The Washing of the
Blessed are the pure in heart:
for they shall see God.
THE DISCIPLINE of Scripture is bringing us into the very center of the laboratory of life. In eleven short words, Jesus now faces us with man's highest hope and his deepest frustration. The longing within the human breast to behold the face of God is primordial. We yearn to leap over the barriers of sense and time and look full front upon Him who fashioned us. Yet something within rebuffs us slaps us down with the knowledge that we are morally unfit for such an experience. Our myopic vision will not reach to the far ranges of eternity. Its white radiance is too much for us. God is holy, and we are soiled and puny.
"Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?" asks the Psalmist, "Or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart." Where does
that leave us, who are confronted with our imperfections night and day? Are we doomed never to see the face of God? Is Jesus Christ holding out before us a flying goal, a carrot on the end of a stick? Surely our Lord would be cruel to promise us the vision of heaven through the achievement of personal purity, knowing all the time that we could never achieve it. There are no glad tidings here.
Perhaps you are inclined to point out that, while you are admittedly imperfect, there are many who are morally inferior and considerably more delinquent than you. In fact, all things taken into view, you rank rather high on the scale of human behavior. We seem always so much more willing to confess the sins of others than to recognize our own! But let it be clear that Jesus is not promising the vision of God to those who may be relatively better than others. He is talking about purity, which is an absolute and not a relative condition. Only the pure in heart will be blessed and shall see God.
Dr. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, believes that each of us wears a persona, which in Latin means "mask," and that our persona is really the "person" we present to the public view. Our inner thoughts we prefer to conceal; we even seek to hide them from ourselves. We demurely convey the impression that we are moral, law-abiding citizens while our imaginations run riot. Our bookshelves present the staid classics but what is that dog-eared volume hidden behind? Some of us like to carry ourselves as if we were Sir Galahad, who declared in the lines of the Victorian poet,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
The truth is that we are better compared to Sir Lancelot, who carried himself nobly and wielded his sword valorously, but who while he fought betrayed the lord he served.
If only we can bring ourselves to face our impurity, there is hope for us. If only we can stand the thought that we are not good enough for God, we have a chance. We need major cardiac surgery of the kind that the Lord prescribed for Israel: "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). The old heart must go, for it was impure. With a new heart, shall we be able to see our Lord?
Let us look again at the words of the twenty-fourth Psalm, third and fourth verses:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart: who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
A question is asked and an answer is given. Let us ask whether the reverse is also true. Perhaps if we deduce the opposite question and a corresponding answer we may learn something:
Who shall be struck down upon the hill of the Lord? or who shall fall in his holy place? He that hath unclean hands, and an impure heart; who hath lifted up his soul unto vanity, and sworn deceitfully.
What is this but a picture of man not as he ought to be but as he is? The twisted verses reflect the whole history of nations and civilizations and tell the fate of humanity. They pinpoint the bullying child, the mother who exploits her family to further her ambition, the man who spends his leisure scheming to magnify his importance, the dictator with a global power complex. All these are guilty of "lifting up their soul unto vanity."
But there is something curious about this perverted Scripture. It is inaccurate. Who was it that was struck down upon the hill of the Lord? Jesus Christ, the only one whose hands were clean and conscience sound. The innocent took the place of the guilty, the just of the unjust. His crucifixion on Calvary meant that He deliberately sacrificed His purity on our behalf, that we might be rendered fit to see God. The Great Physician performed a Good Friday operation to remove the stone and to graft in the gift of life: a new, pure heart.
The Beatitude brings us a great hope: that because He lived we too shall live and shall see the face of God. He has made clear the way: we are to take up our crosses and follow the path to that same hill where we also must climb and be struck down and crucified with Him.
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Purity of heart requires the purity of Christ, and that is, first of all, not so much spotlessness as integrity. Forty-seven times in the Fourth Gospel Jesus declared that what he did was not done by His will alone but by the will of the Father. Because He was absolutely certain at the point of motivation, Jesus had no fears as to the
consequences. They could call Him a consorter with sinners and winebibbers, it did not matter. For Him separation was a matter of vocation rather than location.
The integrity Christ taught was not something built up over a period of years like a credit rating, or an award for safe driving. Such matters are established by the absence of stain on the record. The pure heart is more like an unexpected gift suddenly placed in the hands. Its chief characteristic is not the absence of flaws but openness toward the giver.
