When the risen Jesus met Saul of Tarsus – who would become the apostle Paul – on the Damascus road, one of the things He told Saul was, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5). At the time, Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), and was on his way to Damascus to locate any followers of Jesus and bring them back in chains to Jerusalem (Acts 22:4-5). This was a part of him making “havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3).
Saul had the legal right to do all this because he was operating under the auspices of the Jewish High Priest and the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council). At the time, Saul was one of the most promising young Pharisees in Jerusalem (Acts 26:4-5). He was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5) who had studied under the famous rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He had devoted his life to the Jewish law and to zealously living out the Jewish religion of Judaism. In his way of thinking, Jesus had been a false Messiah, and those who continued to promote His cause even after His crucifixion needed to be stopped at all costs.
But what did Jesus mean when He told Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads”? Well, a goad was a pointed instrument that was used to prod livestock to go where they didn’t want to go. No animal liked being stuck with a goad, and sometimes the animal would kick back against the goad. In the case of Saul, God was prodding him with a goad in an attempt to get him to change his direction in life, and Saul was kicking back hard against that goad.
But the question is: What was the goad that God was using on Saul to get him to change his course? The answer is: the martyr’s death by public stoning that Stephen had recently died just outside Jerusalem. Saul himself had been a player in that stoning. He was most likely a member of the Sanhedrin council that had ordered it, and he had certainly been in agreement with the sentence (Acts 8:1). He hadn’t personally thrown any rocks, but he had looked after the garments of those who had pulled off their cloaks to do so (Acts 7:58).
In other words, Saul had been a personal eyewitness to Stephen’s execution. He had heard Stephen’s powerful defense of himself, a defense that had retraced much of Israel’s history (Acts 7:1-53). He had heard Stephen say at the trial, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56). He had heard Stephen pray, even as the rocks had begun to fly, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). And he had heard Stephen request with his dying words, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60).
Saul had been running on too much raw emotion at the trial and the stoning to let all of this affect him, but ever since then his conscience hadn’t let him forget the way that good man had died. No one will die for what they know to be a lie, and yet Stephen had died singing the praises of Jesus. This was the goad with which God had been prodding Saul since Stephen’s death.
Saul’s problem was that, like a raging animal, he had been kicking against the goading. Rather than admit that he was on the wrong side of this “Jesus thing,” he had stubbornly dug in and doubled down on his wrong mindset. Years later, he would admit to causing the imprisonment and subsequent deaths of many Christians (Acts 26:10-11), and say of himself, “I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).
That’s how it works with goads of conviction. If you kick at the them and refuse to change your course, you will instead start running all the harder in your wrong direction. I’ve seen it happen time and time again in peoples’ lives. God brings them under conviction over their sin, but rather than yield to that conviction and repent of the sin, they plunge even deeper into it. The thing about goads of conviction is that once God starts prodding you with them, your situation will have to change one way or the other. You’ll either yield and go God’s way or go your way all the harder. What you won’t do is remain the same.
So, I ask you right now, is God prodding you with some goads of conviction these days in an attempt to get you to change your course? And if He is, how are you responding to those goads? Are you giving into them and making the necessary changes in your life? Or are you stubbornly digging in your heels, kicking back against the goads, and picking up speed in your wrong direction?
Truth be told, Saul had quite a bit of initial worldly “success” while he was kicking at God’s goads. He became famous in the land as the great defender of the Jewish faith, and his work in rounding up Christians produced prolific numbers. This isn’t surprising considering how the devil just loves to bless those who are doing his bidding (Matthew 4:8-9). But such worldly “success” can never last, and the bill for it will always come due at some point. Saul’s came due that fateful day as he traveled to Damascus. Do you have one that is about to come due today as you make your way down your wrong road?