What Does Jesus Mean by “Kick Against the Goads”?

When Paul tells the story of his conversion in Acts 26, he says Jesus told him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” What does this unusual phrase mean?

Contributing Writer
Updated Oct 11, 2023
What Does Jesus Mean by “Kick Against the Goads”?

All of us have read unusual words or concepts in the Bible and wondered, “What in the world does that mean?” That’s certainly the case when Jesus tells Saul, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14). 

Before we look into the story at the foundation of Jesus saying this to the future Apostle Paul, let’s understand what a “goad” is.

What Was a Goad?

Pastor Chuck Swindoll explains:

“Apparently, ‘to kick against the goads’ was a common expression found in both Greek and Latin literature—a rural image, which rose from the practice of farmers goading their oxen in the fields. Though unfamiliar to us, everyone in that day understood its meaning.

“Goads were typically made from slender pieces of timber, blunt on one end and pointed on the other. Farmers used the pointed end to urge a stubborn ox into motion. Occasionally, the beast would kick at the goad. The more the ox kicked, the more likely the goad would stab into the flesh of its leg, causing greater pain.”

The word “goads” in Greek is kentra and is also translated as “pricks” (KJV) and “stings” (kentron) (Revelation 9:10 KJV).

As we’ll see, Jesus will use “goads” to force the Pharisee Saul to move in God’s direction. Saul refuses to understand he is hurting others and himself. In effect, Jesus asks, “Why are you doing something so hurtful to yourself and to others? You’re never going to win, and you suffer from negative emotions like anger, bitterness, and pride.” Jesus knows that negative emotions and sinful goals only create a hardened heart that damages the body (Proverbs 17:22). 

Where Does Jesus Use the Phrase “Kick Against the Goads”?

Jesus uses the phrase “kick against the goads” in His confrontation (Acts 26:14) with the Pharisee Saul, who is persecuting the fledgling church. Saul is first mentioned at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58-8:1). He then becomes a major Jewish authority sent out to destroy this upstart “religion” which seems to be attacking Judaism. (Acts 26:9-12).

To understand the hardened heart motivating Saul’s choices, we should give particular attention to the word “approved” (ESV) or “consenting” (KJV) in Acts 8:1: “And Saul was consenting unto his [Stephen’s] death” (KJV)

Jenna Brooke Carlson quotes from Matthew Henry’s commentary, which explains Saul’s “heart” motives when he participated in Stephen’s death: 

“Stephen’s death rejoiced in by one—by many, no doubt, but by one in particular, and that was Saul, who was afterward called Paul; he was consenting to his death, syneudokonhe consented to it with delight (so the word signifies); he was pleased with it. He fed his eyes with this bloody spectacle, in hopes it would put a stop to the growth of Christianity.”

As Saul successfully carries out his sinful mission of destroying believers, Jesus suddenly appears before him in a blinding light and tells him, “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” After Saul’s conversion to faith in Christ, his name changes to Paul, and he later gives his testimony to King Agrippa, explaining what happened.

“In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’” (Acts 26:12-14 ESV)

Paul tells King Agrippa he replied to the voice, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice identifies Himself saying, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 26:15). Then Jesus tells blinded Saul what to do next (Acts 26:16-18).

Why Does Jesus Tell Saul He Must Not “Kick Against the Goads”?

When we first read Jesus’s words about Saul kicking against the goads, it might seem Jesus is saying, “It’s hard for me to have you kick against the goads.” But actually, He’s saying, “Saul, it’s hard on you to kick against the goads.” In effect, Jesus points out how Saul is resisting God’s work, not working for God as he thinks.

Jesus clarifies Saul is not just persecuting Christian believers but, more importantly, actually persecuting Jesus himself. He is helping Saul see the battle is bigger than Saul realizes. The fact that Saul becomes blinded by the bright light could be considered a “goad” because Jesus shows His power, and Saul becomes incapacitated. It will be three days before his sight is restored through God’s healing, and he must have felt helpless and powerless—maybe for the first time in his life. God used a physical affliction, a “goad,” to poke Saul into submission.

