Fierce winds and thunderstorms lashed Tampa Bay on Friday morning, May 9, 1980. Traffic was heavy on the fog-shrouded fifteen-mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge, a chain of five bridges and six causeways which link St. Petersburg, Bradenton, and Sarasota, Florida.
Suddenly, at 7:38 a.m., the Summit Venture, a Liberian-registered freighter bound for Tampa to pick up a load of phosphate, slammed into the bridge. A 1300-foot stretch of the roadway trembled violently and ripped away from the main span. Steel and concrete crashed down. A Greyhound bus with twenty-three people on board plummeted 140 feet into the water, along with three cars and a pick-up truck.
Subsequent investigation determined that the ship’s pilot simply lost his way in the blinding storm, veered out of the shipping channel, and headed through the wrong opening between the abutments. Clearly, losing his way in the storm had devastating results.
Have you ever lost your way? You may now be going through a particularly stormy time of life. Maybe you can’t remember a time when so many things have turned sour so suddenly or when everything you attempt has been so consistently frustrated. It seems that each new day only brings additional problems.
Maybe you’ve never been so financially strapped and you just don’t see the way out. Or perhaps the joy has gone out of your marriage; you’ve drifted apart — and you really don’t mind. You’ve even begun to think you might be happier if you weren’t married.
Maybe you’re genuinely lonely. You feel cut off, left out and without a real friend or soul mate. You have no access to a listening, understanding ear.
Perhaps you just can’t get through your grief. You still do not sit at the table and eat your meals — not by yourself. So, you most often stand at the sink and stare out the kitchen window; that is, if you eat at all. You really don’t want to feel sorry for yourself, but you suspect that’s precisely what you are doing.
Maybe you’ve lost touch with your children: they don’t open up and talk to you like they used to do. You don’t know what’s going on inside them anymore. Actually, they’re like strangers to you. It seems they’re yelling or sulking all the time.
Maybe you’re a teenager. You are changing. You’re not the same person you used to be and nobody knows that better than you! What’s more, it’s all so confusing and frightening. You’re feeling things you never felt before. You don’t mean to be so hard to get along with, but what can you do? All these things are happening and you have no control over any of it.
Perhaps you’ve drifted away from God. You’re plagued with doubt. You don’t seem to have much faith anymore. When you worship or pray it’s like you’re just going through the motions. And, when you read your Bible, your mind wanders and you often find yourself simply staring at the page.
All of this and maybe even more is going on right now and you don’t know what to do. You’ve lost your way and you really don’t know how to get back on course. What can you do?
First, understand that you are not alone. I have been in the ministry long enough to know that even Christians go through some especially stormy and rough times. Sometimes they do lose their way completely for a while. Sometimes they steer a tragic course.
But if this is your struggle, your heart’s desire — to find your way to God, to joy, maturity, reconciliation, hope, peace of mind — then this beatitude is for you. Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
What does it mean to be pure in heart? Your problem is not a moral one. You’re respectable, honest, hardworking. You’ve lost your way, not your morals.
Does “pure in heart” refer only to morality? Does it refer to sexual purity as many have suggested? No doubt, sexual purity is a part of being pure in heart. However, we would make a mistake if we restricted its meaning to such a narrow interpretation. One of the earliest Christians, Origen, suggested that the pure in heart are “not only those who have been rid of fornication, but those who have been rid of all sins, for every sin leaves a stain upon the soul.”
By the same token, purity of heart does not suggest the idea of moral perfection or sinlessness. Such a broad interpretation of the beatitude would encourage an empty self-righteousness or make a cruel mockery of our nature as imperfect persons.
To fully understand the meaning of “pure in heart,” it is necessary to look more closely at the word katharos, which Matthew used to describe this condition.
At first it was used only to describe clothing which was clean in contrast to clothing which was soiled and dirty. After a while the word came to be used to describe a vast number of things which were without weakness or imperfection. For instance, pure water was free from pollution or dirt. Pure milk and wine had not been diluted with water. Pure grain had been thoroughly separated from the chaff. Pure silver and gold had no extraneous elements in it.
In the Old Testament the word is used more than 150 times but with only two primary meanings. In the great majority of cases, it described that which was appropriate and suitable for the worship of God. Certain breeds of animals were declared clean and others unclean (Leviticus 11). In that way those animals classified as unclean were designated as unsuitable for food or for presentation as sacrifice. A person eating an unclean animal would then be declared ineligible to participate in worship until a specified period of time had passed.
