The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:8 (continued)

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

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:8

Matthew 5:8

The sixth Beatitude in Matthew (Matt 5:8) is one of the most striking:

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”

The adjective kaqaro/$ (katharós, “clean, pure”) is the key characteristic in this beatitude, and it derives from the context of religious ritual. In ancient and traditional religions worldwide, a basic concept was that, in order to maintain the proper relationship between human beings and God (or the gods)—whether at the individual or societal level—religious ritual and sacrifice must be performed in a state of purity. This purity, with related cleansing in cases of pollution or impurity, was itself maintained through a specific set of rules and ritual (“purity laws”). Purity begins with those invested with handling the sacred things and working in the sacred place(s), but ultimately extends to the entire community. For the religion of Israel, this is expressed throughout the Levitical law code (i.e., the book of Leviticus, esp. the “Holiness Code” of chaps. 17-26), according to the fundamental revelatory principle: “you shall be holy, for I am Holy—YHWH your God” (Lev 19:2, cf. Matt 5:48). The word translated “holy” is vodq* (q¹dôš, “separate, set apart, sacred, holy”), while the Greek term kaqaro/$ usually translates rohf* (‰¹hôr, “clean, pure”); other conceptually related words are yq!n` (n¹qî, “free, empty, clean”), Ez~ (zak, “bright, clear, clean”), rB^ (bar, “shining, clear, pure”), and <T* (t¹m, “complete, pure”). God is called “holy” (vdq/a(gio$), but the term “pure” (rhf/kaqaro$) normally only applies to humans in relation to Him (but see Psalm 12:6; 18:26).

“Pure/Clean in the Heart”

An important religious and spiritual principle is that purity in ritual must be accompanied by inward purity—for both priest and people—involving (a) one’s intention regarding the religious activity, and (b) one’s religious/spiritual condition attending the activity. The Old Testament Prophets, in particular, deliver a fierce condemnation to those who regularly engage in wicked thought and action but yet still participate in the religious ritual (with superficial piety) as though nothing were wrong (see esp. Isa 1:12-20; 66:1-6; Jer 7:1-15). The corruption of the priesthood was also a frequent theme (Mal 1:6-2:16) which would carry into later Jewish thought (emphasized by the Qumran community) and in the New Testament (see my earlier note on Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple); indeed, the priesthood and religious ritual itself was in need of thorough cleansing (see Isa 52:11; Ezek 43:20-23; Zech 3:4; Mal 1:11; 3:3).

The phrase “pure in heart” in  this regard goes back to Psalm 24 (esp. verses 3-4):

3Who shall go up in/on the hill of YHWH, and who shall stand in His holy standing-place?
4(The one) free/clean [yq!n`] (in his) two hands and shining/pure [rB^] of heart,
who has not lifted his soul to emptiness and has not declared seven-fold [? i.e. sworn] to deceit

It is perhaps not inappropriate to say that “clean of hands” suggests ritual purity, while “pure of heart” reflects inward purity. An equivalent phrase is also found in Psalm 51:10 (“a clean [rohf*] heart create for me, O God…”), and in Psalm 24:4; 73:1, 13; Prov 20:9; 22:11 (cf. also at the beginning of the Qumran Beatitudes fragment 4Q525 line 1). This ethical sense of purity (before God) would become an important theme in Wisdom Literature (see Job 4:7; 8:6; 11:4; 15:14-15; 25:4-5; 33:9; Prov 16:2; 21:8; Wis 1:1; Sir 51:20; there would seem to be an echo of Psalm 24:3 in Job 16:17; Sir 38:10). The emphasis on purity of soul (over and above ritual purity) is found also in Greek philosophy and the mystery cults—cf. Pindar Pythian 5 l.2; Plato Phaedo 65e-69d, 80d-83e, 108a-c, 113d, 114c; Laws 4.716d-e; Republic 6.496d; Theophrastus “On Piety” frag. 8, 9; and the Orphic gold plates [DK frag. 32, 33] (for these and other references [and bibliography], see Betz, Sermon, pp. 134-136). For a similar idea in Hellenistic Judaism see Epistle of Aristeas §2, 234; Testament of Benjamin 6:6; 8:2-3; Josephus Antiquities 18 §117 [regarding John the Baptist]; Philo On the Special Laws 1 §257-260; The Worse Attacks the Better §17ff; Noah’s Work as a Planter §62-64; The Life of Moses 2 §24;  (cf. TDNT III.416-417).

Elsewhere in the New Testament the word kaqaro/$ is used in Jesus’ disputes with scribes and Pharisees (related to purity laws and traditions, Matt 23:26; Lk 11:41), and is used to indicate the true cleansing of the disciples (by Jesus’ word) in John 13:10-11; 15:3. In Acts, it (translates an idiom which is) used by Paul to indicate that he is “innocent, free from guilt” (Acts 18:6; 20:26). In the Pastoral epistles, we find the same idiom as in the beatitude (“pure in heart”, 1 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 2:22, also “pure conscience”, 1 Tim 3:9; 2 Tim 1:3; Tit 1:15; and cf. 1 Pet 1:22; Acts 15:8-9); while similar ethical instruction occurs in James 1:27 (cf. the examples from Wisdom literature above). The related nouns kaqaro/th$ (katharót¢s, “cleanness, purity”) and kaqarismo/$ (katharismós, “cleansing, purification”) are used in the New Testament for cleansing in either the outward ritual sense (Mk 1:44 par; Lk 2:22; Jn 2:6; 3:25) or inward ethical/spiritual sense (Heb 1:3; 9:13; 2 Pet 1:9). The verb kaqari/zw (katharízœ, “make clean, cleanse, purify”) occurs more frequently, also in both outward (ritual) and inward (spiritual) senses; in the latter usage, especially, it is synonymous or parallel with a(gia/zw (hagiázœ, “make holy, sanctify”).

For more on the “heart” as an ethical and spiritual symbol in Jesus’ teaching, see Mark 7:6, 19-21 par; Matt 5:28; 6:21; 12:34 pars; Lk 8:15; Jn 7:38; and elsewhere see in Lk 2:35; Acts 5:3-4; 8:21-22; Rom 2:29; 6:17; 8:27; 1 Cor 4:5; 2 Cor 5:12; Eph 6:5-6; Col 3:22; 1 Tim 1:5; 2 Tim 2:22; Heb 4:12; 8:10; 10:16, 22; James 1:26; 3:14; 4:8; 5:8; 1 Pet 1:22; 3:4, 8; 1 Jn 3:17-21. The heart is viewed as the center of belief (Rom 10:9-10) and focus of unity among believers through the Spirit (Acts 4:32; Rom 2:29; 5:5; 8:27; 2 Cor 1:22; 3:2; 6:11-13; 7:2-3; Gal 4:6, etc.). There are two sayings involving the heart, used by Jesus, which may be understood as relating to the Beatitude in Matt 5:8:

In particular, I would affirm a parallel with the expression in Matt 5:3—”the poor in the spirit” / “the pure in the heart”.

The second portion of the sixth Beatitude will be discussed in the next article.

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