The Heart of the Matter
Buried securely within the cavity of the human chest is an amazing muscle about the size of one’s fist. Charged by a tiny electrical impulse, approximately every 8/10ths of a second it “beats” — about 100,000 times a day, pumping some 1,800 gallons of blood, rich with food and oxygen, to all parts of your body. Its name is “the heart.” The heart with its precious cargo, is the life-center of the human body (cf. Leviticus 17:11).
It is not without significance, therefore, that the term “heart” becomes a linguistic device for the conveyance of numerous profound ideas in virtually every language employed by human beings.
The English word “heart” is principally derived from original terms in the Hebrew Old Testament. The word leb is rendered “heart” 599 times, and the kindred form lebab is likewise found as “heart” 252 times. In the Greek New Testament, the original word is kardia (cf. English, cardiac), and it was employed by the inspired writers on 156 occasions.
Oddly, the terms for “heart” rarely are used of the literal organ. After Absalom had initiated a rebellion against his father, David, he fled to the rugged territory east of the Jordan. While riding a mule, his long hair became entangled in the low-growing boughs of an oak tree, and he was left suspended there. Presently, Joab, David’s captain, came by and thrust three javelins into the “heart,” killing the lad where he hung.
But in most cases, the word “heart” is employed figuratively. It represents a host of intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and moral qualities. Great lessons can be learned from a consideration of various passages in which the term is symbolically used. In this study, we will consider but six of them.
The “Honest” Heart
In the parable of the sower, Jesus spoke of the sowing of seed upon the soil of Palestine. Four types of soil were surveyed. There was the hard, wayside soil into which no seed could penetrate. Then reference was made to the stony ground (a veneer of soil underlain with bedrock), which was too shallow to accommodate growth. A soil crowded with thorn bushes was similarly unproductive. Finally, though, there was the “good” soil, identified by the Savior as an “honest and good heart” (Luke 8:15).
The “honest heart” describes the disposition of one who is characterized by an earnestness of soul, an attitude of sincerity bereft of stubbornness and hypocrisy. It reflects a mentality adorned with “integrity,” as possessed by Abimelech, Abram’s contemporary (Genesis 20:5), or Nathaniel, in whom was found no “guile” (John 1:47).
The honest heart is the one in which there is a sense of craving for the divine; it acknowledges the need for the Creator’s guidance. It is the mind-set in which the distinction between right and wrong has not been obliterated. It longs for instruction, acknowledging that “the way of man is not in himself … to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23).
No better example of a glaring contrast, i.e., a dishonest heart, exists than that of Pharaoh, whose stubborn heart resisted every benevolent overture from the Lord. Three Hebrew words are employed to describe the rebellious inclination of the Egyptian ruler. Qasha means to “make sharp, hard, obstinate” (Exodus 7:3). The term kabed denotes “heavy, insensible,” (Exodus 7:14; 8:15,32; 9:7,34; 10:1), and hazaq signifies “headstrong, stiff, unyielding” (Exodus 4:21; 7:3,22; 8:19; 9:12).
The hardening is attributed both to Pharaoh and to God. To the former because he closed his mind to the enlightenment of Jehovah’s message, as buttressed by awesome power. The hardening is credited to God because the Lord made demands upon the ungodly autocrat he did not wish to obey. Also Heaven respected the ruler’s freedom of choice. What God merely permits, he is often, in a figurative sense, said to actually do (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:11).
The “Seeking” Heart
In order for conversion to be achieved, an honest heart is necessary; however, it is not sufficient. More is required.
Saul of Tarsus had a most sincere disposition when he was persecuting Christians. He was doing what he thought he “ought” to do for the preservation of his cherished Hebrew religion. His conscience was clean (Acts 23:1; 24:16; 26:9). But he was wrong. Had he remained in that state, honest as he was, he would have died lost.
Solomon once wrote: “The heart of the prudent gets knowledge; and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 18:15). There is that quality of heart that is not only honest, it is inquiring as well. It is not satisfied with the status quo; it is characterized by a “mental industry” that probes, questions, and analyzes. It seeks to know the whole truth, wherever that may lead and whatever the cost of obtaining it may be.
Paul captured the spirit of this quality when he wrote: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5 NKJV). “Examine” (periazo) reflects an “endeavor to discover the nature or character of something, by testing” it (Danker, p. 792). “Test” is from dozimazo, “to make a critical examination of something to determine [its] genuineness” (Danker, p. 255) Both verbs are in the present tense, signifying that these processes must be ongoing.
The honest heart that loves the truth (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:10), and seeks it, can know what is right, and he can know that he knows it.
