep the never thirst promise?  By filling us with His Holy Spirit (John 7:39).  And this filling is not stagnant.  It is to play itself out every day as we experience the supernatural Christian life.  The Greek word for “rivers” in John 7:38 is often translated floods or torrents.  The Spirit is a rushing river of the all-sufficient power of the risen Christ.  Our role is not to strive to find the river, our role is to open the floodgates and allow the river – already rushing within us by the promise of Jesus – to flow out into our daily experience.

The word “never” is a powerful word.  I try not to use it very often.  The word “never” doesn’t allow for loopholes.  Yet, in John 6, Jesus makes the incredible promise that “he who believes in Me shall never thirst.”  It is a promise only Jesus can keep.  And it is a promise first delivered to us in Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”  In Jesus, your hunger and thirst are fully satisfied!

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

The Sermon on the Mount (Part 3)

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  This verse is much deeper and much earlier than the practice of humility in the Christian life.  Remember the focus of Jesus’ early messages; He came to earth to usher in the kingdom of heaven.  And in this first Beatitude, He has something to say about who is going to be in that kingdom with Him.

Who does the kingdom of heaven belong to?  At first glance it appears that it is those with a humble attitude.  Are we somehow differentiating between classes of Christians?  Those with a humble attitude and those without humility.  Because we know the rest of the story, we know that all believers – humble or not – belong in the kingdom.

That is why I believe Christ is talking in this verse about an attitude that is a precursor to salvation.  When laying the foundation for a new path to salvation to an audience of self-righteous old covenant types, Christ first has to emphasize a recognition of the need for His salvation.  Part of “repent and believe the gospel” is recognizing your need.  Compare our opening verse to the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee from Luke chapter 18.

“And Jesus also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.”  But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!”  I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other’ “ (Luke 18:10-14).

Again, we often hear this passage preached as a need for humility in the Christian life.  But I believe this parable is reaching much further back, prior to our belief in the gospel message.  It is talking about our initial recognition of our need for Jesus’ salvation.  Look at the opening verse, Luke 18:10.  Jesus is aiming this story at “people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous.”  The parable is clearly directed at the lost, those who refuse Jesus’s offer of salvation and instead rely on their own self-righteous behavior.

If you have believed the gospel, then you and I already have the kingdom of heaven.  Somewhere along the way we already expressed our “poor in spirit”, rejecting our pride in our own self-effort to save us, and throwing ourselves on the mercy of Jesus.  The tax collector in Luke 18 was very aware that he needed God’s mercy.  He had no pretense of self-righteousness about him.  There is no mention in the story that Jesus is the answer to his need.  Because we know the rest of the gospel story, we DO KNOW that only faith in Christ can save us.  And the kingdom of heaven, based on your belief and Christ’s finished work, is already yours.

“Poor in spirit” is not a character trait to strive for, to seek to obtain, something to grow into.  “Poor in spirit” is who you were when you recognized your need for Jesus’ rescue from your sin.  And resident of the kingdom of heaven is who you are!  Jesus is focusing our gaze forward.  “A day is coming when My explanation of belief, faith, and salvation will be complete.  And when that happens, those who recognize the impossibility of saving themselves through self-righteous action, will see their need, believe the gospel, and find themselves happily in the kingdom of heaven.”

The Kingdom of God is at Hand

The Sermon on the Mount (Part 2)

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ “ (Mark 1:14-15).  Jesus’ first message to his followers and really to all who would hear, is an unfolding of something brand new.  And to accept and believe this brand new gospel, this good news, a change of mind must take place.  So Jesus is asking his first audience to repent (Greek word metanoeō – to change one’s mind or purpose).  These first century Jews needed to change their mind about how one is made righteous in God’s sight, about how one arrives at right standing with God.

This is the gospel of the kingdom.  “Change your mind about how one is made right with God, and believe in the new way that I will be preaching to you.  This new way, this new approach to being made right with God, is what the kingdom of God is all about.”  Jesus has not yet explained that He is the way.  He is only laying the foundation here that a change is coming.  So how does this kingdom message inform our understanding of Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7?

Matthew 5:3-11, commonly referred to as the Beatitudes, are generally viewed as a concise set of platitudes to live by.  I have heard them preached as “The Christian Constitution”; rules and character traits to follow.  But is this really the case?