Chris Swanson writes, “Paul believed that he was persecuting blasphemers, yet he was oppressing Christ himself. Any individual who persecutes Christians today is likewise liable of mistreating Jesus (Matthew 25:40, 45), on the grounds that believers of today are part of the body of Christ here on earth.”

Jesus will win this battle for Saul’s heart and also protect His followers. Saul is only hurting himself by fighting a losing battle. The omniscient Savior Jesus already knows and has planned how the future “Apostle Paul” will serve Christ for God’s glory. But, of course, Saul doesn’t know all that. He isn’t “Paul” yet.

Pastor Chuck Swindoll shares a fascinating idea:

“Saul’s conversion could appear to us as having been a sudden encounter with Christ. But based on the Lord’s expression regarding his kicking back, I believe He’d been working on him for years, prodding and goading him.

“I believe the words and works of Jesus haunted the zealous Pharisee. Quite likely, Saul had heard Jesus teach and preach in public places. Similar in age, they would have been contemporaries in a city Saul knew well and Jesus frequently visited.”

What an intriguing idea that makes total sense. Saul has been “kicking against the goads” ever since Jesus came on the scene. Jesus, the risen Son of God, already knows how He will bring Saul to his knees in submission and obedience.

Before Saul recognized Jesus as the Messiah whose death is sufficient for salvation, Saul thought he was motivated by love for the Law. But the truth is his passion was a personal vendetta. Paul describes his previous motives in Philippians 3 as depending upon confidence in his flesh (vs. 4) through his heritage (vs. 6), defending the Mosaic law (vs. 5-6), and righteousness and blamelessness by keeping the Law (vs. 6). Those “credentials” defined his identity, worth, and value. They also supplied power and prestige. No wonder he was zealously committed to defending the Jewish religious system. You could almost say that if he allowed this new “Jesus religion” to replace the Law, he would be destroying his own identity.

What Happens After Jesus Speaks to Saul?

After Jesus speaks to Saul about the goads, Jesus tells him to go into the city where God has prepared a believer named Ananias (Acts 9:10-19) to share the Good News of Messiah Jesus’s redemptive death and resurrection. Saul’s eyesight is restored; he believes in Jesus and begins preaching immediately (Acts 9:17-20). In Acts 13:9, Saul is called Paul for the first time. From then on, he is identified as Paul.

Later, Paul sees his past foolishness, but his perspective is only changed because of how Jesus has been using “goads.” Saul carried a heavy load, which wasn’t good for him. By coming to know Jesus as his Messiah, Lord, and Savior, he entered the freedom of no seeking righteousness from his “works.” Instead, his righteousness is based on Jesus’ death on the cross for his sins.

Let’s examine the “before” and “after” of goads impacting Paul:

  • When Paul defended the Law, he was mean-spirited. Now he joyfully and selflessly shares the Gospel.
  • When he persecuted the church, he felt burdened being responsible for protecting God’s Law. Now he serves the church, confident God is strong enough to protect His church.
  • When he defended the Law, he arranged the death of many. Now he preaches the Good News of Jesus, offering the promise of abundant life and eternal life to multitudes.
  • When he persecuted the church, he felt powerful but was weak, trying to block God’s purposes. Now he serves the church, knowing he is weak yet empowered to fulfill God’s will.

Overall, Saul the Pharisee hated the goads. Now, as Paul the Apostle, he welcomed life’s challenges with joy, knowing he was being drawn closer to God. Pastor and author Charles Stanley writes, “he [Paul] was unworthy of salvation and undeserving of mercy or favor (1 Timothy 1:15-16). It was gratitude for salvation that fueled his devotion and dedication to the cause of Christ." 

