Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

Posted: August 20, 2011 in Christian
Tags: , , , , ,

I was sure that when I began the research for this topic for a class at Koinonia Institute, that I would conclude that Paul had an eye malady as several commentators seem to think…but after looking at several passages and after researching several different sites and praying, I don’t think that is what it was…not totally anyway. Let’s start attempting to unravel this question by visiting the passage where the term ‘thorn in the flesh’ came from.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn 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.(NASB)

I first read this and then I looked at verse seven a little closer. I examined it with the lexicon and this passage says that the thorn in his flesh was an angel of Satan…I’m not making it up, that’s what it says. OK, what does it mean? The word messenger seems to always refers to a human being or an angel or of Christ. I think we can agree that a messenger of Satan doesn’t mean Christ so that leaves humans or angels. By contrast, thorns are seen continually in scripture, as a sign of those who are against Israel, or are of Satan. By the process of elimination, I think the verse means that his thorn in the flesh was likely an angel of Satan.

Now that I feel the thorn was caused by a fallen angel, I wondered could Paul have been suffering from demon possession with The Lord’s permission? At first I thought maybe this could have been the answer and there are examples of this in the scriptures. If we read 1 Samuel 16:14 we learn that The Lord became fed up with Saul and sent an evil spirit to trouble him. The Lord apparently allows evil spirits to possess people (that is a different topic in itself) but, after praying about it and sleeping on it, I feel demon possession is highly unlikely. First, because the reference I cited in the book of Samuel was of God, and this was not (it was of Satan) and secondly because Paul’s actions don’t fit the patterns we read of elsewhere in the scriptures of examples of demon possessed people.

However, in a Job-like manner, God could have allowed an angel of Satan to torment, or maltreat Paul and to cause physical problems that manifested themselves outwardly. Could the angel of Satan have been anything else? Yes, it could have been ‘agents’ of Satan attempting to thwart Paul’s efforts at spreading the word, by trying to throw roadblocks in his way because as Paul became more effective at bringing God’s message to the people and his reputation became better known, he increasingly was becoming more and more of an extreme irritant to Satan and his design to thwart The Lord’s plan. Paul himself, in 2 Corinthians eleven said he survived beatings, stonings, imprisonment and three shipwrecks in his journeys spreading the word and despite all these apparent Satanic efforts to stop him, Paul became one of The Lords most effective tool at spreading the word to Gentiles and Jews alike that the early church had ever known and I’m sure Satan would have crushed Paul like a bug if God had allowed him to.

Now let’s look at another view, from the letter to the Galatians.

Galatians 4:13-15 You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, [even] as Christ Jesus. What then was the blessing you [enjoyed]? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.(NKJV)

OK, here, it seems he was suffering from a physical malady that was evident to those he was preaching to in Galatia, as we find out from this letter he wrote at a later date after they started slipping back to the old ways of Judaism. Dr. Chuck Missler, among other commentators of the scriptures, seems to think it was eye problems that were a carry-over from the blindness Christ caused him to have (which I see as a typological representation of the blindness He pronounced upon Israel that also is a temporary infirmity at the national level). That is a logical assumption except for one issue; if we look back at 2 Corinthians 12:7 it says it was a messenger from Satan sent to torment him. The blindness came from God, not ‘a messenger of Satan, and the two causalities don’t mingle in my mind, so I don’t believe Paul would have confused eye problems relating to the blindness caused by Our Lord as having come from Satan.

At this point, I believe God was allowing Satan, in a Job-like manner, as stated earlier, to harass Paul in ways that manifested itself by causing outward signs of some aberrant physical condition to a limited extent, and to also, at the same time, throw roadblocks in his way in the manner of delays, shipwrecks, beatings, stonings and imprisonment because of The Lord’s faith in His servant. Paul besought The Lord to remove this burden from him three time, just as Christ was beseeching His Father three time to rid Him of His burden in the Garden. The Lord chose not to heal this ‘thorn’ in Paul’s side, possibly for the reason so that Paul would take the burden and use it as a tool to aid him in his ministries, which he did.

So in summary, we have those that firmly believe Paul’s thorn in the flesh was simply agents sent to block his progress, as they surely did, and we do see in 2 Corinthians eleven that he describes those attempting to stop and thwart him, and that they would be ‘messengers of Satan’ and I took those into account…but I don’t think that is all that there is of his meaning. We also have those that firmly believe it was just a physical malady, such as chronic eye problems that Paul was referring to in 2 Corinthians chapter 12 and in several letters he does mentions physical maladies that seem embarrassing and seem to be a hindrance and an impediment that is obviously deeply troubling him and some folks think they were his thorn in the flesh and I took that into account also…but I don’t think that is all of it either…I’m looking at all these all references as one big package and it screams ‘Job’ to me.

Also, the verbiage in 2 Corinthians 12:8 when he is pleading with The Lord to allow ‘it to depart from him’, uses the Greek verb, aphistēmi and the definition seems to imply to me more than just people harassing him or more than just physical impairment. I suppose then, that my conclusion is I feel Paul was afflicted with multiple issues that were Satan sponsored and Satan sent.

While we’re at it, the root to the thorns in side in the OT in the couple of places I checked was tsaniyn which is thorns or pricks. When we look at the Greek root of the thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:7 it is skolops which is a sharp pointed stake, something akin to a tent stake, I suspect. This doesn’t mitigate the comparisons to the OT text, but it seems to ramp up the seriousness of the point he was trying to make, I think.

How is this principle of Paul’s thorn in his flesh applicable today?…to me? Paul was a sinner, but he was a very effective sinner that turned trouble into triumph and used the thorn in his flesh to his advantage to show that he was still a sinner, but a sinner saved by grace, as we all would be, and that he was tempted to be exalted in the end. Paul asked God to remove the ‘thorn’ from him, but God told him that “power is perfected in weakness”, so Paul turned roadblocks and hindrances into triumphs for The Lord. Those are lessons that I need to work on because sometimes when I don’t understand why things are happening, I try to take charge and, as usual, wreck the train, and allow troubles and temptation to be the excuse that they are designed to be, therefore giving my arch foe, Satan an advantage. Oh, you weak, weak man, Jim.

Dear Father, I need your strength, for I have none. I need your light for I exist in darkness, I need your hand to guide me out of the abyss I plunge myself into. Oh, Father save me from myself for I’m a worm on the ground, once again waiting for the carrion of Satan to snatch me up without you. Dear, blessed Father, thank you for the grace and mercy I never have and I never will deserve and I still don’t understand why you rescued me, Lord. Show me how to be like Paul, triumphing in life, while spreading your Word, father. In Christ name, Amen.

God Bless, Jim


for Koinonia Institute

  1. Sarah Miler says:

    have you read ? or ? After 7 years of study, I do think that Paul’s ‘Christ’ is not YHWH’s Messiah . . .

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