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SM #7: Seeing God

Updated: Feb 18

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:8)

CORE (The heart of the message):

Purity of heart is both a matter of undiluted moral cleanness AND undistracted mental focus. The more we are like Mary rather than Martha, keeping our hearts focused on the “one thing” that is necessary – paying attention to Jesus and being ready to drop everything else to learn from and live for him – the more we will see God at work around us and in us.

CONFESSION (Personal reflection):

I confess that I have not been “pure of heart” for a long time. I have lived out this Beatitude in reverse. I have been impure in thought and deed. I have hidden my sin, even at times from my own consciousness. And in that condition, I have lost sight of God. Denial, suppression, repression, rationalization, and compartmentalization are powerful tools we can use to keep us from facing our impurities, and I have, in retrospect, used them all.

Now through loving confrontation, confession, accountability, therapy, spiritual direction, many prayers of many saints, and truck loads of grace I have begun again to “see” God at work in my own heart and all around me. I am still only getting glimpses of God as though through a glass darkly, but it is enough to make me deeply grateful.

I remember when I was first confronted about my most grievous sin, it was like I was being introduced to myself for the first time in a long time – a self I had denied and pushed aside. It reminds me of a line in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (more the Parable of the Gracious Father really), where it says that the son finally changed his mind and decided to go home when “he came to himself” (a literal translation of the Greek in Luke 15:17) – and I now know what it is like to be away from, and to come back again to, me. James, the brother of Jesus, says:

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. ~ The apostle James (James 4:8)

The phrase “double-minded” is so significant. It is literally “two-souled” in the Greek text. Purity of heart happens when we give up living double lives, with two versions of ourselves, one seen and one unseen. We all have private versions of ourselves, and privacy is not the problem here. The problem of impurity happens when our private selves are opposite or at least very different from our projected selves.

Does this mean we have to tell everybody everywhere everything all at once about ourselves? No, there is a difference between being honest and being open. We can be honest at all times with all people, while we are open about the details of our lives with only a trusted few. (So much more could be said about how and how not to do this well, but we will have to leave that for another post.)

Still, even as one who has lived out this Beatitude both positively and negatively, this teaching of Jesus can leave me with lots of questions. What does it really mean to be pure in heart? How could I ever know I was pure enough? How much impurity does it take to disqualify someone from seeing God? Aren’t our hearts always “deceitful above all and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9)? I resonate with Solomon’s question:

Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”? ~ King Solomon (Proverbs 20:9)

My answer is: Not me, that’s for dang sure. And maybe that is Solomon’s point – none of us can. If you are feeling impure of heart, I get you. And maybe this is a good place to be. We are aware of our inadequacy, which will hopefully lead us to Jesus so we can receive his purity. Let us pray together along with King David after he was confronted by Nathan the prophet about his great sins:

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. ~ King David (Psalm 51:10)

And what if God answers this prayer? I still have more questions. When and how do pure-hearted people get to “see God” as our Beatitude promises? Is it in this life or the next? What does it mean to actually “see” God? Does Jesus mean a literal seeing with our eyes, or a metaphorical seeing with our mind’s eye, or something else entirely? Is this a one-time sighting or an ongoing experience? And when any of us do see God, what will we see? What does God “look” like?

