In our last two podcasts, we dove into the possibility that the Apostle Paul is the Rich Young Ruler. In this podcast, I want to take what we have discovered so far and apply some analysis and logic.
If you are like me, for some reason we have a little blind spot regarding the Apostle Paul. I have always seen Paul’s life as sorta-kinda beginning at the stoning of Stephen. I have never really spent much time considering the glaring fact of his existence prior to his dramatic appearance at Stephen’s death. When we play the timeline of Paul’s life backward, we begin to see his place in a historical context of that day. He did not just poof into existence at the martyrdom of Stephen. He had a life before that time and I think, during that time, we call him The Rich Young Ruler. Let’s review the astonishing similarities which lead us to that conclusion.
Both Paul and The Rich Young Ruler are men. Both were young at the time we first meet them. Both are Jewish. Both are rulers. Both knew the commandments. Both kept all the commandments from birth. Both claim a faultless and blameless life. Both were zealous for the law. Both were wealthy. Both struggled with covetousness. Both were loved by Christ. Both were told to “come follow me.” It took a direct intervention by God to make it all happen, just as Jesus said it would regarding the Rich Young Ruler, and we see that miraculous event happen to Saul on the road to Damascus. We also have the statement by Jesus that the Rich Young Ruler would be in a position of “last” compared to the Apostles and Paul is the last Apostle appointed by Christ.
Saul has a life history. We miss that.
Through Paul’s own testimony, we know that he was raised in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel. His studies lead him to his commission as a Pharisee. He was a star pupil! He advanced quicker and better than young men of his own age. He was a super achiever. We know he was in Jerusalem growing up, and we know he was in Jerusalem at the time of Stephen’s death. Where would he have been between those times? The same place! He would have been completing his studies and fulfilling his new duties as a Pharisee!
This means, Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, was most certainly aware of the ministry of Christ. He had to be! There is no reason to think that he was somehow sequestered in a back room of the temple writing a blog, or separated from the Jerusalem leadership in a foreign nation—completely unaware of what was happening back in Jerusalem. He was there!
Saul was there!
Regarding the activities and thinking of the Sadducees and Pharisees about Jesus, we have quite a bit of information. We know Caiaphas, Ananias, Nicodemus, Gamaliel and all the Sanhedrin kept a close watch on Christ’s activities. As a Pharisee, Saul was part of the in crowd. Yet, we never hear Saul mentioned in the Gospels… but then again, we never see Gamaliel mentioned in the Gospels either; and he was a man of great influence during the days of Jesus ministry and into the church era. So Gamaliel was there too. After all, he could not have taught Saul if he was not in Jerusalem in the years prior to Acts 7 where we first meet Saul!
What’s a “ruler?”
We noted that Luke is the only writer who identifies the rich man as a “ruler.” What kind of ruler would this be? Given all the other facts of the case, we know this had to be a Jewish ruler. It would not have been a gentile ruler. Remember, the Rich Young Man had known from birth and kept all of the commandments. Gentiles don’t do that.
Being a ruler means you rule over something. What would RYR rule over? He ruled over Jewish people. Perhaps the young man was a synagogue leader or a junior scribe of some sort. Regardless, he was a Pharisee and as such, he would have been considered a “ruler” living under the authority of the Chief Priests and Elders. In the scriptures, these leaders are often referred to as “rulers and teachers of the law.” Let me provide some examples. Jairus in Mark 5:22 is referred to as a “synagogue ruler.” In Luke 12:11 Jesus told the disciples not to worry about what to say when they are “brought before the synagogue rulers.” In Luke 23:13, Pilate calls together the “Chief Priests and rulers of the people.” And, on the Emmaus Road, Cleopas identifies the Jewish leaders as “rulers.”
The point is, Luke identifies the Rich Young Man as a “ruler,” who has a burning question about his future in the Kingdom of God.