Does Jesus Say to Us “Why Kick Against the Goads”?

Jesus used blindness to “goad” Saul into salvation and service. Jesus is still using goads in our lives today. “Spiritual” goads are anything God uses to correct sinful habits, transform wrong thinking, and direct us toward following His will. 

Here are some ways God uses goads, His purposes for them, and how we can cooperate.

1. The goad of silence, stillness, and withdrawal (Psalm 46:10). The Holy Spirit often leads or calls us to times of inactivity or quietness. Prayer is a part of that. Sometimes we are forced into a lengthy withdrawal time through injury or illness. Other times, He may invite us to take time off from a busy schedule, say “no” to an opportunity, or even take a sabbatical from ministry. The purpose is to “cease striving” and “know He is God.” We might resist because we think activity brings glory to Him, but hopefully, we can cooperate, knowing He can glorify Himself with or without our contribution.

2. The goad of frustration from imperfection (Philippians 3:12, 1 Timothy 4:15). When we realize we haven’t totally conquered some sinful habit, our frustration can point us to the benefit of needing God’s help rather than drifting into pride in our own victories. Yes, God does conquer our sinful tendencies, but there’s always another area for Him to sanctify.

3. The goad of the Holy Spirit using the Bible and Christian leaders (Hebrews 4:12, Ecclesiastes 12:11). Reading and studying the Bible often “goads” us to evaluate our choices and incorrect beliefs. Authorities over us also challenge us to clarify truth and help us judge our heart motives. The Holy Spirit prompts, points out, and prods us within our hearts and minds.

4. The goad of trials, afflictions, persecution, and misunderstandings (James 1:2-4, James 1:9). Anything that doesn’t go our way or makes us feel inadequate should cause us to turn to God and humble ourselves. Then we increasingly surrender to whatever God allows in our lives, knowing He will be glorified and we will identify His goodness.

5. The goad of temptation (James 1:13). God allows temptation, but it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily sinning. Temptation is an opportunity to evaluate our motives, force us to seek God more and increase our trust in God’s power and care.

6. The goad of disappointment (James 1:17, Romans 8:28). Some “gifts” don’t seem like gifts. We experience disappointment when God doesn’t answer “yes” to our requests. Or our expectations are dashed, and it seems God has let us down. But what we judge as “bad,” God promises to bring good and blessings.

Being grateful for “goads” is challenging. The Apostle Paul had no idea when he became a believer that his life would include a multitude of obstacles (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). But he so considered his relationship with Christ far superior to his old life that he was willing to surrender. And he actually considered the “goads” blessings. So can we!

(Chuck Swindoll quotes from “God’s Goads” from Thomas Nelson, inc. (used by permission).

For Further Reading:

The Importance of Trust

What Is Sanctification Through Salvation?

What Is the Significance of Paul on Damascus Road?

A Prayer for When You Need to Ask God 'Why?'

20 Reassuring Quotes about God's Timing

Photo Credit: Getty Images/BibleArtLibrary

Kathy Collard MillerKathy Collard Miller is an award-winning author and most often writes about Christian growth through her women’s Bible studies, Christian living books, and Bible commentaries. Her memoir, No More Anger: Hope for an Out-of-Control Momtells how God delivered her from being an abusive mom and healed her dysfunctional marriage. She and her husband, Larry, have written several books together including the God’s Intriguing Questions series.

She also is an internationally traveled speaker and loves to share the hope of heart change, abundant living, and eternal life. She has been Larry’s wife since 1970, and is a mom of two and grandma of two. Website/blog: www.KathyCollardMiller.com Instagram: @KathyCollardMiller. Twitter: @KathyCMiller.

This article is part of our larger resource library of popular Bible verse phrases and quotes. We want to provide easy to read articles that answer your questions about the meaning, origin, and history of specific verses within Scripture's context. It is our hope that these will help you better understand the meaning and purpose of God's Word in relation to your life today.

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