In Scripture one of the clearest symbols of the believers is the vessel or cup. A Christian is a cup filled to overflowing with the water of life. He himself is an "earthen" vessel dirt but the water purifies and sanctifies the vessel as long as it is being poured in. When the water's flow is stopped the cup becomes stale and stagnant. The two chief marks of the cup are that it has the capacity to contain and is open at the top. Capacity is what we bring to God and it is all we bring. Openness is what makes purity possible, as the riches of glory are poured into the vessels of mercy.
As long as the divine life is being poured into our hearts we have a chance to see ourselves as God sees us. Therein lies our hope; for when we seek to examine ourselves "objectively" we engage in a vast self-deception. Our blacks become grays or else disappear entirely. We may become meticulously honest at one point but we ignore three others. We say we detest hypocrites, that we would far rather be condemned as sinners than as two-faced pretenders, yet even in the midst of our protestation we are artfully weaving a tapestry of hypocrisy.
On the tapestry is a legend which, when translated, suggests that not only do we intend to have our cake, but we will eat it too. If we cannot call ourselves pure in heart, at least no man dare call us impure, for how can one see in when the shades are drawn? Thus the sediment collects in the bottom of our cup and renders it unfit for use.
Only when God's living water is splashing in the cup can it be clean. Purity of heart then becomes no longer a conscious state at all, but an unconscious one. When a mother is busy training her child in his proper duties she does not ask herself, "Am I a good mother?" The very activity in which she is engaged answers the question. When a Christian is laboring in his vocation his virtue is absorbed in his work.
When Jesus told the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25), He described how the righteous ones would be rewarded because they fed Him when he was hungry, and quenched His thirst, and gave Him a home, and clothed Him, and visited Him in distress. Then Jesus pictured them as reacting in surprise and asking when they had ever done these things: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you? or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in? or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick or in prison and come to you?" (Matthew 25:37-39). That for which they were being rewarded was done unconsciously as the overflow of a God-filled life. The pure heart does not know that it is acting purely, it only knows that it is responding to the Spirit.
The only conscious thing we can say about the pure in heart is that
they are fundamentally honest about their own impurity. They are not "kidding" themselves. They have carried motivation research to the point where they know that since the "heart is deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9), the good life must be a gift of Grace, and their good works are but the works of the Lord. This frankness and honesty is the basis of Christian integrity. It is grounded at the Cross, where everything is level. It provides a framework of human nothingness from which a man can look out and see the face of God.
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In his biography of one of the leaders of the Reformation, Samuel Macaulay Jackson notes that in his early years Zwingli did not preach the Gospel in its fullness, as he was involved in a licentious sex relationship. The biographer adds significantly, "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."
This Beatitude has always focused a searchlight on the struggle of Spirit against flesh. Purity of heart and lust will not be bedfellows. From the human point of view, of course, there is simply no contest, for our bodily nature has drives so strong that they clamor for our complete attention. Flesh triumphs. A hundred times a day or is it a thousand? we receive sexual stimuli from all kinds of sources, and far too often the effect is to provoke reflections that lead to impurity of heart.
The famed ascetic Jerome, who wrestled for years with his soul in solitude and fasting, far removed from all outward temptations of the flesh, reports that he was
still plagued by visions of bevies of dancing maidens. The way of asceticism will put iron in the soul, but it will not remove the impurity. All the virtuous resolutions in the world will not purge a man. Benjamin Franklin in his youth made a list of puritan virtues that he resolved to achieve. At the very time he was punctiliously endeavoring to observe them, he was engaged in a shabby pursuit of sex in London.
Jesus had a number of things to say about the sexual behavior of men and women, but His sociology, like His physical therapy, always occupied a secondary position. Christ's greater concern was to show that the Spirit of God could do for man what he could not do for himself: win victory over his body. Only God is the creator of flesh and only God is stronger than flesh; but He joins battle on this ground only on behalf of those who are willing to receive purity on His conditions.
What are the conditions? They are very simple. First, we are to recognize that God made flesh in the first place, and there is nothing inherently evil or shameful about it. All the works of the Lord are good; "there is nothing unclean of itself" (Romans 14:14). The original sin committed in Eden was neither lust nor greed, but pride.
Nevertheless a blight has fallen upon mankind which we Christians call sin, and this blight has created disorder in man's sexual pattern as well as in other areas of his life. The rape in the park, the incident that created gossip next door, the statistics of the Kinsey Report are all symptoms of the dislocation in what the New Testament calls
"the flesh." No man ever finds God working in his body until he first finds the moral taint and impurity in his body.
The third condition God requires is that a man invite Him to come in and possess his body. The body then becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), and the owner of the body becomes a new man in Jesus Christ.