On one occasion, when the Jews were stunned at the marvelous teaching of Christ the Lord said to them: “If any man wills to do his [the Father’s] will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it is of God” (John 7:17). The verb “willeth” (here a present tense, suggesting persistence) implies a strong desire, a firm resolve, to know the truth. Such resolution will lead to a serious study of the data, from which the careful student can draw rational conclusions, provided his study methods are sound.
This is why skeptics are so pitifully confused as to the meaning of the Bible; they approach the sacred documents as critics, not as honest, seeking investigators.
There may be no better example of the quality of which we speak than the case of the people of Berea. Concerning them, Luke wrote: “Now these were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, examining the scriptures daily, whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). For a more detailed analysis of this passage, see my notes elsewhere (Jackson, pp. 215-16).
The “Understanding” Heart
While the “honest” heart is premium, and the “seeking” heart is essential, still, these by themselves — even in concert — cannot satisfy the demands of God’s plan for human redemption.
During the course of his preaching ministry, Jesus began to use the parabolic formal in his teaching. When the disciples sought an explanation for this alteration in method, the Lord explained that, in part at least, it was due to the fact that Israel’s “heart” had “waxed gross,” and they simply were not interested in seeing, hearing, or “understand[ing] with [their] hearts” (see Matthew 13:10ff; especially v. 15). From this text we note that the “heart” can be an instrument of intellectual comprehension. With many religions, it simply does not matter what one believes. One is free to attach himself to the system and then pursue his own philosophical ideology. Such is not true with reference to the regime established by Jesus of Nazareth.
Christianity is a religion grounded in history. It’s validity depends upon whether or not certain events actually happened in “time.” Moreover, according to the teaching of Christ himself, together with that of his appointed spokesmen, the efficacy of the benefits of Christianity may be assessed only by understanding certain propositions associated with the historical data, and then, subsequent to that, a mental acceptation of the responsibilities that flow from promises of the system. Simply reduced: without an understanding of certain threshold elements, one cannot be a Christian.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke of the day when the new covenant of Christ would be introduced (31:31-34). In describing the nature of that administration, he noted that God would write his law in men’s “hearts,” which was the equivalent of “knowing” the Lord. This implies that in entering the kingdom of Christ, understanding certain truths is imperative. A relationship with God is not accessed as a result of a mere physical birth, as was the case with reference to Israel under the Mosaic system; rather, the acquisition of knowledge is inherent to the system. Salvation is dependent upon coming to a “knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
This is a matter to which the church should give the utmost attention. Particularly is this so in these times when many are inclined to follow the pattern of the fast-growing mega-community churches that woo their neighborhoods with a wide variety of social programs and recreational pursuits. It is little wonder that so many readily embrace the “gospel” when such enticements are proffered. But while the “growth” may be rapid, it is superficial. Consequently, the “fall-away” rate (Matthew 13:20-21) is equally swift, and neither the church nor these poor souls are better for the experience. People must understand Bible truth, and be deeply committed to it if they are to survive.
The “Broken” Heart
David once wrote: “Jehovah is near unto them that are of a broken heart” (Psalm 34:18a). A young man, following a “break-up” with his girlfriend, took great comfort from this passage — only to learn later that this was not the thrust of the text at all. The parallelism of the latter portion of the passage explains the matter clearly. Those of the “broken heart” are those who entertain a “contrite spirit” relative to their sins. The best example is that of the shepherd king himself, who, following his terrible sin with Bathsheba, penned the 51st Psalm as an expression of his penitence. Therein he wrote: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (v. 17).
A double portion of this disposition is needed in today’s world where sin has been trivialized to the point of embarrassment. Like those of Isaiah’s day, we call evil good, and good evil, and light and darkness are confused equally (Isaiah 5:20).
But the broken heart is absolutely requisite to reconciliation with the Holy God.
The “Obedient” Heart
In his letter to the Christians of Rome, Paul calls attention to the fact that in their heathen state these folks had been enslaved to sin (6:17a). One only need survey the first chapter of this epistle to realize how sordid that was. Happily, however, that was not the end of the story. The apostle further noted that “thanks be to [the wonderful grace of] God,” they “became obedient from the heart” to the divine “pattern” of teaching (17b).
What else could we call this but “the obedient heart.” There are two items worthy of notice here. First, there is the word “obeyed.” The Greek verb is compound, hupakouo, from hupo, “under,” and akouo, “to heal.” The word came to mean “to listen,” in the sense of “obey.” The verb is used, for example, of those stormy elements that were perfectly submissive to the “Master of ocean and earth and skies” (Matthew 8:27). None of us is ever totally submissive, of course, but if we are honest, we try hard to be.
