DID SAUL OF TARSUS EVER MEET JESUS CHRIST DURING HIS EARTHLY MINISTRY? WAS SAUL AT CALVARY’S CROSS?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Friend, what curious questions these are! We cannot say with absolute certainty that Saul of Tarsus personally saw or met Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry. We are also unable to say on the basis of Scripture that Saul stood at Calvary’s cross to mock Christ. Nevertheless, there are verses to indicate that both occasions were possibilities.
THE LORD JESUS CHRIST
The Lord Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, southern Israel (Matthew 2:1). Mary His mother and Joseph her husband lived in Nazareth (northern Israel, Galilee) prior to migrating south to Bethlehem Judah for the census during which He was born (Luke 2:1-20). After His birth, they three return to Nazareth. Once evil King Herod threatens to kill the Jewish children aged two and under, God instructs Joseph to take Mary and young Jesus and flee into Egypt (Matthew 2:12-18). Subsequent to this, they relocate to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23; Luke 2:51-52). In later years, it seems that the Lord Jesus (now an adult) moves to reside in Capernaum, another town in Galilee (Mark 2:1 cf. Matthew 9:1).
By the time He was approximately 30 years old (Luke 3:23), we see Christ Jesus in John chapter 1 (Matthew chapter 3, Mark chapter 1, Luke chapter 3) coming to John the Baptist to be water baptized in the River Jordan (southern Israel). As recorded in Matthew 4:12–19:1, Christ spends much of His three years of earthly ministry (Luke 13:7) in northern Israel (Galilee). He occasionally ventures into the south (Judaea, Jerusalem). According to Matthew 19:1ff., the Lord spends His last weeks alive in Judaea. He restricts His final week to Jerusalem and its outskirts, before allowing Himself to be captured and crucified (Matthew 21:1ff.). Of course, we cannot omit the facts that He then rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven.
SAUL OF TARSUS
Saul of Tarsus appears in Scripture at the close of Acts chapter 7—in and near Jerusalem. Jesus Christ was crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended into Heaven a year earlier (see the three years followed by the one year in Luke 13:7-8). Acts 7:58 calls Saul “a young man.” Saul may have been born around or just after Jesus’ birth. If correct, Saul could be 30 to 35 years old in Acts chapter 7.
He was born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia (modern southern Turkey), about 400 miles (644 kilometers) northwest of Jerusalem and some 300 miles (483 kilometers) northwest of Nazareth. Acts 22:3: “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.” Also, Acts 23:34: “And when the governor had read the letter, he asked of what province he was. And when he understood that he was of Cilicia;….”
Early in his life, Saul lived in Jerusalem and sat under Rabbi Gamaliel’s tutelage. Acts 22:3 again: “I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city [he is presently in Jerusalem—see Acts 21:17] at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.” See also Acts 26:4, “My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews;….” Saul left Jerusalem to return to Cilicia, where he claims citizenship according to Acts 21:39: “But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean [common] city: and, I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the people.”
Remember, Saul and his father were both strict, “fundamental” religious leaders in Judaism. They were Pharisees, or worshippers of the Law of Moses who also placed great value on religious tradition. Pharisees were extremely rigid in their religious belief and practice. Acts 23:6: “But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.” And, Acts 26:5: “Which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee.” Finally, Philippians 3:5: “Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee;….”
WHEN THEY COULD HAVE POSSIBLY MET: THE TRIANNUAL TRIPS TO JERUSALEM
Deuteronomy 16:16 ordered: “Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose; in the feast of unleavened bread, and in the feast of weeks, and in the feast of tabernacles: and they shall not appear before the LORD empty:….” The Law of Moses commanded every male Jew to travel to worship in Jerusalem three times every year—the feasts of Passover (Unleavened Bread), Pentecost (Weeks), and Tabernacles. The most classic example of such pilgrimages is Luke 2:41-50 (when Joseph and Mary forgot 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem at Passover). John 7:1-14 is a second illustration (here is Tabernacles). Acts 2:1-11 is the assembly of Jewish men associated with the feast of Pentecost.
Notice especially in the Luke and John accounts (referenced above) how whole families migrated together to Jerusalem. Saul’s household, strict Law-keepers that they were, also participated in these triannual Jewish religious holidays. No doubt the families of the Lord Jesus and Saul, although living hundreds of miles apart for most of the year, came in close proximity to each other in Jerusalem during Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. These Jewish caravans were present in and around Jerusalem even at Calvary, for Passover was soon to be celebrated during that time (Matthew 26:1-5,17; Mark 14:1-2,12,16; Luke 22:1-2,7; John 13:1; John 18:39; et al.).
While not explicitly stated in Scripture, it is possible that the Lord Jesus and Saul passed each other as they went in and out Jerusalem during the 30 years of the former’s earthly life. The Lord Jesus Christ, as God in human flesh, knew all about Saul. Saul, a religious leader in Judaism, had doubtless heard about a “troublemaker” (Christ Jesus) threatening Judaism and causing all his friends (as in the Pharisees) such headache and misery. In fact, Saul could have very well been one of the hypocritical, unbelieving “Pharisees” that the Lord Jesus addressed and condemned during His scathing Jerusalem Temple sermons (for example, see Matthew 23:1-39). Considering Saul’s high social standing amongst Israel’s religious leadership, he could have joined his friends around the cross in order to mock the Lord Jesus.
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» Why was Saul of Tarsus’ name changed to Paul?