Jesus addressed these words to Saul of Tarsus, later to become the Apostle Paul, when he confronted him on the road to Damascus.
Saul was carrying out a wave of persecution against the followers of Jesus. Luke provides an insight into his ferocious activities: "Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem." (Acts 9:1-2) Paul would later recall how he "persecuted the followers of this Way to their death… And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him." (Acts 22:4, 20) Saul was no friend of this new religious movement and a most unlikely candidate for recruitment to its cause. Yet he could not be dismissive of what he knew about Jesus.
Though Saul's actions displayed his total opposition to Jesus, beneath the surface there was a civil war raging in his heart. He was being pulled in two directions: he was clinging to his beliefs, which were being confronted by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Could this Jesus be the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies even though his teachings did not harmonise with the views of the religious establishment? The gospel was pushing to gain access to his heart, but the divine goading was meeting with resistance. Hence Jesus’ words to him: "It is hard for you to kick against the goads."
Saul finally embraced the truth that Jesus is the Son of God, the saviour of sinners. He could resist no longer and was baptised, "calling upon the name of the Lord" to save him from his sins. (Acts 22:16) From that moment his life changed and the persecutor of the Christian gospel became one of the greatest proclaimers of the gospel in the history of the church.