Let it not be imagined that this new man is a kind of "superman" endowed with tremendous ability that enables him to get self-mastery over the flesh and to develop into some sort of spiritual giant. There is no such thing as a victorious Christian, there is only a victorious Christ. There are no conquests of the "new man" over the "old man," for the Christian is just as weak after he has been translated into the Kingdom of God as he was before. He is, in fact, weaker, for now he is fully aware of his weakness and knows that he dare make "no provision for the flesh." The impurities that he formerly took as a matter of course in his daily walk the continual flaunting of flesh for commercial purposes, the inevitable round of sex stories now sear his soul and make him realize he is a pilgrim and a stranger on the earth. They test his strength and find it wanting, and cause him to lean more and more on the only source of his spiritual strength, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We do not move from "dirty" thoughts to pure thoughts by seeking to get closer to the Lord for example, by attending church more regularly. Demons are not exorcised by sacred organ music. Every church has
its share of impurity of heart. A man's life becomes pure only when God takes complete control of it and begins thinking His thoughts through the man's mind. For when the Lord moves, He brings His purity with Him and even the flesh is hallowed by the gracious presence of Deity.
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In a church where I once ministered, some young people came to me after the service of Holy Communion and expressed unhappiness with the way it had been conducted.
"What was wrong?" I asked.
"We didn't like your suggestion that we took part because we were perfect or something. We don't feel like that."
I went over the service and soon found the part that dissatisfied them. It read:
Ye who do truly and earnestly repent of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in His holy ways: Draw near with faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God.
Teen-age honesty had rebelled at words and phrases that suggested a purity of heart they did not feel. I now use another form of invitation to the Sacrament. In a sense there is nothing wrong with the traditional words;
they are a sincere attempt to describe the pure intent without which, said Jesus, no man shall see God. My young friends had found nevertheless that the words were meaningless to them.
In Edinburgh I heard the story of a venerable Scottish divine who was sitting in a pew during the service of Holy Communion. At this service the elements were passed, and he noticed that a girl in front of him refused the bread when it came to her, and that she was weeping. While the usher hesitated the old man leaned forward and whispered, "Take it, lassie. It's for sinners!"
Surely this is the Gospel, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. But were not the honest teenagers right? And was not the Scottish "lassie" obeying a true instinct? Does God invite the unholy to lay hands upon pure and holy things? "There is no difference," replies Paul, "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." In other words, in the Lord's sight one man is as bad as another. But if that be true, let us argue, is it not a little irrelevant to talk about the "pure in heart" seeing God? And why does the Communion service contain the prayer: ". . . that, drawing near unto thee with a pure heart and conscience undefiled, we may receive these Thy gifts without sin . . ."
If we look to the Cross we see the answer etched boldly against the sky. Purity of heart is from beyond ourselves. We are made worthy of the Communion table neither by washing our hands of the past nor by resolving to do better in the future. We were "prepared" for Communion two thousand years ago by the very act
which Communion recalls the body of Christ broken upon the Cross for us, the blood of Christ poured out upon the ground for us. What my young people did not understand is that the sacrament is a means of Grace whereby they receive newness of life as an unearned gift.
What a relief it is to know that even though it is hopeless to try to clean up our lives and so fit them for God, cleansing is still possible. All we need to do is to turn our hearts over to Him. "Purge me . . . and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Psalm 51:7). The old minister spoke truth: the Communion service itself brings the conditions for Communion. The unholy hand becomes holy when it takes the sacred bread: not because the bread contains a "spiritual vitamin" or imparts some purifying quality, but because God loves sinners and gave His Son for them.
Unless we give the Father His Crown rights in the matter, and ascribe everything to the divine initiative, this Beatitude will never permit us to see our Lord. It will only confuse and discourage us. The Communion service will then become just another moral wrestling bout. The "joy of the believer" will disappear as the X-ray of truth is trained upon our sinful conscience. We will give up and let someone else sing the praises of Zion, for we are too wicked. Someone else can be in Wesley Nelson's phrase, a "prayed-up, Bible-loving, God-honoring, fully-consecrated, victorious-living, witnessing, successful soul-winning Christian." We will sneak into the rear pew and see if we cannot "just make it in."
How many church members have resigned themselves to just this kind of dismal Christianity? Here is a fair bed of spikes indeed, a paradox of hopelessness.
When we give God the glory, everything changes. He becomes the purifying agent, and we see that our part is confession through self-criticism. "Let a man examine himself," said Paul, "and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup" (1 Corinthians 11:28). The Scottish girl's tears did not prove that her heart was either pure or impure. They proved only that she was in communion with the One who purifies, and that her conscience was to use the old paraphrase "under conviction."
