Ask The Chaplain

Ask The Chaplain

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What Was Paul's Thorn in The Flesh?

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? I have heard Christians say all kinds of things about it, like Paul had an eye problem, or another illness, or even sinful lusts. Furthermore, many say that God gave him this affliction to test him or to keep him humble. What is the truth about it?

Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has been just that for many Christian theologians and ministers through the years. It is unfortunate that so many erroneous theories about it have been postulated by sincere believers. When we handle the Word of God, we must be diligent not to inject our own opinions as to its meaning. As we will see, applying sound principles of biblical interpretation will yield a clear, concise, and correct answer to this question, one that will help shed great light on some key biblical truths.

Let us first take a look at the verse in which this phrase is found, and the subsequent verses that help frame its context.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NKJ)
(7) And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
(8) Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
(9) And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
(10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What can we see in those verses? First, it is clear that the “thorn in the flesh” was not a literal thorn, but a figurative way of describing whatever it actually was. Second, we see that it was “a messenger of Satan,” which means that it was certainly not God who “pricked” Paul with it. Had it come from God, why would Paul have asked the Lord Jesus to take this “thorn” out of his life?

In response, the Lord told Paul that he would give him the grace and strength to deal with this problem. So whatever it was, the Lord could not just “delete” it from Paul’s life. That would indicate that the “thorn” was not a physical ailment, because the Lord Jesus did, and still does, heal “all manner of sicknesses.” Paul then said that for Christ’s sake he would “boast” in infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions, and distresses, counting on the Lord’s strength to make up for his weakness.

In his excellent book, Christ The Healer, [1] written in the early 1900s, F. F. Bosworth does a superb job of showing what Paul’s “thorn” really was. He points out that the word “messenger” (v. 7) is the Greek word angelos, which is used 188 times, and is translated “angel” 181 times and “messenger” seven times. In each case, the angelos was a being, either spirit or human (p. 194).

Bosworth notes that the word “buffet” (v. 7) means to strike “blow after blow.” He cites Rotherham’s translation: “…that he might be buffeting me,” and notes that Weymouth’s translation reads: “Satan’s angel dealing blow after blow.” He then rightly concludes that if Paul’s “thorn” had been sickness, it would have to have been many sicknesses, or the same sickness over and over. And he points out that Rotherham uses the personal pronoun “he” rather than “it” (v. 8) to agree with the word “messenger.” And he quotes Weymouth: “As for this, three times I besought the Lord to rid me of him.” Again we see reference to a being or person rather than a disease (p. 194).

Before we look at other biblical uses of the key word, “thorn,” let us get a “running start” toward 2 Corinthians 12:7, beginning in Chapter 10. In verse 2, Paul speaks of “some [people]” who he expected to take to task about their opposition to him. A study of Chapters 10-13 shows that there were many “false apostles” in Corinth who spoke against Paul and boasted of their own spirituality as they tried to win the allegiance (and the financial support) of the Corinthian Church.

In fact, the word “boast,” which we saw above in 2 Corinthians 12:9, helps us follow the contextual trail through these chapters. Those whom Paul twice sarcastically called “super-apostles” were telling the Corinthian believers Paul had ministered to that he was leading them astray, and boasting that they were the ones with true knowledge and spiritual insight.

Paul thus spends most of Chapters 10-13 making his case as to how the Lord had worked in him and given him the authority to build up the Corinthian Church. He calls this “boasting,” and contrasts it to the boasting of his opponents.

Consider the following verses, and note the references to people who opposed Paul:

2 Corinthians 10:11 and 12
(11) Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.
(12) We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.

2 Corinthians 11:4 and 5
(4) For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.
(5) But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”

2 Corinthians 11:12-15
(12) And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.
(13) For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.
(14) And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
(15) It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

Do you think that those people opposing Paul could be called “messengers of Satan”? It sure looks that way, doesn’t it? Let us point out that God never promises that He will take away all of the “buffeting” that comes from satanically-inspired human opposition. Rather, as the Lord Jesus told Paul, he (and God) will stand with us and help us bear up to such persecution, which, in fact, He guarantees will come our way (2 Tim. 3:12).

In that vein, we should point out that in 12:7 where the NKJ reads, “lest I should be exalted above measure,” the NIV curiously reads, “To keep me from becoming conceited.…” Huh? Given the definition of that word, wouldn’t Satan be the one who would want Paul to become “conceited”? Yes, so why would he send a “messenger” to stop that from happening?

Wasn’t it God who had given Paul the “abundance of the revelations”? Yes, and why did He do so? To lift Paul up amidst the spiritual battle raging around him, to encourage him to stay in the fight and not be discouraged, to “exalt” him big time. Chapter 12 says that God even showed Paul some of the glories of Paradise. Wow!

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