Other Bible passages on this topic can increase the questions rather than offer the answers. Jesus says God is “spirit” (John 4:24), and isn’t spirit invisible? The apostle Paul affirms our suspicion – God is “invisible” (Colossians 1:15; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16). So can we really see the unseeable One? Well (please read the rest of this paragraph as quickly as possible until you are almost out of breath)... Didn’t Adam and Eve see God in the garden? When God spoke with Cain was he not seeable? Job said he saw God (Job 42:5) and I have no reason to doubt him. Apparently, God “appeared” to Abraham a few of times, once as three men, and they enjoyed a meal together and then after supper went for a long walk-n-talk (Genesis 17:1; 18:1 and onward). Are these three men who are said to be the one God actually a vision of the Trinity? Or is it Godplus two angels? Either way, how did Abraham know this was actually a divine entourage and not just some cool dudes? Did they glow? Jacob said he “saw God face to face” when he wrestled with “a man” at night (Genesis 32:30). God wrestles? And why was Jacob winning until God sucker-punched his groin (a more literal translation of “hip”)? Moses apparently spoke with God “face to face” (literally mouth to mouth) and saw “the form of Yahweh” (Numbers 12:8). God has a form? An outline? God in silhouette? What did Moses really see? Sometimes God doesn’t want to be seen at all (Exodus 19:21) or at least not his face: “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). And in one wild episode, God hides Moses in a cleft of a rock and causes all his “goodness” to pass by, but covers Moses’ eyes with his “hand” until God’s “glory” is mostly past. Then God removes his hand so Moses can see the “back” of God (Exodus 33:18-23). Pardon? God has a front and a back? God has a hand? Is God’s goodness the same as his glory? Why can’t Moses be allowed to see God’s glory, when “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3)? Why are New Testament saints permitted to see “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6)? And what does God look like from behind? Is all of this a metaphor? Is Moses not “pure in heart” enough to see all of God? On another occasion Moses and Aaron and the seventy elders who were with them on Mount Sinai apparently saw all of God and had a meal together with him (Exodus 24:9-11). What’s it like to have dinner with God? And then there are all those “angel of Yahweh” sightings that seem to be manifestations of Yahweh himself (e.g., Exodus 3:2-6). Hagar heard from “the angel of Yahweh” and then later said she had heard from and even seen God (Genesis 16:7-13). And what about Isaiah who saw God seated on his throne in the Temple surrounded by seraphim (Isaiah 6)? Or Daniel who saw the fiery white-haired “Ancient of Days” sitting on a wheel-chair throne (Daniel 7:9-14)? Or Ezekiel who saw “visions of God”, namely as living creatures coming out of an immense cloud with flashing lights and a wheel in the middle of a wheel (Ezekiel 1). God is a UFO? Close Encounters of the Divine Kind?

Whew. You see what I mean. This whole “seeing God” business is as bizarre as it is mysterious. Just like the mystery of what it means to be “pure in heart” – I have more questions than answers. But I’m happy to share some things I’m learning. And I’m looking forward to learning from you too. Crowdsourced theology here we come!

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage):

Jesus has begun his Sermon on the Mount with a series of beautiful blessings before ever giving a command, demand, or direction. Grace comes first, and we are meant to remember this later when the Sermon sets the standards high.

It is possible, maybe probable, that each of these Beatitudes describes aspects of one kind of kingdom person, rather than different kinds of people with different specialties. This would be similar to the qualities of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13 or the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Lists like this paint a picture of what the “blessed” believer looks like. They help us understand the focus and goal of the Holy Spirit’s power working within us so we can move with rather than against the flow of the Spirit.

If this is the case, we don’t have to figure out what being “pure in heart” means apart from the context of the entire Sermon on the Mount, and especially the other Beatitudes. If we just keep reading, we will get to know what Jesus has in mind by “pure in heart”. So far, for starters, pure in heart people are poor in spirit, mourning (including mourning their own sin), gentle, longing for a righteousness they don’t yet possess, and they are merciful (knowing they need mercy too). It seems that the pure in heart aren’t perfect, but they do seem to be perfectly enthralled, entranced, and captivated by grace.

Hear that again: to be pure in heart does not mean being sinless, although we should seek to sin less. The rest of the Sermon on the Mount will describe what being “pure in heart” looks like, and these people pray daily for forgiveness of sins, and they humbly help others who fail (those who have splinters in their eyes) by first acknowledging their own failures (the planks in their own eyes). So pure in heart people don’t judge, but they do help. In short, to be pure in heart is to love others with the love we receive. (See our last 1820 study about mercy for more on the pay it forward Platinum Rule of Jesus.)

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage):

Blessed. The Greek word here translated “blessed” (makarios) means something like fortunate or flourishing. It’s like our English word “lucky” but without the randomness that luck suggests. We could translate it “God has made lucky those who” or “God’s favour is upon those who” or “Flourishing are those who”, but “Blessed” probably still works best, as long as we remember that it points to a Blesser behind the blessing. The word carries a connotation of communication, exhortation, declaration, and congratulation. That is, the translation might be more literally “Blessings upon…” or “God blesses”, the way we might say “Bless you” when someone sneezes, but with real power to make the wish a reality. The blessings come from somewhere and Someone. Also remember the blessings are a present reality, right here and right now, even if a future fulfillment is hoped for. (For more on this, see our first 1820 study on the Beatitudes.)

