Act 9:3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
Act 9:4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
Act 9:5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
These passages give a description of a man obsessed with carrying out his orders with with the zeal of a Pharisee, without mercy, leaving nothing to chance to achieve the goal; stamp out and destroy this militant sect of Christians- referred to as the "Way". (Act_19:9; Act_19:23; Act_22:4; Act_24:14; Act_24:22)
Saul was an educated young man, and that he should engage in the work of persecution strikes us as anomalous and unnatural. In young men we naturally expect a frank concession of freedom to think and generous and chivalrous impulses. We are not much surprised when we find intolerance as men advance in life, for age is conservative, and may be narrow and bigoted. Young men are often skeptical and unsettled in their notions; they question the correctness of opinions long held to be true, and employ themselves in adjusting new discoveries to received truths. But the very nature of this process tends to make them liberal, for they cannot deny to others the liberty they claim for themselves. Old men, however, are confirmed believers or unbelievers; and hate to be opposed or unsettled. Hence we are not surprised that the Sanhedrin should be composed in a great part of “elders,” nor that the principal functionaries of the “holy office,” should be men of advanced years. Yet few men, young or old, have been so furious in persecution as was Saul (Act_8:3; Act_22:4; Act_26:9-11; Gal_1:13; 1Ti_1:13; 1Co_15:9).
Below is a good commentary by Albert Barnes:
He had been engaged before in persecuting the Christians, but he now sought opportunity to gratify his insatiable desire on a larger scale.
Yet breathing out - Not satisfied with what he had done, Act_8:3. The word breathing out is expressive often of any deep, agitating emotion, as we then breathe rapidly and violently. It is thus expressive of violent anger. The emotion is absorbing, agitating, exhausting, and demands a more rapid circulation of blood to supply the exhausted vitality; and this demands an increased supply of oxygen, or vital air, which leads to the increased action of the lungs. The word is often used in this sense in the Classics (Schleusner). It is a favorite expression with Homer. Euripides has the same expression: “Breathing out fire and slaughter.” So Theocritus: “They came unto the assembly breathing mutual slaughter” (Idyll. 22:82).
Threatening - Denunciation; threatening them with every breath the action of a man violently enraged, and who was bent on vengeance. It denotes also “intense activity and energy in persecution.”
Slaughter - Murder. Intensely desiring to put to death as many Christians as possible. He rejoiced in their death, and joined in condemning them, Act_26:10-11. From this latter place it seems that he had been concerned in putting many of them to death.
The disciples of the Lord - Against Christians.
He went unto the high priest - See the notes on Mat_2:4. The letters were written and signed in the name and by the authority of the Sanhedrin, or Great Council of the nation. The high priest did it as president of that council. See Act_9:14, and Act_22:5. The high priest at that time was Theophilus, son of Ananus, who had been appointed at the feast of Pentecost, 37 a.d., by Vitellius, the Roman governor. His brother Jonathan had been removed from that office the same year (Kuinoel).
Historical information concerning Paul at this time:
Probably about a year before he appears in the history at the death of Stephen. He was of the tribe of Benjamin (Php_3:5); his father, though a Jew, had been admitted to Roman citizenship, and Paul was therefore a "Roman" (Act_22:28); he was born at Tarsus, a Grecian city, the capital of Cilicia; there he had become familiar with Grecian literature, as well as educated in the law; at what time we know not, but while still young he went to Jerusalem to study in the great Rabbinical schools, and had the celebrated Gamaliel for his teacher (Act_22:3); he had, according to Jewish custom, learned a trade, being a tent-maker (Act_18:3); he was a Pharisee after the strictest manner of the sect (Act_23:6). How long he had been in Jerusalem when he appears in this history, whether he was there for the second time, or had not returned after his attendance at the school of Gamaliel, is uncertain, but when we first behold him he is a "young man," prominent and influential, active in his opposition to the church, and a trusted leader of its enemies.
Went unto the high priest. Probably Theophilus, the son of Annas, who was made high priest by the Romans in A. D. 37. He was a Sadducee.
Here, Jesus Himself answers him, giving his Name-there was no room for any misunderstanding, as to who was speaking to him.
Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
When He spoke Saul's name twice it displayed deep emotion, and significance in the question addressed to him. There was much contained in those few words, that went directly to the heart of Saul, and the intentions of his actions.
I am Jesus: This was all Jesus had to say for Saul to know exactly who He was, even though “Jesus” was a fairly common name. Saul knew who Jesus was; he had undoubtedly heard Him teach in Jerusalem and as a probable member of the Sanhedrin, Saul sat in judgment of Jesus in the trial before His crucifixion.
Jesus is asking “why are you persecuting Me?” This is in reference to the fact his people are the Body of Christ-every believer in Christ is knit within Him, and what Saul was doing to these Christians-he was doing to Jesus Himself- so, Jesus is asking “Saul, why are you doing such a futile thing?”
Saul thought that he was serving God in viciously attacking Christians, but now he discovers that he has been fighting against God. This has been sadly true throughout history. People are many times convinced they are doing God a favor, but have done much of the worst persecution and torture ever practiced.
Saul responds with two important questions “Who are You, Lord?” The second question is “Lord, what do You want me to do?”
This began a life long journey of ministry, obedience, and facing the enemy at every turn. Paul learned the truth of the words spoken by Jesus to Ananias, sent to pray for him -of "how great things he must suffer."
Act 9:15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
Act 9:16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake.
Mark how the Lord Jesus identifies Himself with His suffering ones. Their sufferings are His, Act_9:5. To hurt them is to hurt Him. The pricks are the ox-goad. The more the ox resists, the deeper the wound. Even from heaven the Master speaks in parables. Evidently for a long time-perhaps from the death of Stephen-the persecutor had been fighting against conviction. When God needs captains for His army, He not unseldom takes them from the ranks of the enemy. The foremost persecutor became the foremost leader of the Church. The conversion of Saul was due to the personal interposition of the living Christ. It was the pierced hand that arrested and apprehended him. F.B. Meyer