PAUL’S THORN IN THE FLESH
There are so many different opinions on what “Paul’s thorn in the flesh” was that we need to take a closer look at the verses involved to get to the root of the true meaning. Was it physical sickness as some have said? Why did the Lord deny Paul’s request for the thorn’s removal? If it was some kind of sickness or ailment, it would be the only time recorded that God wanted one of His children sick. And this theory is important because many people (and the devil) use it to claim that God no longer heals and delivers or uses the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So this is a very important issue. What was, or who was, the real “messenger of Satan” that the Lord said His grace was sufficient for? This message will show how the messenger of Satan was in fact, not a physical ailment but a demonic spirit used to rally persecution against Paul and to try to stop the spreading of the Gospel through him.
Consider these verses:
- 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 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. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 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. 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.
The word for “infirmities” used here comes from the word “as-then-ace” and as a negative particle “sthenoo” – meaning “strength-less.” It truly could mean sickness but it also means “without strength” – which is certainly more in keeping with what Paul was saying.
Now let’s look at the Greek word used for “thorn,” which is “σκόλοψ” or “skolops” which means: properly, anything with a sharp point, a thorn; (figuratively) an instrument producing pain, discomfort (acute irritation); in Hebrew, the word is “tsanin” and it means a thorn, prick (6796 in Strong’s Concordance)
In both, Old and New Testament, the word “tsanin” and “skolops” are used to “represent people” and the pain they can cause to others and not sicknesses or disabilities in the body.
- Numbers 33:55 “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell.”
- Joshua 23:13 “… know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. But they shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land which the Lord your God has given you.”
- 2 Samuel 23:6 “But the sons of rebellion shall all be as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands.”
God gave Paul many great revelations. On the road to Damascus, Jesus revealed Himself to him in a bright light and spoke only for his ears to hear, while those who were there with him heard just a loud sound. His conversion was extraordinary, as was his life after being born-again.
- Acts 9:7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
Saul of Tarsus had spread terror among Christians in Israel and even abroad. He had gone to Damascus to arrest the Jews who followed Jesus, and to take them back to Jerusalem. Saul, an extremely zealous Pharisee, was fully convinced that he was doing God’s will in persecuting and capturing the followers of Jesus. In his eyes, Christians were nothing more then heretics who should be stoned; not allowing them to “fool” others into become like them.
But the Lord decided it was time to end Saul’s persecutions and to open his spiritual eyes to see the truth. Jesus spoke to Saul from a light so powerful that he went blind for three days and three nights. From the moment of conversion, the Lord isolated him from the world. Those days were the beginning of the great revelations that God poured into his spirit.
Saul preferred to use his Christian name, “Paul” (from Acts chapter 13 forward, he is no longer called Saul), probably because he was trying to leave the old Saul behind along with his former reputation as he was a completely new person in Christ.
- Acts 9:15-16 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
In the past Saul had been the persecutor, from now on Paul would become the persecuted, along with the other apostles.
It was not easy for Ananias to obey God. He knew too well of Saul’s persecution and torment of Christians to go straight to him. After all, he and the other Christians from Damascus were looking for ways to stay away from Saul. The Lord knew what was in his heart, so he ended His command to Ananias with: “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” There are some theologians who consider that Paul was not completely healed of his blindness after Ananias prayed for him, as a punishment for persecuting the church. But, there are truly no verses to support such a theory.
- Acts 9:17-18 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord–Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized.
From what we read above nothing indicates that he was struck with an eye disease. We actually read that something “like scales” fell from his eyes, indicating that he could not see because of those and not because he was suffering of an eye disease. We also learn that he started seeing “immediately” and was baptized. Nothing suggests that Jesus sent Ananias, for Paul to be only partially healed. There are no instances in the Bible where God partially healed anyone. Also, there are no verses anywhere where Paul asked for prayer to have Jesus finish healing his eyes.
Only through the revelation of the Holy Spirit could one know the truth of the Gospel so well as to be able to preach it immediately in a synagogue. The first physical miracle that Jesus did for Paul was to heal his eyes. Wouldn’t it be a strange thought to think that “an eye sickness” would then trouble Paul and God would not heal it?
- Galatians 1:11-12 But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.