This Rich Young Ruler approaches Jesus and falls on his knees. I believe this is a sincere effort to humble himself before what he truly believes may be the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus looks at him and loves him. There is no other person in all of scripture of whom it is said, “Jesus loved him.” Why do we have that pronouncement? And why does Jesus make the comparative statement about the apostles who were with him being first and the Rich Young Ruler being last? Why does he say it will take the power of God to change the man?
An Apostle’s Call
Therein lies another powerful testimony indicating this man may be the Apostle Paul. When Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to give up everything, he added that faith filled statement, “then come follow me.” Remember, that command is never issued to any other person in the Gospels other than an apostle. (There is one possible exception but it was a really just a general call to the man Jesus told to “let the dead bury the dead” in Matthew 8:22.) This is huge! That specific call was only issued to Apostles! This explains why Jesus talks about a “last position” and “only God can make some things happen.”
What changed Saul?
So, what turned Saul into a murderous monster? If he sat at the feet of Gamaliel, shouldn’t he have a spirit of tolerance and patience imitating the faith of his teacher? Remember, it was Gamaliel who told the Pharisees that they might be fighting God, in Acts 5:33 and following, if they did not let the Christians be. What happened to Saul causing him to tragically lose the ability to imitate his patient and wise teacher? I think it was his encounter with Christ that drove him over the edge of reason. If Paul is the Rich Young Ruler, we might have the historical turning point of his life which lead him down the destructive dark path. Let me explain.
The Rich Young Ruler had a burning desire to know the truth and he believed, with all his heart, that Jesus had the answer he was looking for regarding his eternal destiny. He approaches, falls on his knees, asks his question and is given an answer he did not expect or want to hear! Instead of addressing his question, Jesus addressed his sin in a devastatingly painful way. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor.” With this statement, the young man’s world comes crashing down around him. Next, we note his reaction. He does not protest. He does not complain. He is caught red handed. His sin is laid bare before a gathering crowd and the God of the universe. He realizes, in an instant, he has hit an insurmountable wall. His quest comes to a screeching halt and his eyes fill with tears. He is deeply and desperately saddened by Jesus answer.
We have no indication of how much time it took The Rich Young Ruler to rise from his prostrate position… he just gets up and “goes away sad.” Unlike the frantic father of Mark 9 who exclaims, “help me overcome my unbelief,” RYR asks for no help and no clarification. The matter is over! There is no recourse… no redress. He just goes away sad. It is a devastating and crushing blow!
How not to handle a spiritual challenge
So, what do you think happened with this young man next. Do you think he went home to lick his wounds, thought about it real well, repented and returned to Jesus? Do you think he went immediately and actually sold all his stuff? Or, like me, do you think he went home and let a rebuke by the Lord fester and boil until it became a seething pot of bitterness and hatred? For three or more years, he would watch that band of despicable disciples grow their new and dangerous religion, while in his heart, he could see the power of his cherished Jewish leadership slipping away. All the while, his rage and hatred festered and grew.
When someone does something to us which causes great injury, we don’t, in our natural self, think very highly of the person who caused the injury. It is not difficult to understand how the sadness of The Rich Young Ruler could morph into deep bitterness, hatred and a seething rage, baking an idea to get even! “Who does he think he is telling me I should get rid of all my stuff?”
When we are confronted with our sin, it hurts. Even if it is a trusted friend who confronts us, it is often a bitter pill to swallow. Thankfully, if we trust God enough to consider the possibility that the person could be right, we prayerfully consider it and God grants us repentance. Sometimes, it is quite difficult to detect or hate our own sin and it is not until we really blow it in a major way, injuring someone we care about, that we truly begin to see how wretched we actually are. This is what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus.
Whatever filled Saul’s heart with such hatred for Christians, he is brought to his knees, once again, by Jesus, on that dusty Damascus road. He is blinded. He is once again humbled. He is once again crushed. The humiliation of Saul of Tarsus, is the result of direct and prophesied intervention by God to make his repentance possible. It’s exactly what Jesus said would happen. “Some things can only happen with God.”
And… this is how the Rich Young Ruler became the Apostle Paul.
