‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ Acts 26:14.
The Greek term uses here for goad is κέντρον (kentron). The term is used only a few other times in the New Testament. Paul uses the exact same term in 1 Corinthians 15 when he discusses the resurrection:
"O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 1 Cor 15:55–56.
They have tails and stings like scorpions, and their power to hurt people for five months is in their tails. Rev 9:10.
Goad. A sharpened metal point on the end of a long pole. Goads were used by farmers to prod animals to keep them moving1
Why would he need to be a safe distance away? If you have ever worked on a farm or around horses, you know to stay out of the blind spots of these animals. Their kicks are strong and if they connect, they could do some serious damage.
What does all of this have to do with Paul? Well, you could imagine that if a worker were using a goad on an animal, that it might be inclined to kick. However, that would not help at all, and in fact it would only serve to hurt the mule further, as its foot would connect directly with a sharp point! This is the crucial insight for understanding the Lord's rebuke of Paul in our text. It is not just simply that Paul was being stubborn and refusing to submit to God, but in fact he was hurting himself all the while! Ben Witherington III summarizes this idiom perfectly for us:
In Jesus’ message to Saul/Paul spoken from heaven, the reference to κέντρα was a metaphorical way of saying that as Saul was persecuting the church, he was actually hurting himself. Saul was sinning against God by resisting God’s plan for his life. And . . . he is hurting himself.
God’s message to us is the same. The more we sin against God, the more we resist his plan for our lives, and the more we tune out his call into our lives, the more pain we will feel. Indeed, we are only hurting ourselves when we keep running into the brick wall of sin. Later on in life we may, like Paul, wonder whether God perhaps considers us the chief of sinners. But, as God showed his forgiving mercy to Paul, he will show his forgiving mercy to us if we repent of our sins, turn to Jesus Christ as Lord, and accept his will for our lives.3
1 Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, Thomas Nelson Publishers, eds., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1995).
2 Myers, Richard. Images from A Standard Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012.
3 Ben III Witherington, “Kicking Against the Goads (Acts 26:14),” in Devotions on the Greek New Testament: 52 Reflections to Inspire & Instruct, ed. Verlyn D. Verbrugge and Scott J. Duvall (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 57.