There are many verses where Paul says that the source of his writings and preaching is God. He received so much revelation from God that by the direction of the Holy Spirit, he wrote 14 of the 27 books of the New Testament (13 if he isn’t the writer of the book of Hebrews).
Paul deprived himself of the privilege of learning the gospel, by not believing on and walking with Jesus during the three and a half years of His earthly ministry, as at that time he totally denied the truth of Jesus being the Son of God, the long awaited Messiah of the Jews. But as God told Ananias, Paul was a chosen vessel of the Lord and the Holy Spirit taught and led Paul into all truth, by visions, revelations and he even visited heaven at least once (2 Corinthians 12:1-5). Many historians say that after his conversion, Paul spent nearly three years in the desert, in the presence of the Lord, who taught him and led him to become such a powerful and anointed servant of God (Galatians 1:15-18).
Paul studied at the school of Gamaliel, which was the highest school in Israel at that time. Paul was extremely legalistic, religious and well educated in the Torah. It took time and the help of the Holy Spirit, to reveal deep truth to him to enable him to be able to unify what he already knew, with the fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised Savior. We, also need time and dedication, to the serious study of Scripture to become more like Christ and to be able to fulfill the destiny that God created us for. While Paul was severely persecuted during his years of ministry, he was also extremely fruitful.
- Acts 22:3-4 “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women…”
- Romans 15:17-21 Therefore I have reason to glory in Christ Jesus in the things which pertain to God. For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ has not accomplished through me, in word and deed, to make the Gentiles obedient— in mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ. And so I have made it my aim to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation, but as it is written: “To whom He was not announced, they shall see; and those who have not heard shall understand.”
God used Paul to perform so many healings and miracles, including raising people from the dead; that he established more the 14 churches from which many more were started and all in locations where the inhabitants had never heard of Jesus before Paul’s ministry. These lands and the travel involved were dangerous and inhabited by brutal pagans.
With taking all this into consideration, is it any wonder that the devil would try so hard to thwart the Lord’s work through Paul?
Let’s look closer at this verse:
- 2 Corinthians 12:7 … a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
Who was the messenger that was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Satan was the source of Paul’s suffering and attack. Paul had a very powerful and anointed ministry that caused lots of damage to the kingdom of darkness, so the fact that the devil had appointed one of his demons to harass, annoy, persecute and even try to kill Paul is not a surprise.
The Greek word that Paul uses for “buffet” is “kolaphizó” and it means: to strike with the fist, buffet; hence: to mistreat violently according to Strong’s Concordance. And in HELPS Word-studies, the definition is even more clear: properly, to strike with the fist (literally “knuckles”); to hit hard with the knuckles, to make the blow sting and crush… In 2 Corinthians 12:7, what is meant is, being struck with something sharp and painful; and sticking so deep in the flesh that it remains there. Both definitions clearly reveal the fact that Paul was not talking about a sickness or illness, but the violent attack and persecution that hurt him physically.
So the “thorn” that was to torment Paul, was for leaving deep wounds that would prevent him from being proud. Being arrested and put in jail is never something to be proud of. It was the same in Paul’s time. Paul was imprisoned many times during his ministry, for different periods of time. Of the 32 years of ministry (from 36 AD when Paul accepted Christ as Lord, until 68 AD when he was beheaded on the orders of the Roman emperor Nero), Paul spent nearly six years in prison. In Judea and also in Rome, he was imprisoned for 2 years twice and many other times for shorter periods, sometimes overnight, after being cruelly beaten.
Paul was totally blessed with heavenly gifts but he also suffered dearly. The demon sent to torment Paul did his wicked job well, as he turned the authorities against Paul in almost every city where he preached the gospel and where he laid the foundations for new churches. The goal was clear. The enemy could not make Paul doubt his God, for he received too many divine revelations as indisputable evidence of knowing God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; nor could the enemy steal the anointing of the Holy Spirit that was over Paul’s life. The alternative was to make those who heard the Good News be in fear to receive it, so they would not be persecuted, beaten with rods or put in jail as the minister was.
Praise God, the enemy’s plan failed! Once the people saw the miracles that God did through Paul and after the Holy Spirit convinced their hearts of the truth they accepted Christ as Lord and Savior regardless of the costs.