We may never know for sure. But…
Well, this is all a bunch of fine fancy speculation, right? We will never know for sure about all this… at least, not until we get to heaven. But, our little exegetical exercise raises a good question. Why would the Bible not just come out and tell us that the Rich Young Ruler is Paul? Why all the mystery? Why is it hidden?
First, there are the practical reasons. Remember, Luke wrote The Gospel of Luke and Acts and he had no qualms about giving us all the dirt on Paul before his conversion. He held nothing back. Remember too, Luke and Paul were very close. They travelled together for years and went through many trials together. Perhaps there was some reason not to expose Paul as the ruler to protect someone else or maybe even Paul himself. Maybe Luke simply did not know. Perhaps Paul asked Luke not to tell the story. Maybe Paul felt embarrassed by it or maybe he just wanted to “not be reminded of his life before Christ.” Those reasons seem pretty lame. In the Gospel of Luke, Luke just identifies the Rich Young Ruler as “a certain ruler.” That’s pretty evasive isn’t it? It almost sounds like Luke knew but deliberately withheld details. Why would he do that? I have an answer which may delight you in a special way.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings.
I think the connection between these seemingly separate people is hidden by God so that we can experience and enjoy the hunt! There are so many treasures in the Bible waiting to be discovered. Not everything is plain and simple. Remember what Jesus said?
“At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.’”
I don’t know about you, but the little tidbits I discover in scripture sort of make me want to grab the seat of my pants and giggle. I love those little things God has hidden for us to discover. I feel like a little kid opening a present. It’s all done to provoke us to look deeply into God’s word.
So, there you have it, my ramblings about why I think The Rich Young Ruler is Saul of Tarsus, better known as the Apostle Paul.
But… there is one more thing. This one is just for fun.
An Epic Rebuke
Do you remember that time in Matthew 23 when Jesus directly takes the Pharisees and Sadducees to task in a scathing rebuke of their hypocritical religious practices? If you are not familiar with it, you should really stop the podcast right now and go read it, seriously. What you are about to hear will captivate your imagination all the more if you have the whole story fresh in your mind. Go read Matthew 23 right now. Make it fresh.
Matthew 23 begins with Jesus taking his case to the general public, warning them about their hypocritical religious leaders. He quickly turns the tables to address the leaders themselves and addresses them directly.
In verse 13, his epic rebuke begins.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”
By the way, this was not presented as if Mr. Rogers was speaking, this was a fiery, blazing, powerful rebuke! For 25 more verses, he addresses the Pharisees and teachers of the law, condemning their practices and their oppressive ways. It is a tirade unlike anything else in all of scripture… a monumental, exposing, stinging rebuke.
Now, I imagine, in the crowd; is one particular Pharisee, the Pharisee we have been discussing, Saul of Tarsus. It would not be unreasonable to think he was there and because of this, my imagination is ignited once again.
As you read through all of Matthew 23, did you notice everything you read is in the plural? Yeah, Jesus addresses the entire group in the plural until… he spots one young man in the crowd and in verse 26 drops out of the plural and jumps into the singular for that one young man he absolutely loves, points his finger directly at him and says…
“Blind Pharisee!. First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”
Jesus tells the Rich Young Pharisee how to fix his life.
Not long after, that young injured student of Gamaliel found himself on a mission to Damascus where he would indeed become blind! His entire life is in crescendo as he stops for three days and considers what it all has meant up to this point in time. This time he reasons it all out with humility… “Who does he think he is to tell me to get rid of all my stuff? He’s the Lord! He really is the Lord! I have been so wrong for all these years. God forgive me! Forgive me for all I have done to your saints!”
The inside of the cup is clean. God has granted repentance. He now has a faith that can obey and that is exactly what he does. His sight and heart are restored and he goes on to become the second most influential man in the entirety of Christendom.
I am convinced Saul of Tarsus is the Rich Young Ruler. I hope I have given you a little food for thought, tickled your imagination and provoked you to deeper study of God’s amazing word.Enjoy!