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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 first, 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.

At the end of the list, he refers to these hardships as “weaknesses” (see 11:30). This is the same Greek word that’s used for “weaknesses” in 12:5 and 12:9-10.

In addition, Paul begins his argument in chapter 11 by talking about the “false apostles” and “deceitful workers” who transform themselves as angels of light. He goes on to say that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (11:14).

Interestingly, the Greek word for “angel” in 11:14 is the same word for “messenger” in 12:7 (which Paul refers to as a “thorn”).

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel [messenger] of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). 

Paul tells us that these “false apostles” are “servants” of Satan. That is, they are messengers of the devil, doing his bidding. They masquerade themselves as messengers of light just as Satan does. They traffic in slander, innuendo, misrepresentation, and defamation (see 12:10; Paul calls this the “evil report” in 2 Cor. 6:8). They also bring persecution.

Right after Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh, he brings up the false apostles again saying:

I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing (12:11). 

Consequently, if we read Chapter 11 to Chapter 12 as a discussion about Paul’s weaknesses in which he is boasting, we begin to make better sense of what Paul’s thorn is all about.

In the Old Testament, the term “thorn” is used as a metaphor for a person or group that persecutes God’s people:

But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell (Numbers 33:55; see also Joshua 23:13 and Judges 2:3).

In this context, God’s enemies are called “thorns” in Israel’s sides (flesh) that “vex” and torment them. These “thorns” were human beings inspired by God’s enemy.

When we read the New Testament in a narrative way, taking it in its chronological sequence, we discover that everywhere Paul planted a church, a group of detractors opposed his ministry and sought to discredit his apostolic authority in the eyes of the Christians for which he cared.

In Galatians, Paul indicates that this group of detractors was headed up by one man in particular.

The group of people = But there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:7). As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:12).

The one man that headed them up = But the one who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is (Galatians 5:10).

At the end of the letter, Paul says something interesting:

From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.

You can almost hear a prayer behind this statement in which Paul is asking the Lord to remove this person who is troubling him and the churches.

Putting all of this together, an interesting picture emerges.

Paul’s thorn appears to be a man (inspired by Satan) who was obsessed with discrediting Paul and his ministry.

This man followed Paul wherever he traveled, beginning in South Galatia (Acts 14ff.). He sought to undermine Paul’s work.

This “messenger” or “servant” of Satan was in league with a group of others who followed him (Galatians 1:7; 5:12). They followed in Paul’s footsteps to the churches in Galatia, probably Thessalonica, and then to Corinth (he possibly could have been the leader of the “super-apostles” that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 11).

On three occasions, Paul asked the Lord to remove this person from his life. For he was a torment, a frustration, a harassment to Paul and his work.

But the Lord answered and said that His grace is sufficient. The Lord didn’t remove the thorn. He instead caused Paul to forebear it.

Near the end of his life, Paul would reflect back on the persecutions he endured in Galatia saying,

You know all about my . . . persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra [churches in Galatia], the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them (2 Timothy 3:10-11). 

The persecutions and afflictions still came, but they didn’t stop Paul from moving forward. By God’s grace, Paul endured them all, for God’s grace was sufficient. While this text probably isn’t referring specifically to Paul’s “thorn,” the principle involved is the same.

Note that the men who visited Galatia and Corinth with their “gospel” seemed to have been fellow Hebrews from the Jerusalem church (although undoubtedly operating without its approval and misrepresenting the assembly — see 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Galatians 1-2).

That is, these men were recognized Christians – in name at least.

(Incidentally, when a person is being driven by the devil to attack or harass a servant of God, the attacker/harasser is never in touch with the source of his or her behavior. In fact, they will often use religious language and justifications to clothe their fleshly obsession.)

To my mind, this interpretation fits the evidence better than the alternatives. And it’s one that is confirmed by the experience of many servants of God.

In short, if you are serving the Lord Jesus Christ in a way that touches that which is closest to His heart, you will encounter a “thorn in the flesh” . . .  sooner or later. And woe to the person who allows themselves to be manipulated by God’s enemy in that way.

But remember: Even when His grace is not sufficient (at the moment), you will look back and discover that His grace is sufficient . . . always.

Much more can be said about that, but this blog post is already too long.