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Rethinking Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

“There was given me a thorn in the flesh …” —2 Corinthians 12:7

For generations, Bible commentators have offered countless theories as to what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. The most popular range from various and sundry illnesses (malaria, epilepsy, ophthalmia, etc.) to haunting guilt for persecuting the church to a sexual addiction that Paul never got victory over.

I’ve never found any of these common theories to be persuasive or satisfactory.

To my mind, if we take the text just as it is written and compare it with other texts that use similar language … and then step back to take a fresh look at the New Testament narrative in its chronological sequence … an entirely different picture emerges. One that I personally find compelling.

Let’s look first at the text carefully: 

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn [splinter] in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!

Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.”

Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Paul plainly identifies the thorn. It was a “messenger of Satan” whose purpose was to torment Paul. The word “torment” means to strike with the fist, to rain blows upon, to treat with violence. It’s often translated “harass.”

When Paul asks the Lord to remove the thorn, the Savior responds saying, “My power is perfected in weakness” (v.9).

Paul immediately says that he would rather “boast in his weaknesses” so that Christ’s power may dwell in him (v. 9).

What’s telling here is that Paul’s entire discussion in Chapter 11 (just before he mentions the thorn in the flesh) is about his “weaknesses.” In that chapter, Paul gives us a robust list of hardships that he endured for the gospel.

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FRANK VIOLA has helped thousands of people around the world to deepen their relationship with Jesus Christ and enter into a more vibrant and authentic experience of church. His mission is to help serious followers of Jesus know their Lord more deeply, gain fresh perspectives on old or ignored subjects, and make the Bible come alive. Viola has written many books on these themes, including God's Favorite Place on Earth and From Eternity to Here. His blog, Beyond Evangelical, is rated as one of the most popular in Christian circles today.