Pure. This Greek word (katharos), means to be a singular substance without other elements; to be untainted, unalloyed, unadulterated, without admixture. This purity is, on one level, moral purity. When we sin, our ethical failure clouds our hearts, and our vision of God. When we hide that sin, the clouds roll in all the more and our view of the Son is increasingly blocked. King David describes purity of heart in terms of truthfulness, avoiding falsehood and pretense (based on a literal translation of Psalm 24:4). The pure in heart live the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) principle. They’re purity is not diluted with fakeness and falsehood. They may not be perfect, but they are perfectly honest about their imperfection. They have integrity and singularity of focus, attention, and direction. Impurity can also arise, not only through moral failure and our compounding impulse to hide our sin, but also whenever we are distracted by or worried about other more mundane cares of life: our failures or successes, our past or our future, our appearance or our possessions, or anything that dilutes our focus on Jesus, his teaching, his kingdom, and the God he calls Father. These distractions give us “double-standing” – a literal translation of the word “doubt” in Matthew 14:31 and 28:17. According to these passages, to “doubt” is to try to stand on two foundations at the same time, to hedge our bets and have a backup, just in case. Jesus expands on this theme later in the Sermon on the Mount when warns us about “Mammon” – the god of money and materialism – which can dilute and distract from our single-minded devotion to God. Instead, Jesus says, we should seek first his kingdom (see Matthew 6:19-34). Jesus tells Martha that “few things are needed—or indeed only one” and encourages Martha to be more like Mary, who simply sits at Jesus’ feet to learn from him (Luke 10:42). Martha’s heart was divided (that is, impure), not because it was contaminated with sin, but because she was distracted by meal prep while letting an opportunity to learn from Jesus pass her by. For the pure in heart, learning from and loving like Jesus IS LIFE, so when those opportunities come, we drop everything else to pay attention to Jesus.

Heart. This word (Greek, kardia) refers to the centre of our soul, where human thought, feeling, and will reside. The heart is the locus of the rational, emotional, and volitional self. Today we often symbolize the heart as the seat of our emotions only, but this was not the case in ancient times, and certainly not in the Bible. The head symbolizes thought, and the guts symbolize emotions. (We still sometimes say “I have a gut feeling” about something.) And the heart, while it could include both thoughts and feelings, ultimately symbolizes the seat of human will, choice, decision, direction, focus. This works perfectly with the geography of the human body: the heart is equidistant between the head and guts, ideally taking both reason and emotion into consideration when choosing our focus or direction. This lends credence to the idea that being pure of heart is not just being without the contamination of sin, but having singularity in direction and focus: that is, seeking first the kingdom of God and its qualities (Matthew 6:33), which is another way of saying we want to align our will with God’s will so we become more like Jesus (Romans 8:29). To be pure in heart includes having a heart filled with mercy and forgiveness rather than judgement (Matthew 18:35). King David prayed: “Teach me your way, Yahweh, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may honour your name” (Psalm 86:11). In the words of the Danish existential philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard (who I became absolutely drunk on in university and, thankfully, have never fully recovered): Purity of heart is to will one thing.

Will see. To “see” God may include an actual visual encounter experienced through our actual eyes (a theophany), but even more importantly seeing with the heart is likely the focus here. The tense of this verb is future. But how far in the future? This promise certainly refers to the end times, when after all our struggles and partial glimpses of God’s goodness and glory, we will eventually be with God, knowing fully even as we are fully known and seeing God face to face (1 Corinthians 13:11-12; 1 John 3:2-3; Revelation 22:4). Amen. At the same time, the Greek word here also suggests a progressive seeing. It could be translated: “Your eyes will open to see more and more of God” (The Passion Translation). Perhaps the pure in heart will see God in their everyday lives, noticing God in the people they serve, hearing from God in the wisdom shared by spiritual sisters and brothers, or just sensing God all around them working in and through nature as well as the circumstances of life (Romans 8:28). Most likely, both ideas are represented in this promise – seeing God partially and progressively in this life, and more fully in the life to come.