- Luke 12:48b “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
These words fully applied to Paul and to the other apostles.
Jesus also told His disciples that they would “drink the cup” that he would drink. He was talking about the suffering, torture and persecution.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross redeemed us from the curse of the law, but it did not redeem us from persecution. The first to realize this truth were those who were closest to the Lord during His ministry on earth, His disciples.
- 2 Corinthians 12:8-9 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God did not answer Paul on his first two prayers against the thorn, but on the third one, the Lord tells him why. If the answer was about a physical illness, it would make no sense and contradict the verses where God says that by Jesus’ stripes we’ve been healed (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24). The Son of God has already fulfilled everything needed for our healing. It is up to us to take possession of it. But if the thorn is persecution and torture then the answer is clear. Only during tests and trials do we form the character of Christ. Only when we cannot rely on our own selves, do we truly learn to rely on the Lord and on the promises of the Bible. God keep us on this earth, to prepare us for heaven. He wants us to be with Him for eternity and to get there, we are refined daily.
Paul was used to praying once for what he needed and then receiving the answer. There is no mention in the Bible that he ever needed to ask for something more then once except for the thorn removal. Paul’s faith was firm and unwavering. Once the Lord told him that he would face persecution, he accepted it and set his mind to make the best of any hard situation. He started seeing from the time he spent in prison, that it was an opportunity to preach the Gospel in helping other inmates to be saved. When he was in jail for longer periods, he used that time to focus on writing epistles under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. His writings, along with the rest of the New Testament, have taught Christians how to live for Christ for generations and still continues.
In the second part of 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul says “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
But what were these weaknesses?
- 2 Corinthians 11:23-30 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.
We associate the word infirmity more with a physical sickness than with weakness, but in these verses, the Greek word here means more of “a lack of strength” than of a sickness.
In the original Greek, the word translated mainly by “infirmity” is “ἀσθένεια” (astheneia) and it means: want of strength, weakness, illness, suffering, calamity, frailty #769, Strong’s Concordance.
In the above verses, there is no mention of physical illness in the list of his infirmities. If he was suffering with a physical illness, he would have said it. He did not forget to write about his first rescue in Damascus, when he escaped by being let down through the city wall, in a basket (Acts 11:33). Would he have forgotten to mention a serious illness that God didn’t want to heal him of? I don’t think so. All in the above verses, refer to tribulation, persecution and attack. Their consequences were often pain and physical injuries, caused not by a disease, but by brutal attack and travails.
Paul never asked the churches he established to pray for his healing:
- Colossians 4:3 … meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in chains…
- 1 Thessalonians 5:25 Brethren, pray for us.
- 2 Thessalonians 3:1 Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may run swiftly and be glorified, just as it is with you…
- Hebrews 13:18 Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.
In all of Paul’s epistles combined, we find only 4 prayer requests that Paul addressed to the churches he wrote, none of which were for his healing, but were for his ministry. He never complains of being sick, except what he wrote in the next verse:
- 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.
He writes to the Galatians that “because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first.” The cities of Lystra and Derbe are both located in Galatia, so the letter which was addressed to all churches of that Roman province was also addressing these two cities.
When Paul and Barnabas learned that the Jews who did not believe the gospel managed to gather enough followers to kill them with stones, they left Iconium. But those Jews were very zealous and followed them to Lystra, where they managed to persuade the crowd (the same ones, who only hours ago were calling Paul and Barnabas like “gods”) to stone Paul to death. When they considered Paul was dead, they dragged him out of the city.
- Acts 14:20-22 However, when the disciples gathered around him, he rose up and went into the city. And the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, “We must (go) through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.”
What would Paul have looked like, when after the previous day, he had been “stoned unto death” and “left for dead” by an angry crowd? It is very likely that he had swollen eyes, many bruises, cuts and open wounds… He would have been a terrible sight. But Paul reminds the Galatians how much love they had shown him, like he was an angel of the Lord or even as the Lord Himself. Then there is the phrase that many interpret as alleged evidence that he was suffering of an eye disease. In fact Paul says that they appreciated and loved him so much, that they would give him their most valuable possession: their eyes.
