Seeing God in the Gospel of Matthew (5:8)

The motif of “Seeing God” is a significant concept found in various NT texts (Mt. 5:8; 18:10; Rom. 1:19-20; 1 Cor. 13:12; Col. 1:15; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 3:2,6; 4:12, 20; III John 11; Rev. 4:2f.; 22:4). The greatest difficulty is to understand each writer’s theological interest in employing the concept. Is it possible that these NT writers who promoted the concept and wrote about it shared a common theological interest?

For example, the name Israel means “the one who sees God.” The ancient Rabbis taught obedience ultimately brings reward to the law and enables one to see God. There’s a sense of “moral uprightness” in response to the Torah. The concept is also developed largely in Exodus chapters 33-34 and Isaiah’s encounter with God, (Is. 6). The motif, however, points to an eschatological transformation and hope for the Christian (1 John 3:2) in the age to come. It also expresses especially a proper ethical behavior that Christians exhibit towards God (I John 3:6). Seeing God motif envisions a future promise, an eschatological realization based on one’s prior performance in life (Mathew 5:8). In addition, the concept of seeing God is associated with the invisibility of God (I John 4:12; John 1:18; a direct allusion to Ex. 33:20) and intimately linked with the Christian ethic of love (I John 4:20), in which love is ascribed as the highest human expression towards God and one’s neighbor.

In the Gospel of Matthew, particularly in 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” here the Matthean “vision of God” is depicted as an eschatological hope. It is a divine promise, a provisional one, in which a pledge is made on behalf of the righteous in the future age, the messianic era. Nonetheless, in the history of exegesis, there has been considerable tension among scholars and theologians, attempting to discern the proper meaning of Matthew 5:8 and its relation to 18:10. Some scholars emphasize the first part of the verse, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” others stress the latter, “for they shall see God.” However, some people insist that we should not divorce both parts of the passage but argue that “Blessed are the pure in heart” and “for they shall see God” should be interpreted connectively and complementarily.

In his commentary on Matthew, Hill interprets the Mathean motif in this respect, “To ‘see God’ is a pictorial expression indicating the bliss of fellowship with God in the Kingdom (cf. Ps. 17:15; 42:2; 4 Ezra 7:98–‘for they hasten to behold the face of him whom they served in life and from whom they are to receive their reward when glorified’ (David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, 113). For Donald Hagner, the concept should be understood provisionally; that is, as an eschatological promise/hope. Keener provides the OT background by associating the phrase with the first Exodus and last Day of Judgment, “The ‘pure in heart’ (Ps. 73:1) were those in Israel whose hearts were “clean,” or undefiled, those who recognized that God alone was their help and reward (Ps. 73:2-28). The righteous would see God on the Day of Judgment (e.g., Is. 30:20), as in the first Exodus ( Ex. 24:10-11)” – (Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 56). Morris, in his classic commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, emphasizes the ethical aspect of the passage and contrasts the “pure” to the “impure” in heart. He writes, “The pure in heart see God in a way that the impure never know.” Reversely, Morris points us to the ultimate epistemological experience that the believer has with God. Morris also construes that the Matthean vision of God not only points to an eschatological hope but also stresses a present reality for the Christian. However, he maintains that the main emphasis here is eschatology, pointing to “a vision too wonderful to be fully experienced in this life but that will come to its consummation in the world to come” (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 100).

Blomberg in his work on Matthew sees “pure in heart” as a reference both to “moral uprightness” and “ritual cleanliness.” The latter was commonly enforced in Judaic practices. Blomberg writes, “…As with “righteousness” in general for Matthew, what Jesus of his disciples is a life-style characterized by pleasing God (see comments under 1:18-19). The “pure in heart” exhibit a single-minded devotion to God that stems from the internal cleansing created by following Jesus.” – Craig Blomberg, The New American Commentary An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture: Matthew, 100). It is evident here that Blomberg stresses “the pure in heart” but sees this attitude as a prerequisite for entering God’s presence, fellowshipping with him. In other words, for Blomberg, “for they shall see God,” points to the ultimate experience and intimate fellowship which believers will enjoy with God.

In his excellent commentary, R. T. France suggests the following interpretation, “…Those who are qualified to “ascend the hill of the Lord” and “stand in his holy place” are characterized by “clean hands and a pure heart,” which is then defined in terms of truthfulness and of an active “seeking” for God (Ps 24:3-6). The meaning is thus not far from that of v.6, with its emphasis on a longing to live the life God requires. In the context of first-century Judaism, with its strong emphasis on ritual “purity,” the phrase “pure in heart” might also be understood to imply a contrast with the meticulous preservation of outward purity which be condemned in 23:25-28 as having missed the point of godliness; but no such connotation is likely in Ps.24, on which this beatitude is based. The vision of God which is the goal of the pure in heart (Ps 24:6; cf. Ps 11:7; 17:15; 27:5; 42:2), and which is here promised to them, is sometimes expressed in the OT in terms of an actual “seeing” though these are clearly marked out as exceptional. More often the invisibility of God is stressed (Ex 33:18-23), and this is strongly reinforced in the NT (John 1:18; 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16). There may be visionary experiences in this word which includes “seeing” God, as for John on Patmos, but “seeing God’s face” is a privilege reserved for the new Jerusalem (Rev 22:4 cf. 1 Cor 13:12; 1 John 3:2). Meanwhile, it is the “angels” of God’s people, not those people themselves, who see his face in heaven (18:10). Here on earth the people of God may find strength “as if seeing him who is invisible” (Heb 11:27), but such “seeing” remains only a foretaste of God’s true vision of God in heaven” (R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 168-169).

Finally, in my opinion, Gundry provides a more contextual reading of this passage, as his observation caught my attention. He writes, …”Besides the obvious similarity between Matthew and the psalm so far as purity of heart is concerned, we may also note that Matthew’s “blessed” corresponds to “blessing from the Lord” in the psalm and that the promise, “they will see God,” corresponds to seeking the “face” of God, who comes into view later in the psalm by entering through the gates as the King of glory (cf. Ps 17:15; Rev 22:4; 2 Esdr 7:98). Since Matthew has identified Jesus as “God with us” (1:23), he may intend his readers to understand the blessed vision of God in the future as the sight of Jesus returning in glory (24:30; 26:64; cf. 28:7. 10)”- (Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for Mixed Church under Persecution, 71)

In conclusion, the Matthean vision of God calls for a closer study of the Gospel and its milieu, particularly its religious setting. It might also be of great significance to explore the motif in relation to Matthew’s concept of the “kingdom of heaven” and the Parousia of the Son of Man. Perhaps an investigation of the concept of deeds and rewards in Judaism as both subjects look forward to and pertain to the messianic age and the last day might provide substantial cues.

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