Second, we should focus on the phrase “from [the] heart.” While the expression surely embodies the obedience that issues from an understanding heart (see above), more specifically here it may carry the idea of genuine, sincere, i.e., without coercion or any base motive — a pure desire to obey (cf. 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:22; 1 Peter 1:22).
There is that disposition that so loves God that it longs to be obedient, in spite of personal weaknesses. Young Samuel had this spirit when he said to the Lord: “Speak, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9-10). David had the same general inclination, and so was characterized as “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).
The biblical record is replete, of course, with examples of disobedience as well. A graphic passage which addresses the progressive temperament of the disobedient soul is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. The apostle says that “law” does not exist for the righteous person; rather, it is necessary because of those who are “lawless and unruly,” for the “ungodly and sinners,” and for “the unholy and profane” (1 Timothy 1:9). It has been noted that there is a progression of rebellion here cataloged. The first two terms denote general disdain of law, the second two reflect a disregard for God’s law, and the final two suggest a more specific flaunting of the holy (cf. Lock, p. 12).
To have an obedient heart does not mean that one forfeits his critical abilities and yields mindlessly. The “seeking heart” (see earlier) will probe, and perhaps dispute. But honesty will overpower eventually, and the “obedient heart” will surrender. When Peter was commanded to “kill and eat” those “unclean” creatures presented to him, he initially said, “Not so, Lord” — three times, no less! When confronted with the evidence, however, he went to the Gentiles “without gainsaying” (Acts 10:14ff; v. 29). For a while, Saul of Tarsus “kicked” against “the goad” (Acts 26:14), but his obedient heart ultimately melted before the Savior.
It cannot be stressed too much or too often. Every sincere soul, who desires with all his heart to serve the Maker, must strive to keep his heart “exercised” (cf. Hebrews 5:14) so as to be ever sensitive to doing God’s will — whatever the cost may be.
The “Backsliding” Heart
Consider this interesting warning from the book of Proverbs. “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways” (14:14 ASV). The key expression is “his own ways.” These are the self-centered desires he longs to pursue. And ultimately, he will “be filled with,” i.e., reap the reward of (cf. 1:31), this God-dishonoring philosophy.
The theme of “backsliding” is a popular one with the Old Testament prophets. No less than 13 times Jeremiah refers to Israel as a “backsliding” people (cf. 3:22; 31:22). Hosea called the haughty nation a “backsliding heifer” (4:16 KJV).
One of the mysteries of “theological” enterprise is how so many good and intelligent people can he duped by the Calvinistic notion that the “backslider” who remains in that position until death will not be held accountable for the defection. A prime example of such is found in an article by Allan Killen, who attempts to defend Calvinism by an exercise in semantical gymnastics. He delineates between the Christian’s state and his standing (a distinction without a difference). The saint’s “state” may change — God may chasten him, or even have to kill him, but his standing will not, because he is eternally secure (p. 194). We have dealt with this monstrous doctrine in our booklet, Eternal Security – Fact or Fiction?
The New Testament is equally clear in its warnings about the danger of the straying heart. The writer of Hebrews cautioned: “Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God” (3:12). [Note: I still remember the quibbles of the old denominational debaters who alleged that the Christian might “fall from” grace, but he could never “fall away.” That is a myth. In addition to the passage just cited, consult Galatians 5:4.]
A consideration of the biblical data, therefore, leads only to the conclusion that the heart is a vulnerable feature of the human makeup. One must guard it, and he must cultivate it, with the greatest of diligence (Proverbs 4:23).
Scripture references: Leviticus 17:11; Luke 8:15; Genesis 20:5; John 1:47; Jeremiah 10:23; Exodus 7:3; Exodus 7:14, 8:15, 32, 9:7, 34, 10:1; Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 22, 8:19, 9:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:11; Acts 23:1, 24:16, 26:9; Proverbs 18:15; 2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:10; John 7:17; Acts 17:11; Matthew 13:10; 1 Timothy 2:4; Matthew 13:20-21; Psalm 34:18; 1 Thessalonians 5; Isaiah 5:20; Matthew 8:27; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:22; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 Samuel 3:9-10; Acts 13:22; 1 Timothy 1:9; Acts 10:14; Acts 26:14; Hebrews 5:14; Galatians 5:4; Proverbs 4:23
- Danker, F. W. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. University of Chicago: Chicago, IL.
- Jackson, Wayne. 2000. The Acts of the Apostles from Jerusalem to Rome. Christian Courier Publications: Stockton, CA.
- Killen, Allan. 1998. “Backsliding,” Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. Hendrickson: Peabody, MA.
- Lock, Walter. 1924. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastorial Epistles — ICC. T. & T. Clark: Edinburgh, Scotland.