There were carefully prescribed ways to wash your hands and forearms before you were presentable for worship. To touch a dead body rendered a person unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11-13). Certain diseases, like leprosy, permanently contaminated a person and disqualified him or her from worship. Even the periodic menstrual cycle rendered the female temporarily unfit for worship or contact with those who intended to worship. This emphasis upon purity could create many unreasonable feelings and actions, including a sense of being personally unfit to even approach God!
There were 142 physical blemishes which disqualified a man from serving as a priest and offering sacrifices in the Temple. Any physical blemish, however small, ruled a man completely ineligible for worship and spiritual leadership. This position represented the official, orthodox Jewish attitude toward purity. Obviously, religion itself had become sick.
The word for “pure” or “clean” is used thirty-seven times in Exodus and thirty-four times in Leviticus; in no instance does it describe anything but the ways in which a person could disqualify himself or herself from the experience of worship. For the most part, purity was completely externalized and not concerned at all with the inner qualities of a person.
There are a few places in the Old Testament where the word did describe an inner and spiritual purity. For instance, it was used to describe the integrity of Abimelech which stood in stark contrast to the deceit of Abraham (Genesis 20:5-6). The psalmist also prayed, “… create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalms 51:10).
Isaiah also urged the people toward inner purity. He said: “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice … (Isaiah 1:16).
It was this inward purity about which Jesus was most concerned. For the Jewish ceremonial system, impure thoughts and attitudes had no impact upon worship. Arrogance, pride, bitterness, hatred, unforgiveness, unclean desires, and the like were of little concern to the Old Testament faith and apparently were not considered serious threats to a person’s relationship with God. So long as an individual observed the outward rituals correctly, he was considered pure.
But Jesus harshly indicted the Jews for such practices. He said:
Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish so that the outside of them may be clean also. Woe to you! scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so, you also outwardly appear righteous to men but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:25-28).
In a series of six antithetical statements in Matthew 5, Jesus further condemned this general attitude toward purity (see Matthew 5:21-43). Although it may have been true that the Pharisees had not committed murder, if their hearts were full of anger and hatred they were as impure before God as if they had murdered (Matthew 5:22-26). Likewise, though they may have been innocent of adultery, if their hearts were full of lust they were impure before God (Matthew 5:27-30).
From Jesus’ perspective, if your outward actions were impeccably correct, and you kept every detail of the worship regulations with meticulous devotion, you might still be impure if the thoughts of your heart were not right. Such teaching was radically new.
In the Bible, the heart is the center of the entire personality. It involves all that makes the person. And the biblical assessment of the heart is not really very encouraging. The prophet said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). And, he added: “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19).
Jesus observed that the Pharisees had a clean “image” on the outside. But He also observed that on the inside they were not clean. In His view, outward appearance does not make a person acceptable to God. The person must be clean from the inside out.
But whose heart is pure? We often regard ourselves and others as religious, devoted, and close to the Lord just because the appropriate religious customs are honored: worship attendance, giving, Bible reading, respectability, pious language. Yet frequently our hearts simply do not bear the scrutiny of God.
Indeed, whose thoughts, motives and desires are completely unmixed, genuine, and sincere? Each of us must admit that some of our actions which appear absolutely genuine — sometimes even sacrificial — have in them some hint of self-satisfaction, some desire for self-display, some bit of pride.
The truth is that even in the finest things we do, there is sometimes lurking the hope of gaining the approval of others. Even the best of us, when we examine ourselves, find that we are the chief of sinners. Indeed, when you realize what this beatitude is saying, it becomes the most demanding of all. Could any of us bear the scrutiny of God?
To be pure in heart requires that you and I be single-minded persons. That is, if my heart is pure, it is undivided. It is one. The heart is together. I am not one way today and another way tomorrow.
It means that the person who is pure in heart is not unstable, unsettled, doubled-minded. The person who lives the pure life is not living a double life. He is not cross-eyed. His vision is not blurred.
