Matthew 5:8, continued
In the previous article, I discussed the first clause of the sixth Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:8)—
Maka/rioi oi( kaqaroi\ th=| kardi/a|, o%ti au)toi\ to\n qeo\n o&yontai
“Happy the (ones) clean in the heart, (in) that they will see God”
where I examined the meaning and significance of the expression “pure/clean in the heart” (kaqaro\$ th=| kardi/a|). Today, I will look at the result-clause, which states that they are declared “happy/blessed” in that they will see (o)pta/nomai optánomai, lit. “look with [open] eyes [at]”) God.
“They will see God”
There are several difficulties involved with this phrase, both theological and eschatological.
A fundamental tenet of Israelite and Jewish monotheism was that no human being could surviving seeing God (in this life); Moses’ encounter in Ex 33:20ff makes this clear (for a possible poetic echo of this motif, cf. Song 2:14). This theological point is emphasized especially in the Johannine literature: Jn 1:18; 5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12. However, there are other passages where chosen individuals are given a direct vision of God (Gen 32:30; Ex 24:10; and the prophetic visions 1 Kings 22:19; Isa 6:1-5; Amos 9:1; Ezek 1:1ff; Dan 7:9-22 [cf. Rev 1:12-16ff; 20:11ff]). In addition, there are references to Moses and others encountering God “face to face” (Exod 33:11; Num 12:8; 14:14; Deut 4:36; 5:4; 34:10; cf. also the expression in Judg 6:22; 1 Cor 13:12). For the metaphor of seeing God’s “face”, note in Gen 33:10; Isa 64:4, etc.
In the Old Testament, vision of God is intertwined with the idea of a divine appearance or manifestation (theophany), which usually takes place in the language and imagery of various natural phenomena (fire, wind, light, etc.)—Ex 3:4ff; 16:10; 19:16-25; Deut 5:24; Judg 6:22; 13:22; Ezek 1:1ff; 10:20; cf. also 1 Kings 19:11-13, and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). In general terms, God also is said to have “appeared” to the Patriarchs and other saints (Gen 12:7; 17:1; 18:1; 35:9; Num 12:5). In the New Testament, God becomes visible in the Person of Jesus, as noted especially in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:14, 50-51; 12:45; 14:7ff).
So, on the one hand, God cannot be seen; on the other, he is seen. This has led to the theological distinction that God, in his essence, is invisible (cf. Deut 4:12; Rom 1:20; Col 1:15-16; 1 Tim 1:17; Heb 11:27), and can only be seen through an intermediary. Jewish tradition and theology, in particular, was uncomfortable with the idea of any personal theophany, attributing the Old Testament accounts (see above) to an angel or the hypostasized Word (memra) of God, rather than to YHWH himself (see Acts 7:38 for an instance of this in the New Testament). Christian theologians debated whether human beings in their unfallen state had a true vision of God, and whether even the blessed in Heaven could ever see God in His essence (cf. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae Part I Question 12; Question 94.a1; Part II:ii Question 173.a1; Part III suppl. Question 92).
A vision of God (or, at least, of His Glory) was an established element of eschatological hope throughout the religions of the ancient world. We see this expressed in Old Testament passages such as Job 19:26; Ps 98:3; Isa 35:2; 40:5; 52:10; 60:2; [Lk 2:30-32; 3:6]. In Greco-Roman religion and the mystery cults the promise of blessedness in the afterlife could also be expressed in terms of beatific vision, related to the purity of soul (e.g., in Plato, Phaedo 69; Plutarch, On the Cessation of Oracles 40, On the Delay of Divine Vengeance 22ff; On the Face appearing in the orb of the Moon p.943; Apuleius, Metamorphoses bk 11, etc). This language of eschatological promise pervades the New Testament (Mark 9:1 par; Jn 11:40; 17:24; Acts 22:14; 1 Cor 13:12; 1 Jn 3:2; Rev 20:11ff; 22:4) and is certainly the primary emphasis in Matt 5:8—the one who is pure in heart will be found worthy to receive a vision of God Himself in the afterlife. It is worth noting that the future forms of the verb o)pta/nomai typically are used in an eschatological context in the New Testament (Mark 13:26; 14:62 par; Luke 3:6; 13:28; 17:22; Jn 1:50-51; 3:36; 16:16-22, etc).
However, the New Testament references also suggest an experience of the promise for believers now (in this life), which will only be realized fully in the life to come (see 1 Cor 13:12). This is understood first in terms of seeing God (the Father) in the person of Jesus (Jn 1:14, 50-51; 12:45; 14:7ff, also Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4ff). Fundamentally, then, it is experienced through the power and presence of the Spirit (of God and Christ), cf. Rom 8:9-16; 2 Cor 1:22; 5:5; Gal 4:6; Eph 1:13-14; 2:22, etc). In an earlier article, I discussed the principal significance of the Beatitude—that the happy/blessed status of the righteous (believer) consists in sharing in the blessedness of God. Here vision is closely related to the idea of imitation (and even transformation), as Paul makes clear especially in 2 Cor 3:18.
The beatific paradox of God’s invisibility and our vision of Him was cherished and deeply felt by Christian mystics throughout the ages. Gregory of Nyssa holds these two aspects together in his Life of Moses II.152-158, 162-169, and esp. 219-255 (commenting on Exod 33:11, 20) and Sermon 6 On the Beatitudes (commenting on Matt 5:8). He states, in appropriately paradoxical fashion—
Kai\ tou=to/ e)stin o&ntw$ to\ i)dei=n to\n qeo\n, to\ mhde/pote th=$ e)piqumi/a$ ko/ron eu(rei=n
“And this is really to see God: not ever to find (one’s) fill of desiring (to see Him)”
“This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see Him” (transl. Ferguson/Malherbe)
Life of Moses II.239