It seems evident to me that Paul was being called by the Lord sometime before his meeting Jesus on the Damascus road. According to Paul’s testimony before Agrippa years later, the Lord mentioned to Paul that it was difficult to “kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). A goad was a stick with a sharp metal point affixed to one end, and it was used to cause the oxen to do what his owner desired. The ox-goad was used by one of Israel’s judges to kill 600 Philistines in order to deliver his people from their hands (Judges 3:31).
The point is, Jesus had been pricking Paul, but Paul hadn’t been submissive. The expression, kicking against the goads, had been used in several ancient works, and was understood in Paul’s day to indicate not only someone who was obstinate, but also one that could only hurt himself by being so. The question is, then, under what circumstances should we look for Jesus calling Paul, and how was Paul rebelling? Nevertheless, lest we go too far in labeling his motives, we must keep in mind that Paul later testified that, though he persecuted the Church, he did so not knowing the true nature of his activity. Paul thought he was in the right (1Timothy 1:13).
Also before Agrippa, when Paul spoke of his former activity against the Jesus Movement, he said that he not only imprisoned believers in Jesus but also gave his vote against them in favor of their deaths (Acts 26:10). Although this possibly indicates Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, he was more likely acting as an officer of the court, tracking down believers in Jesus and testifying against them. No doubt his zeal in persecuting Jewish believers in Jesus also took the form of interrogation, because he sought to cause them to blaspheme (Acts 26:11). He was probably an expert in the doctrines of the sect of the Nazarenes, as it was called in Judaism (Acts 24:5), and understood better than any who was not a disciple what form a believer’s apologetic arguments would take. This is where, I believe, Paul’s conscience was pricked. His Pharisaical training would have caused him to want to investigate the movement and understand the core beliefs, so that he could convince the believers to contradict Jesus and blaspheme. I don’t believe Paul enjoyed putting anyone to death, but what he desired and what had occurred are two different matters.
Paul claimed that he saw his activity against the Jesus Movement as the righteousness which came through the law (Philippians 3:5-6) and zealously sought to destroy the movement and thereby achieve righteousness which came by performing the works of the law. Thus, Paul says he advanced in Judaism above many his own age (Galatians 1:14).
The problem is Paul didn’t seem to have peace. Those who loved the Law of the Lord were supposed to have great peace (Psalm 119:165). In fact, the peace of the blameless man is supposed to be so evident that others would so desire his end that they would follow the blameless or perfect man (Psalm 37:37). Yet, though Paul was blameless in serving the law (Philippians 3:6), he became enraged with the believers in Jesus who would not contradict their Lord (Acts 26:11).
Ordinarily, with a man who was not self aware, this incongruity would go unnoticed, but Paul had a conscience, and it was pricked by what was going on. He believed he was doing a righteous act in bringing believers to justice, but he was not enjoying the fruits of righteousness, namely, peace. This calls to mind his confession in Romans 7. Theoretically, Paul’s world should have been wonderful; he had no conscience of sin, (Romans 7:9) before Stephen bested him and other Jews in the synagogue of the Libertines (Acts 6:9-10; cp. 21:39). However, when theory ripens into bloodshed, something has gone awry, especially with someone who deeply desires to serve God (Romans 7:10-11, 19-20). When the letter killed over and over again, as Paul interrogated believer after believer, debating with them in order to cause them to blaspheme and abandon Jesus (Acts 26:11), Paul’s conscience cried out “Who will save me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).
I believe the theologically inclined Saul of Tarsus was steadily becoming overcome with guilt as he steadfastly sought to destroy the Jesus Movement. He didn’t understand why the peace he thought should come to him through his being blameless according to the law (Psalm 119:165; cp. Philippians 3:6), should instead be on the lips of every dying servant of Jesus (cp. Acts 7:60). He was “kicking against the goads” of the Lord (Acts 26:14) in the faces of each Jewish believer in Christ, but all he could do thereby was hurt himself deep within his soul, until that fateful day on the Damascus road, when he saw Jesus with his own eyes. There he found the Deliverer of his soul from that “body of death” that captured him (Romans 7:25; cp. 7:24).
May the Lord help us all to have a yielding heart, so that we can avoid the needless pain of obstinacy in our own consciences that would chain us to the broad way away from God, instead of pointing to the narrow Way in Jesus.