In many languages there is the expression that someone is the “apple of someone else’s eye” and similar ones, meaning for one to have “great value to another” and in the Greek language it is no different. This does not mean that Paul needed their eyes, because his were incurably ill (as some consider that this would be the disease that Paul referred to as the thorn). On the contrary, these types of expressions are used to show love and value that one person has for another. Paul writes that they received him “as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.” I can not imagine a higher comparison of value than that!
In the 16th chapter of the book of Acts, we read that Paul revisits the churches of Galatia, yet he plainly states that only the first time he had a physical problem (and which was the day after he was brutally stoned and left for dead). When he visited them again, after more than a year later; he had no physical infirmity and was healthy.
This next verse is often misconstrued also:
- Galatians 6:11 (KJV) Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.
- Galatians 6:11 (NKJV) See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!
This verse is the third biblical reference that some attempt to use as alleged evidence for Paul’s alleged eye ailment. In those times, it was common practice to use scribes, for dictation, as it took much effort to hand write with the old modes of paper, pen and ink. At times, Paul did that too. He preferred to focus on hearing what the Holy Spirit wanted to be written than on spelling or anything else. In fact, Paul was saying in the letter to the Galatians that he wrote them with his own hand. If he could not see, how would he have done that?
Opinions are divided on the translation of the Greek term for “letter” which can be translated equally as “letter of the alphabet” or “epistle” and more than likely he was actually saying that he wrote a long letter. It is possible that if he was literally referring to the size of some of the letters, that he was doing it to emphasize the importance of what he was saying!
Let us remember what Paul wrote to Timothy, toward the end of his life, when if he really would have had sight problems, they would have certainly been worse…
- 2 Timothy 4:13 Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.
Paul was asking Timothy to bring his books and parchments and Paul undoubtedly considered what an effort it would take to bring all he was asking for. If Paul (a highly educated man who would naturally love to read) had many books, then I believe that he was also able to see to read them. Let us not forget how difficult it was to travel in those days and what a challenge it was to carry heavy items, as most of the journeys were on foot. Paul loved Timothy so much that I don’t believe that he would have burdened him with the weight of his books, only to keep them on a shelf or to have someone else to read them for him. The magnifying glass was not invented until the 13th century by Roger Bacon and eyeglasses were not invented until after that, though in the same century, by different person. So Paul, who lived in the 1st century, would not have had access to corrective glasses or even a magnifying glass.
- 2 Corinthians 11:28-29 … besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?
Paul loved his brothers in Christ wholeheartedly, he suffered and even wept for the Christians of the churches he founded. He equally suffered for the churches of Galatia, where there were issues, which could become very serious if they were not corrected.
Seriously: would God use a blind man that would have had to have been led around (and would have needed healing himself), to minister healing and miracles? Would people receive from a man who looked ungainly that people would feel sorry for his suffering from a disease that he could not hide (eyes being the most visible and with glasses having not yet been invented)? How would one trust the prayer for their healing, if the one praying for them was sick or in-firmed? Who would have wanted to surrender to Paul’s God if his prayers were not answered? I think we all know the answer…
- 2 Timothy 3:12 Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
So Paul warns of the suffering caused by persecution, which all true Christians will also experience at some degree or another. He came to this conclusion only after he asked the Lord to save him from persecution and attack and the Lord explained to him why He allowed it.
- 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 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. 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.
It took about 10 years from the writing of the epistles to the Corinthians (where we read that he prayed to be delivered from persecution) to the writing of the second epistle to Timothy (where he writes that dedicated Christians will be persecuted), which was almost his last one written. During those ten years, Paul suffered much persecution and travail that reinforced his belief that heaven cannot be reached otherwise.
- 2 Timothy 3:12 Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
In considering Paul’s life, as the Bible and other writings show, I am fully convinced that he could overcome the hard times and tribulation that came his way because he was strengthened by Christ. Through his life, Paul showed us that if our faith is rooted in Jesus Christ, nothing can shake us or force us to forsake the LORD.
Paul lived, what he preached and taught.
- Philippians 1:21 For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
God through the sacrifice of His Son, fulfilled all that was necessary, not only for the redemption of His children, but for our healing.
Lord please help us strengthen our faith and to always know and to trust that it is Your will to heal us and that is is our job to take possession of all that You’ve already accomplished for us. In Jesus’ name, amen.