A large part of our problems in getting through the rough times of life is that we lack this singleness of heart. We are torn by too many demands; we play our lives to too many audiences; attempt to serve too many gods; wear too many different masks; are forced to play too many different roles according to each occasion. We are like the fictional rider who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions at once. We dream too many dreams and attempt to realize each of them.
It is little wonder that we are constantly choosing wrong openings, going in the wrong directions. Our options are too numerous and often mutually exclusive: it is often simply impossible to have everything we want. It’s little wonder that we lose the joy in our marriage; the fulfillment of our faith. It’s little wonder that we even miss God.
God cannot — indeed, will not — be one of many masters. Jesus said: “… if your eye is single, the whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). We do not always see the beautiful sunsets, the magnificent roses and azalea blossoms; we do not always notice the goodness of children and the kindness of friends because our eye is too often distracted with something else.
Likewise, we will only see God when our vision is single. The joy we are missing … the maturity we are struggling to realize … the reconciliation we are longing for … the comfort and companionship we are yearning to experience … will never be ours until our eyes are fixed upon Him.
A forest ranger in one of our great national parks was somewhat disappointed by a question asked him. In the midst of that outward glory — distant mountains with snow atop the highest peaks, a waterfall, magnificent trees all around, and a coolness that seemed to be sent straight from God –an impatient visitor asked: “Mister, what is there to see around here?”
In disgust, the park ranger replied, “Nothing, sir, absolutely nothing!”
The educated eye of the geologist looks at a rock and sees far more than the average person, who merely kicks it out of his path. A woman who knows nothing of botany will see by the roadside only a tangle of weeds, grass, and wild flowers. But the skilled botanist can call each one by name and maybe even see something rare and unusual. The trained eye of the astronomer looks at the sky and sees far more than tiny points of light.
And an individual who has spiritual sight can see beyond the stars. The Bible says that the pure in heart will see God.
Knowledge makes a difference in what we see. It is a fact of life that what we see depends not only upon what is in front of our eyes but also on what is within our minds and hearts.
You will remember that Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian to orbit the earth, mockingly announced that he saw no sign of God in the heavens. But did you hear W. A. Criswell’s response to the cosmonaut’s statement? Criswell said: “I wish he had dared step from his space capsule but for a brief moment. He would have found himself immediately face to face with God.”
Each day we are fitting or unfitting ourselves to see God. We are either coming nearer to Him or drifting farther from Him. We are either making ourselves more and more open or more and more shut to the vision of Him.
You may be able to see a great many things and may even possess a great deal of insight into yourself and other persons and still miss God.
There is in each of us a desperate longing to see Him, isn’t there? Even in the midst of our sin, failure, frustration, confusion, grief, and fear, we yearn to see God. But unless our hearts are completely devoted to Him, we could well miss Him.
Once, in a small kingdom far away, the king became gravely ill. All the citizens of the kingdom were called to the palace grounds to be informed of the king’s condition. It was announced to those gathered in that place that only a new heart could save the king’s life.
Now the king was deeply loved. He had generously provided for all the needs of his subjects. So it was to no one’s surprise that when the need was announced the crowds began to shout: “My heart for the king. I’ll give my heart for the king.”
The king’s servants did not know what to do. So they asked that all the citizens of the kingdom gather again on the next day when one of the subjects would be selected as the donor of the king’s new heart.
There was a great deal of excitement and anticipation as the subjects gathered on the palace grounds. Shortly, the king’s servant emerged at the balcony announcing that the king’s condition had worsened and he was very near death. The selection must be made quickly if the king’s life was to be spared.
The crowds began to chant: “My heart for the king. I’ll give my heart for the king.”
The servant then announced the method by which the donor would be chosen. He would drop a feather from the balcony and the subject on whom the feather lighted would be the subject whose heart was given to the king.
A hush fell over the throng as the servant held the feather over the balcony railing. Then, as the feather floated down over the crowd, the chant was heard: “My heart for the king.” Puuuuuffffff! — each blew the feather away from himself and toward another. “I’ll give my heart to the king!” Puuuuuffffff!
Jesus promised that only the pure in heart would see God. By that, He meant the heart that was clean and the heart which was singly devoted to Him.
How’s your heart? Through the prophet, God promised:
I will give you a near heart and put
a new spirit within you … (Ezekiel 36:26).
He’s willing to lead you through the blinding storms; to help you find your way; to unify your heart!
Are you willing to let Him?

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