The rich young ruler and the apostle Paul – a supposal

It occurred to me a while back that the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’, has remarkable parallels with the apostle Paul.

At the time, both men were young. In the seventh chapter of Acts, maybe a couple of years after the death and resurrection of Christ, Paul (Saul then) is described as a ‘young man’.

Again, at this time in their lives, both thought that they had their lives in order. They both thought that they were ok as far as keeping the law of God was concerned.

At this time, too, they both had reasons to be angry with Jesus.  Jesus had told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and to follow Him; the young man turned his back and went away grieved because he had many possessions. Paul’s anger is not explained, but it is revealed in his agreement with the stoning of Stephen and his subsequent persecution of Jesus through his people.

Now, the converted Saul (Paul) tells us some things about his life.

Paul tells us that the commandment which made him realise he was a sinner and needed saving was the tenth: ‘You shall not covert’. This is the command that deals with our heart attitude to possessions.

Paul had known what it is like to be rich, but happily suffered the loss of all things when he came to faith in Jesus.

When he was asked by the other apostles to remember the poor, his reply was that it was the very thing that he was eager to do. I think it also significant that it is Paul alone of all the New Testament writers who records the words of Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive’. Just before saying this, Paul had urged the elders at Ephesus to support the weak.

I have no direct proof, but I think there is a case for considering, at least, whether or not the apostle Paul might have been the rich young ruler of the gospel accounts. If not, at least Paul has some strong links with him in his past attitudes, and he shows the fruit of having repented of those sins that he once shared with the rich young ruler.

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Introduction to Galatians Chapter 1

Paul was not a boastful person. Not when he was writing his letter to the Churches of Galatia. Not boastful any more, at least.

There had been a time when Paul was very proud and boastful.

  • born an Israelite,
  • of the family group of Benjamin,
  • a Hebrew of Hebrews. A son of Father Abraham.
  • trained as a Pharisee by a famous teacher, Gamaliel.
  • one of the religious elite.

He believed in an Almighty God who was holy and just.

He believed this God would raise the dead and bring the World to judgment.

He believed that he had kept the law and was legally blameless.

He thought that he would escape the condemnation of hell.

All this Paul once believed and was proud of it all.

Until he was confronted by Jesus Christ.

In this Paul has been very like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit everlasting life – the young man probably wasn’t asking for advice, but expecting congratulations. Jesus shook the young man to his core by showing him that he didn’t qualify for everlasting life, and that he couldn’t qualify – he was too much in love with himself and his sin.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that the 10th commandment – by God’s grace – finally convinced him that he was a law breaker, a sinner, an enemy of the God who made him.

He had thought that because he could not recall murdering anyone, that he was not a murderer, and that if he hadn’t stolen any thing, then he was not a thief.

But yet he discovered that he was a law breaker – because he was covetous – that is, his thoughts and desires were not right – in fact they were utterly twisted. He envied his neighbour. He wanted what they had and was not content with what God had given him.

From that point he understood that the law was spiritual as well as physical, that in his heart and mind he had broken God’s law continually from his youngest days.

If he were ever to have life instead of death, he would need to be rescued by someone other than himself.

To his initial horror, Paul discovered that the only one who could rescue him was the very one against whom he had been fighting so ferociously.  It was Jesus Christ, whose followers he had arrested and thrown in prison and testified against so they might be killed.

Yet Paul found that this Jesus, the one whom he had hated and wronged with great passion, had rescued him from a just condemnation and everlasting punishment. Then this same Jesus made him a messenger of grace and mercy to other people who themselves were proud rebels.

This is where the letter to the Galatians starts. Not with a boast about Paul’s greatness, but an assertion of the greatness of the one who sent him to bring Good News to them.

Continued in part 2.