God. The one Jesus promises we will see is the one we cannot fully comprehend or describe. “God” (Greek, theos) is what we call the energy force that has created and currently sustains the universe (Genesis 1; Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:16-17). God is our atmosphere within which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). God is our source, our sustainer, and our goal – the one we have come from, live in, and are returning to (Revelation 21-22). This God is personal (being a person, not just an impersonal power, thing, or concept) and relational (eternally interacting within God’s own self, as well as with others God has created). Ultimately, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). These three beautiful words were first recorded in history by the apostle John after spending years getting to know Jesus. And this God has made us humans in God’s own image and likeness so we are made ready for relationship with God and one another and all of creation in some capacity. We relate to God, to other humans, and to stars, plants, frogs, foxes, and fish in ways that dolphins, for instance, do not. Humans are uniquely God-like in our relational capacity. Yes, God is invisible spirit (John 4:24; 1 Timothy 1:17), yet the Bible records God manifesting his presence to humans in many ways that our senses can experience. Today this may include “seeing” through scripture, through nature, through fellow believers, and through hurting people we help. (See the Commentary below for more on this.)

COMMENTARY (Thoughts about meaning and application):

We value purity. We may not always strive for purity in ourselves as we should, but we instinctively value purity in others and in many aspects of life. Just ask yourself, for instance, how do you feel about the following examples of impurity limits listed in the USA by the FDA (Food & Drug Administration)…

  • Up to 13 insect heads per 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of fig paste.

  • Up to 400 insect fragments per 50 grams of ground cinnamon.

  • Up to 450 insect fragments and nine rodent hairs in every 16 oz. box of spaghetti.

  • Up to 60 mites per 100 grams of frozen broccoli.

  • Up to 50 mites per 100 grams of frozen spinach, but only if it also doesn't have two or more spinach worm larvae that exceed 3 millimeters in length.

  • Up to one maggot per 100 grams of tomato juice and tomato paste.

  • Up to one maggot per 240 milliliters (about 1 cup) of canned citrus fruit, but only if it also has less than five fly eggs.

  • Up to 3% of canned and/or frozen peaches can be "wormy or moldy".

  • Up to 11 rodent hairs per 25 grams of ground paprika.

  • Up to 10 milligrams of rodent poop per pound of coffee beans.

  • Up to 9 rodent poop pellets per kilogram of wheat.

  • And a certain small amount of “objectionable” materials – including sticks, stones, burlap bagging, and cigarette butts – is allowed in some foods, like pepper and sesame seeds.

I don’t know about you, but I have two things going on inside me when I read this:

#1. I’m grateful that someone is regulating food purity!

#2. I’m grossed out by the idea of allowing any food impurities!

And it raises the question, what are God’s standards for human heart purity? How many specs of lust or particles of anger or fragments of judgementalism are allowed before we are deemed too impure to see God? Perhaps the state and status of being “pure in heart” is something we move in and out of moment by moment, and not a spiritual level we achieve, like graduating with a degree in purity. Perhaps every moment we are Jesus oriented in our focus and desires is a moment of purity, which means it is a moment of seeing God more clearly. Perhaps when a vision of the kingdom of heaven on earth, where God’s will and God’s way holds sway in our lives, grips our hearts, we will see more of God’s presence and hear more of God’s voice through the lives of others.

Moving through the Sermon on the Mount we can at least identify a few heart contaminants that Jesus thinks are worth drawing our attention to: anger, lust, exalting justice over mercy, performative spirituality, unforgiveness, worry, materialism, and judgementalism, to name a few. But let’s move on – this is far too convicting.

Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will command: "Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Luke's version interprets this same command as "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). The real call of Jesus upon our lives is to be perfect in mercy. This is purity of heart. Think of it this way: a perfectly pure of heart person would likely be someone who lives out the Sermon on the Mount perfectly for starters. And what would living out the Sermon on the Mount perfectly look like in our lives? Someone who lives out the Sermon of the Mount perfectly is someone who is merciful as they know they need mercy (5:7), prays daily for forgiveness of their sin as they forgive others (6:12), and deals with the plank in their own eye whenever they try to help someone else with their own splinter (7:1-5). To live out the Sermon on the Mount perfectly is to be an imperfect person being perfectly merciful. This is the goal of being pure in heart.

Ultimately, the Good News is that, when we trust Jesus for our eternal and abundant life, Jesus himself purifies our hearts as a gift of grace received by simple faith (Acts 15:9). Yes!

