Ask Me Anything - What Was Paul's "Thorn In The Flesh"?

December 04, 2019
Brad Shockley

Episode Notes

Ask Me Anything 

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

How many of you have heard of the phrase “thorn in the flesh” or “thorn in the side”? It’s “a metaphor for ‘a source of continual annoyance or trouble’.[1]

You might use it in a sentence this way: That cat is a thorn in my side. I ran it through Google and there were thousands of hits in current news articles such as “Game Recap: Chiefs Remain Thorn In Raiders Side.” I’m guessing that’s football.

It may surprise you to know this phrase has been around for thousands of years and that it comes from the Bible.

We find it a few times in the OT…

Numbers 33:55 (ESV) — 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.

Judges 2:3 (ESV) — 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

But the most famous use of this idiom is in the NT, and it’s by Paul…

2 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV) — 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

Let’s look at the phrase “thorn in the flesh” because it makes interesting study.

Thorn is translated from the Gr. Skolops. It’s used only here in the NT and means something sharp or pointed.

Flesh is translated from the Gr. Sarx, a very common NT word that refers literally to the soft substance of the body. For example…

Luke 24:39 (ESV) — 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

But it also refers to our animal instinct or human nature.

Galatians 5:16–17 (ESV) — 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

You determine the sense (substance of the body or human nature) by the context.

The word torment means to buffet or harass over and over.

Paul’s thorn in his side was an annoyance or trouble that greatly bothered him on a recurring basis. But one of the great Bible debates is what was it actually?

There are only two possibilities type-wise:

One is physical. The thorn in his flesh had something to do with his body in the literal sense. Here are some possibilities…

1.      Malaria

2.      Migraines

3.      Epilepsy

4.      Speech impediment

5.      Leprosy

6.      Eye disease

Galatians 4:15 (ESV) — 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 

Galatians 6:11 (ESV) — 11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 

7.      Wounds, scars received from ministering the gospel

2 Corinthians 11:16–33 (ESV) 16 I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  

28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.

The other is immaterial. The thorn in his flesh had something to do with just living life. Here are some possibilities…

1.      Conflict in the Corinthian church (see above text, vv. 28-33)

2.      Unceasing temptation (such as sexual sin or coveting)

3.      Persecution (such as was suffered at the hands of the Jews)

So which is it? We don’t know. What do you think? I tend to think it’s immaterial, since that in my mind would be the thorniest thorn for him.

This is one of those cases where if we’re not careful we’ll get caught up in the details and miss the bigger message. To discover what that is we must move beyond asking what it was to…

Why was it given?

To answer that, we back up to the beginning of chapter 12. Because his apostleship and integrity had been called into question by the false apostles at Corinth, Paul told the them about an experience he’d had fourteen years earlier, something so incredible and rare, words could not express it…

2 Corinthians 12:1–6 (ESV) — 1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 

He very humbly tells his story as if it happened to someone else. Paul wasn’t sure if his revelation or vision took place in the physical or spiritual realm, but in one way or another he was actually was taken up into the third heaven AKA the abode of God (the first heaven was the earth’s atmosphere, the second the expanse of space, and the third the dwelling place of God). And there he saw things so amazing and incredible; he could not speak of them. Imagine that!

Now let’s reread verse seven…

2 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV) — 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.

Twice Paul emphasizes the reason he was given this thorn in the flesh. It was to humble him. His revelation was so great and extraordinary, he had to be taken down a notch so he wouldn’t get the big-head. Wouldn’t we all be tempted to think more highly of ourselves?

Folks, pride is the stealth bomber of sins. It sneaks in under the radar and before you know it unloads its damaging cargo, crippling you spiritually.

Proverbs 16:18 (ESV) — 18 Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Luke 14:11 (ESV) — 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 

The ministry of Paul was so important, God couldn’t afford for him to stumble over pride. This is a word to us, isn’t it?

There’s another question we must ask to uncover the message, and the answer may surprise you…

Through whom was it administered?

2 Corinthians 12:7 (ESV) — 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 

Paul was very clear. The thorn was given to him by God for humility’s sake, but it was administered by the devil himself. At first this doesn’t make sense. It even seems like blasphemy. Especially if we look at the world through the lense of dualism where there is good and evil in the world: God is the good and Satan is the evil, with the two opposite but equal forces working against each other.