We need to confess our sins if we want them forgiven. The purpose of confession is not to purify but to purge. Evangelical Christians are frequently guilty of self-delusion at this point. We emphasize the need to "confess our sins to God alone" but we seldom bother to do it. The result is that the psychiatrist has become the "Protestant confessor." Scriptural teaching provides the solution: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that you may be healed" (James 5:16). A Christian brother or sister only distantly related to our daily orbit can be of vast assistance in bringing us to examine ourselves before God.
Though the confession does not purify, the forgiveness of God does. As the prophet Isaiah sang, "He will have mercy . . . and . . . abundantly pardon," and as John cast it in New Testament metal, "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin."
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"For they shall see God."
How is it possible? Scripture declares emphatically that "no man has seen God at any time"; for He is described as "dwelling in light which no man can approach unto" (1 Timothy 6:16). The experience of mankind would seem to verify the point. Neither history nor science knows of a visible God. If we shatter the atom into a billion fragments, or send a space expedition to the farthest star, or dig up every archaeological artifact beneath the earth's crust, we shall be no whit closer to the face of Deity: this we know. A good thing it is, for the thought of a direct encounter with the sovereign majesty of the Lord, the architect of the universe, is apart from His love enough to strike the imagination with terror.
How is it, then, that in the face of all this evidence Jesus can utter the quite simple statement that those whose hearts are pure shall see the Lord?
Did He mean it?
How did He mean it? Symbolically?
We could suppose that He has given us a figure of speech, to teach us that if we were very, very good we would be rewarded with a warm and pious kind of feeling.
Or we could get rid of the difficulty by classifying it as an "eschatological" statement, stating that what Jesus was talking about was God in the hereafter, not here and now.
Both suggestions, of course, draw the teeth of the Beatitude.
There is no question that Jesus meant what He said. He always did. He was not implying that the blessings of this Beatitude, or any of the Beatitudes, would be stored up for distribution in some future life rather than in the present. His teaching, like His healing, had immediate relevance. Whatever experience the "pure in heart" were to have, they were to have it now as well as later.
But what experience? To think of seeing God as an "experience" is perhaps to think of visions. When we open this door but a crack, what a host of shapes come tumbling in: hallucinations, apparitions, spooks, flying saucers, demons, gremlins, psycho-kinetic energy, extrasensory perception, mental illness, mass psychosis, optical illusions, pathological delusions, projections, psychic phenomena, "contact with the unseen world," et cetera, et cetera. Where is the beginning and where the ending, and which way leads to God?
Jesus had a very plain answer. It is not the development of some occult sense that brings us face to face with the living Lord. Jesus does not even use that door. He does not tell us where it leads. He points instead to another door which has on it three words: "Truth, Goodness, Beauty." He makes it clear that the new door is the door to the Throne Room. It is the door of the pure heart. Its shape is a Cross.
Some years ago Bishop Kenneth Kirk of England wrote a beautiful book entitled The Vision of God, a scholarly
and exhaustive treatment of the whole range of mystical experience. It leaves one amazed at the variety of ways in which men have sought to come into personal confrontation with God. They have searched in caves, in deserts, on pillars, on remote islands, in jungles, on mountain peaks. They have sat, kneeled, stood, lain prostrate, swung from ropes; they have fasted and undergone all manner of deprivation and self-inflicted punishment, all for the sight of God. "When thou saidst, 'Seek my face'; my heart said unto thee, Thy face Lord, will I seek" (Psalm 27:8).
Yet here is the answer, sweet and clear as a mountain stream: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." Not just the pure mind, not just the pure body is blessed, but the pure heart which governs both mind and body. The heart is the seat of affection and compassion. What Christ is telling us is that love is the way to God: suffering love that is not drowned in the deep fat of selfish considerations pure, outgoing love, that loves for the sake of the thing loved, as a man loves his country, as a woman loves her child, as Christ loved us from the Cross.
But to see God there is yet another step. To find it let us turn to the story of Job: "I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear: but now my eye sees you. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6). Job suggests that it is not finally a veil that hides the face of the Lord from us, but our own bulky shape. We block ourselves from God's view. The moment our ego collapses and we cease to kick against the
pricks, we see the Lord Jesus Christ, and "whoever has seen Me has seen the Father." The instant that the Christian life ceases to be a pilgrimage of sacred events and becomes a consuming fire, the celestial vision is ours, though there is nothing left of us but ashes. God loves ashes. They are pure. He reveals Himself to our ashes. He blows His Spirit through them and we are lost scattered through the earth as dust but forever His. Each burned-out flake becomes the seed of a new and pure creation.
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