So let’s open our eyes and look for God. Maybe we can see him, here and now, if we know what to look for. Matthew says that Jesus is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

And Jesus says:

The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. ~ JESUS (John 12:45)

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. ~ JESUS (John 14:9)

And the apostle Paul adds:

The Son is the image of the invisible God. ~ The apostle Paul (Colossians 1:15)

And the apostle John adds:

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known. ~ The apostle John (John 1:18)

John knows that lots of saints in the Old Testament are said to have seen God. John knows his Bible really well, so when he says "no one has ever seen God" he isn't forgetting about Bible passages that say different. John seems to be saying that until we really get to know Jesus, whatever we think we’ve seen of God is so partial, so incomplete, and so potentially misleading as to be like not seeing God at all. When you stare into the life and teachings of Jesus, you have to rethink everything you think you know about God. To have a clear Christophany (vision of Christ) is to have a clear theophany (vision of God).

Friends, this is exciting: we can see God! Maybe not all at once, not this side of heaven, but increasingly we really can get brighter and clearer glimpses of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe! We can see the invisible God by looking at Jesus!

But wait, Jesus was visible, 2000 years ago. Now he is just as invisible to us as the Father he came to show us. So now how do we look at Jesus today? You may have some ideas worth sharing (I'm looking forward to the comments). For now, here are three possibilities that come to my mind:

  1. We can “see” Jesus in the Bible. Let’s read all of Scripture, but especially the gospels, with our imaginations engaged (Hebrews 3:1; 12:2). Go beyond simply reading the Bible to praying, contemplating, and meditating your way through Scripture. In fact, when you’re done reading this post, why not take some time to quietly meditate on the Jesus you see in the Beatitudes

  2. We can “see” Jesus through interaction with his followers. Our Christian sisters and brothers are, quite literally in many ways, the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-16). So, why not turn this study time into a conversation with others about what you’re learning together, and really pay attention to the Jesus you’re seeing and hearing in that relationship.

  3. We can especially “see” Jesus through the faces of the needy people we help (Mark 9:37; Matthew 25:31-46). Want to really help your spiritual vision increase in clarity and move from black-&-white to living colour? Bake time into your regular routine to volunteer for a charity and/or to draw close to hurting people around you and help them in practical ways.

Study scripture, engage with fellow Jesus-followers, and serve the needy around us – with our spiritual eyes wide open. When we do these things regularly, our vision of Jesus, and of the God Jesus calls Father, will vastly increase. And, like Mary more than Martha, whenever we have an opportunity to learn from and love like Jesus, drop everything else and pay attention.

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people. ~ The apostle Paul (Ephesians 1:17-18)

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art Thou my best thought, by day or by night Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light (An Ancient Irish Hymn)

CONCLUSION (One Last Thought):

If you are feeling double-minded, two-souled, or even just unclear about who you really are and what your next steps in life should be, try this...

Tell God you want his will and his way to hold sway 100% in your life. No backup plan. No "just in case the whole Jesus thing doesn't work out I will keep this other source of safety, security, or self-soothing sin on the side" thinking. Declare in prayer that you reject the way of the world around you and you renounce all societal trends and cultural norms in favour of the values of the kingdom of heaven on earth. Admit that you may not live this out perfectly, but at least for now, declare your loyalty.

You may find some of the fog of unclarity will dissapate, and you will see God more clearly, and who God has made you to be.

CONTEMPLATE (Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic):

Job 19:25-27; Psalm 11:7; 17:5; 51; 86:11; Matthew 15:18-19; 25:31-46 John 1:16-18; Acts 15:8-9; Ephesians 1:17-18; 4:11-16; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 3:1; 12:2; 12:14; James 4:8; 1 John 3:2-3; Revelation 22:4

CONVERSATION (Talk together, learn together, grow together):

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. When and how have you seen God?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

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1 Comment

Maybe we "see" Jesus wherever and whenever we see signs of His kingdom breaking out on earth. For example when a person makes a choice for peace and not violence, shows mercy instead of seeking retribution, shows generosity and not greed etc.. We sometimes fail to recognise just how the way of Jesus has shaped culture in the west. ( see Tom Holland's book "Dominion"). The good news proclaimed by Jesus was that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Every time we see evidence of that Kingdom we see the footprint of Jesus. Just a thought!

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