The Bible does unveil the unseen realm of warfare between the armies of God and the forces of Satan, but nowhere does it make the two equal. God in his sovereignty allows Satan to rule over the earth while at the same time using him to accomplish his will…


The story of Job

Job 2:1–8 (ESV) — 1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 And the Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. 5 But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” 7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.

Satan was behind Job’s terrible suffering but God was behind Satan using him to teach Job otherwise unreachable truths about himself.

The story of Saul

1 Samuel 16:14 (ESV) — 14 Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him.

Satan was behind Saul torment but God was behind Satan using him to teach the rebellious king a lesson.

The story of Jesus

Luke 22:3 (ESV) — 3 Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve.

Satan was behind the crucifixion of Christ, but God was behind Satan using his treachery and wickedness to bring about the salvation of the world.

From this we learn that, when it suits his purpose and plan, our sovereign God will use even Satan to accomplish His will on this earth. He has the devil on a leash!

Now, one thing we tend to do with Bible characters is put them on this high pedestal. We certainly do this with Paul. But in truth he had his failings and fallings just like us all. Paul did not accept his thorn with glee.

What was Paul’s response?

2 Corinthians 12:8 (ESV) — 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

Paul prayed not once but three times, asking God to take this from him. This reminds us of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane where He asked God three times to take the cup of His impending crucifixion from Him.

What was God’s response?

2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (ESV) — 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

So here’s the message.

God would not remove the thorn, but He would give Paul the grace to endure it, thus revealing the benefit of suffering and difficulty: God’s power is demonstrated in us the greatest when we are at our weakest. One commentator wrote:

Paul’s prayer was answered, but not in the way he had hoped. In effect, God said to Paul, “I will not remove the thorn, but I will do something better: I will give you grace to bear it. And just remember, Paul, that although I have not given you what you asked for, yet I am giving you what you need most deeply. You want my power and strength to accompany your preaching, don’t you? Well, the best way to have that happen is for you to be kept in a place of weakness.”

This was God’s repeated answer to Paul’s thrice repeated prayer. And it continues to be God’s answer to his suffering people throughout the world. Better than the removal of trials and sufferings is the companionship of the Son of God in them, and the assurance of His strength and enabling grace.[2]

I think we can glean from this that we all can expect to have our thorns in our sides and that God does not expect us to jump for joy when we realize they are there. He knows we are human and it’s OK for us to ask Him to take our suffering away. He gives us these thorns to teach us, to make us better.

One author writes…

I have a “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t like it. I often wish I didn’t have it. At times I am exasperated by it. It makes almost everything harder, daily dogging me as I carry out my family, vocation, and ministry responsibilities — nearly everything I do. It weakens me. I often feel that I would be more effective and fruitful without it. I have pleaded with God, sometimes in tears, for it to be removed or for more power to overcome it. But it remains.

No, I’m not going to explain what it is. The details aren’t germane to the point I want to make… you have your own thorn in the flesh, or if you live long enough you’ll be given one (or more). Yours will be different from mine, but its purpose will be similar. For we are given thorns that significantly weaken us in order to make us stronger…

Just like Paul’s, our thorns weaken us. Sometimes they are visible to others, but often they are hidden from public view, known only to those who know us best. And they are never romantic, never heroic. Rather, they almost always humble us in embarrassing rather than noble ways. They not only seem to impede our effectiveness and fruitfulness, but they also are more likely to detract from rather than enhance our reputations. Which is why we, like Paul, plead with God to remove them (2 Corinthians 12:8).

But this is the way our thorns have to be. Because if they were noble and heroic, if they enhanced our reputations, they would be of no help at all in guarding us from our pervasive pride. Which is why, as with Paul, God often answers our pleas for deliverance with a “no.” Because without the thorn, we would never experience that “[God’s] grace is sufficient for [us],” that his “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

This is the reason we have our thorns. They are weakeners that strengthen us. Without them, we would choose a weaker strength and miss experiencing the glory of God’s powerful grace and realize lesser joys as a result. It’s just one more wonderful kingdom paradox: our agonizing thorns end up producing greater joy in us and ultimately make us more effective and fruitful. The more we press into this paradox, the more we will say with Paul,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)[3]

[2]William MacDonald and Arthur Farstad, Believer's Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995), 2 Co 12:9.

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