Why do you think there was a crowd surrounding Jesus as He delivered the Sermon on the Mount? What were they hoping to hear from him? What was the nagging question in the mind of His Jewish audience?
By this point, Jesus had gone about all of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom. He had gone about healing all manner of diseases. His fame had spread everywhere. And finally this massive crowd gathers.
I believe the hearts of these people were burdened by one great question: What kind of righteousness must we have in order to be accepted into God’s kingdom? In other words, what does God require of us that we might be accepted into the presence of a holy God?
This is what Jesus tells them:
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)
Jesus says that in order to enter God’s presence, you must have a pure heart. And that, frankly, must have been a shocking statement to His audience. People then (like people now) tended to measure themselves by their fellow men. The Pharisees especially loved to compare themselves with others, seeing themselves as better and therefore, hopefully, acceptable to God.
Inevitably, when someone is trying to measure his own virtue, he’ll measure himself by the standard of another flawed human being. And we do this because we can always find someone worse than ourselves, allowing us to survive the comparison with our pride intact.
But the fact of the matter is that being slightly better than other sinful people is not the standard we are called to. God’s righteousness is the standard. The highest, holiest being in the universe, the only one who has never sinned, is the standard. This is what Jesus is saying.
In this sense, Jesus sets the bar even higher than the Pharisees, who required all sorts of complicated external performances of obedience. Jesus adds even more pressure by saying, “Well, to say nothing of what you’re doing on the outside, let’s talk about this: You’ll never see God unless you’re absolutely pure on the inside.”
At first, this would have been no comfort to the crowds. It would have only compounded their guilt over their inability to perform at the level God’s law had called them to. The demands for external obedience were already crushing; this demand for internal obedience was impossible. So how can anyone be saved?
One place to find the answer is back in the Old Testament, through David’s words in Psalm 24:
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood
And has not sworn deceitfully.
He shall receive a blessing from the Lord
And righteousness from the God of his salvation. (verses 3-5)
David is meditating on the holiness of God and asking, “What sort of person can enter His presence?” And because he knows the answer, David answers his own question by saying the exact same thing that Jesus does: “The entrance requirement for God’s presence is a pure heart.”
But note this. David says that this person with a pure heart “shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” This person receives external righteousness from God. So David isn’t talking about a man-centered, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps righteousness; he’s talking about imputed righteousness.
Who’s going to see God? Who has a right to ascend His holy hill? Who has a right to go into His presence? Those who have been given His righteousness and been cleansed on the inside by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Spirit of God.
Purely ceremonial religion cannot reconcile you to God. A sinner in his natural condition is totally unacceptable to God, totally unfit for His kingdom, no matter how religious he is. Until he is given a clean heart and has been covered with the garment of righteousness, he will never see God. God requires holiness.
First Peter 1:16 says, “You shall be holy for I am holy.” That’s the standard. And nobody meets that standard. So what is the solution to this failure? Peter goes on to describe it:
You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ … You have in obedience to the truth purified your souls. (1:18-19, 22)
What we’re talking about here is people who have been cleansed. Those who have had their heart cleansed. And that’s exactly what salvation does, doesn’t it?
What is God looking for? He’s looking for people who have had their heart cleaned, who have the core of their nature regenerated. Who have had that old stony heart taken out, that old sinful, rebellious core taken out and replaced with a new heart. They’ve been washed.
This blog post is based on Dr. MacArthur’s sermon “The Only Way to Happiness: Be Pure in Heart,” originally preached in 1998.
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