This article was first published on Taber's Truths Christian Living Magazine
There has been a lot of speculation about what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that a thorn in the flesh was given to him. Most of those speculations come from people who already have a preconceived idea about sickness, the supernatural, and thus read into this passage things that are not there.
So let’s take a look at Paul’s thorn in the flesh and really see what he was talking about apart from preconceived ideas of God sending sickness and the lack of the supernatural in people’s lives.
Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh In The Bible
even though I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. 8 Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. 9 Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Now I find it interesting that those that would try to make this something more than what is clearly stated, start by trying to exegete the phrase “thorn in the flesh.” They come up with wildly twisted connections between Paul’s thorn and the crown of thorns that Jesus wore. They try to speculate that this was an illness, more than likely Paul’s eyes, that he is asking to be delivered from. In fact one person went as far as to say “When Paul saw the risen Lord in all of His Shekinah glory, he was blinded for three days. He could have burned his cornea or he could have developed cataracts.” (source) What????? So God in revealing himself to the Apostle Paul actually did physical damage to the Apostle Paul’s eyes? Give me a break! They might serve a God that is a bumbling fool but I don’t! That also presumes that the healing that Paul received 3 days later was not a complete healing. This is the type of nonsense that people come up with when they discount or explain away the supernatural.
The term “thorn in the flesh" is a figure of speech. If I go to you and tell you that someone is a “pain in the neck”, am I saying that I have pain in my neck? What about if I call someone a pain in the butt? Does that mean I have pain in my gluteus maximus? Of course not! Neither was Paul saying he had a physical ailment. So let’s take a look at this passage and find the answers to what was Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
Does The Apostle Paul Say What His Thorn In The Flesh Was?
It is very apparent what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was according to Paul if you do not come at this passage with a preconceived idea. He lays it out very clearly. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a “messenger of Satan”. In other words it was a demon. Now I am not saying Paul was demon possessed, but instead this demon was sent to stir up strife against Paul. Notice in vs. 10 it says that he now takes pleasure in the insults, hardships, persecutions and troubles that he suffers for Christ. Not once is a physical infirmity or sickness listed!
The greek word for messenger is the word Aggelos which is translated other places as angel. This messenger from Satan is an angel from Satan or as we call it, a demon.
Since even the most fundamental cessationists do not believe that a Christian can be possessed by a demon, then there is no way that this messenger of Satan could be a thorn in Paul’s physical flesh. Their own theology does not support this interpretation yet they use it anyways since they do not consider that this could be something supernatural since they discount the supernatural or explain it away.
Why Didn’t God Banish The Thorn In The Flesh?
The opposition that Paul faced and the persecution that he suffered only served to embolden others to follow Jesus. When they saw that Paul would not change, would not stop preaching Jesus, they saw that it must be true what He is saying. They saw God sustain him in ways that were impossible to man. They saw that the grace of God was truly sufficient. Notice what he says in the chapter previous to this one.
23 Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. 24 Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. 26 I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. 27 I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. 28 Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger? 30 If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am.
If the grace of God is sufficient to see Paul through all of these situations, then it is sufficient to see us through anything we may go through. So the next time you hear somebody try to tell you that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was God placing sickness or disease upon him to teach him something, send them this article and tell them to do a better job of biblical exegesis than regurgitating the opinions of man based upon preconceived ideas.
Sorry but it get’s me a little hot under the collar when people teach God made Paul sick.