Or is there another way to look at these verses in light of the two great covenants of the Bible; the old covenant and the new?  I would like to suggest that the Beatitudes are looking forward to the fulfillment of the promise of the new covenant.  They have nothing to do with lifestyle or character qualities.

The new covenant began, was made active for you and I, with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  These words of Jesus in Matthew 5:3-11, preached prior to the cross, are aiming our gaze into the future.  They are pointing to prophecy fulfilled in the new covenant.

Let’s start with the first of the Beatitudes.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).  Compare to Matthew 4:17, “Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ “  Notice the focus in both verses is on “the kingdom of heaven.”

Later in His ministry, Jesus described in great detail how one enters the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus explained to Nicodemus that entrance into His kingdom comes through the new birth – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  And this new birth takes place when we believe the gospel.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).  “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ ” (John 6:29).  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47).

But Jesus’ hearers in Matthew chapter 5 would have had none of Jesus’ later message of how we enter the kingdom through the door of faith.  Because Jesus’ focus in the Sermon on the Mount is on the self-righteous law-follower, He must start at a precursor to belief; recognizing one’s need.

We will talk about this recognition next time.

Platitudes to Live By or a Prophetic Word to be Fulfilled?

The Sermon on the Mount (Part 1)

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is a complex multi-layered message of Jesus.  As you read Jesus’ words in these chapters or recall in your mind some of what He had to say, we need to ask ourselves, “Who was Jesus talking to?  What are the main points He is making to His audience?”

Is Jesus only talking to the Jewish nation living under the old covenant?  Is He saying to His Hebrew brothers, “This is what you think following the Law is?  Let me dial it up a notch.  Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20).  In fact, you must be perfect like your heavenly Father is perfect (Mathew 5:48).  You must …”

Jesus’ audience, if made up of Jewish commoners, would not know what to think.  There is no way their outward expression of righteousness could exceed the Pharisees.  And being perfect?  Not a chance.  If Jesus message was directed at the Jews of His day, it should serve as a wake-up call to their need of a Savior.  Keeping the Law perfectly, along with the challenge of the greater law such as love your enemies or turn the other cheek that Jesus added, would have been impossible for them to process or keep.

Maybe Jesus was speaking to us, His future followers.  Maybe these red-letter words are meant as some sort of a code for us to live by.  But this still breeds confusion.  Be perfect.  Uh?  Never go back on your word.  Is that possible?  If you call your brother a fool, you are guilty enough to go to hell.  Ouch.  Love your enemy.  Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin.  Oh wait, that last one can’t be for us.  We all know that we are not to cut off our hand or poke out our eye, right?  So in the midst of what appears to be some pretty over-the-top statements, who will tell us what does and doesn’t apply?

As is common in Jesus’ teaching, there are layers of truth for us to understand in Matthew chapters 5-7.  And this understanding comes to us best when we see the message of Jesus in light of the two covenants; the old and the new.

To those living under the old covenant (the conditions until Jesus went to the cross), the Sermon on the Mount unpacks the failure of the old covenant to produce the righteousness that God requires.  “You think you are keeping the commandment against murder, but do you hate your brother?  Oops, guilty.  You think you are keeping the commandment against adultery, but are you desiring a woman with lustful intentions?  Guilty again.”

Matthew chapter 5 is a message of condemnation for the self-righteous; those who thought true righteousness comes by outward obedience to the Law.  Christ’s words to them?  “Your self-righteous adherence to the Law falls woefully short of what is actually required; perfection (Matthew 5:48).”  But let’s leave the old covenant piece for now and look to us, today’s disciples of Jesus.

The Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful foreshadowing of what is to come in the new covenant.  It is not a list of platitudes to live by, but a prophetic word of what Christ is going to accomplish on our behalf.  The key to the Sermon on the Mount is to see it through the lens of the kingdom of heaven; a kingdom promised to us as a provision of the new covenant.  Jesus’ words are describing how life under the old covenant is marked by failure, and how life under the new covenant, life in the kingdom of God, is only possible through the finished work of Christ in our place, not our self-righteous law-abiding effort.

We will explain further next time as we dive into the first section of Matthew chapter 5.