DO YOU KICK AGAINST THE PRICKS?
T. PIERCE BROWN
In Acts 9:5, Jesus said to Saul, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” That part of the verse is found in no Greek Manuscripts of which I am aware, although it is found in the Vulgate, one of the Arabic and Ethiopic and Armenian. However, it is found in chapter 26:14. There seems to be no question that it was in the original text at that point.
“Why did Jesus use this expression to Saul?” Let me give a sampling of what some commentators have said, then give my conclusion and some lessons I draw from it.
Clarke: vol. 5, p. 748, “This is a proverbial expression, which exists, not only in substance, but even in so many words, both in the Greek and Latin writers. Kentron signifies an ox goad, a piece of pointed iron stuck in the end of a stick, with which the ox is urged on when drawing the plough. The origin of the proverb seems to have been this: sometimes it happens that a restive or stubborn ox kicks back against the goad, and thus wounds himself more deeply: hence it has become a proverb to signify the fruitlessness and absurdity of rebelling against lawful authority, and the getting into greater difficulties by endeavoring to avoid trifling sufferings.” Then he gives statements from Euripides, Aeschylus, Pindar, Terence, Ovid with the approximate proverb quoted. However, he has nothing to say about the exact application of the proverb to Saul’s situation. He apparently assumes that Jesus is warning him that he should not continue to rebel against God’s will. But he does not explain why Jesus said, “It is hard for thee.”
Coffman says (p. 484), “Every agricultural country on earth has either this or a similar proverb, and certainly nobody had to explain it to Paul. As the Lord was sending Paul to the Gentile nations, it was appropriate that such a Gentile proverb should have been used.” He gives no hint about why it was appropriate, or why Jesus said it was hard for him to do it, or whether it referred to something he had been doing, and if so, what.
Boles says (p. 404), “Some think that Paul was already stifling conscientious doubts and scruples, and that he is warned against rebelling against God’s will and wounding his conscience the more deeply.” Then he explained the use of the goad, but gave no indication of his conclusion as to how it applied to Paul.
Other commentaries also suggests that Paul was having some problems with his conscience, but I reject that conclusion. It seems to me a dangerous position to take two plain statements of Paul concerning his attitude and explain them away on the basis of a strained or tentative assumption about the application of a proverb. Paul says plainly in Acts 23:1, “I have lived before God in all good conscience until this day.” He says in Acts 26:9, “I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Whenever he alludes to the matter in any fashion, there is not the least hint that he was “stifling conscientious doubts” or that his conscience was bothering him in any way. Therefore, if there is any sensible explanation for the reason Jesus was applying this proverbial expression to him, and how he was applying it, we need to examine it.
My conclusion is this: Jesus knew that Saul was fervent and constant in doing that which his conscience commended, and would not “kick against” the pricking of his conscience. He was commending Paul by indicating that he knew Paul would find it hard to go against the pricking of his conscience. This is doubtless one of the reasons God chose him. If he had thought Christians should be persecuted, yet was so indifferent that he would go against his conscience and not do what he thought God wanted of him, he would not be worth much to Christ if he were converted.
Therefore this is my exegesis: “Since I know that you find it hard to `kick against the pricks’ or go against your conscience, and have consistently lived that way, when you now know for sure that I am Jesus whom you have been persecuting, your conscience will cause you to be a witness for me with as great a zeal as it caused you to fight against me. I am assuring you that I have that confidence in you, and now tell you to arise and go into the city and you will be told what you must do.” It is not a rebuke of Paul for supposedly violating his conscience or kicking against the pricks, but a commendation in the awareness that it would be hard for him to do that.
This concept does no violence to the plain declarations of Paul and does not necessitate trying to explain them away. It also fits or is consistent with all other facts of the story, and represents what we know to be true by the things which Paul, Jesus and Luke reveal about the whole transaction.
Some lessons we can get from it are: 1. Understand that the conscience does not have a legislative function to tell you WHAT is right or wrong, but only a judicial function to commend you when you do what you think to be right and to condemn you when you do what you think to be wrong. It can not be trained or taught to do anything different, for God made it to function only that way and for that purpose. 2. Realize that if you always act in terms of the guidance of your conscience (do that which your conscience commends and desist when your conscience condemns), God can lead you to a better understanding of truth and can use you in his service. However, if you do not heed the “advice” of your conscience, you are eroding the very foundations of your character, and destroying one of the most amazing elements God placed within you for helping you to do right.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, to conceive of any better way God could leave us complete freedom of choice, without influencing us by some direct operation of the Holy Spirit (“securing our voluntary obedience” as the Standard Manual for Baptist Churches puts it), than to cause us to hurt when we do what we believe to be wrong, and give us pleasure when we do what we believe is right. Theologians have to invent terms like “prevenient grace” or “effectual calling” or some other unscriptural things to try to explain what God does simply by giving us a conscience. Without contradicting himself or in any way making us robots, he pulls us upward by making us feel good when we do what we think is right. He pushes us away from evil by making us feel badly when we do what we know is wrong. But he leaves us freedom to kill those impulses if we choose. We can sear our conscience and cause it to cease to function properly.
Is it hard for you to kick against the pricks? Or do you violate your conscience with regularity and with ease? Do you know you should give more of your time to the work of the Lord, but find some excuse for not doing it? Should you give more money to God’s causes? Even if you eat something and say, “I know I should not, but–” your are treading on dangerous ground. My judgment is that when Jesus said, “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” he was commending Paul for not being willing to violate his conscience. Can he thus commend you?