What is the Apostle Paul's "Thorn in the Flesh"?
by Peter Salemi
What was this "thorn" in the flesh the Apostle Paul was speaking of in 2 Corinthians 12:7? Many believe that the Apostle Paul had some sort of mental condition, sickness or illness, like epilepsy, or Paul's eyesight.
There are many wacky interpretations about the Apostle Paul and this "thorn" in the flesh. But this article will tempt to put all these weird interpretations to rest and get to the truth of what Paul is saying.
Quick note about Paul's "infirmities." The word translated infirmities (v.5) and weakness (v.9), and infirmities (v.10), are all different forms of the same Greek noun ἀσθένεια (Gtr. astheneia), which can refer to weakness or infirmity, both physical and spiritual, depending upon the context.
It is translated using the sense of "infirmity" (17 times), weakness" (5x), "sickness" (1x), and "diseases" (1x). In some cases when translated "infirmities" it should be taken as "weakness", or at least understood in a spiritual sense (Romans 6:19; 8:26; 2 Corinthians 11:30; 12:5; 12:9; 12:10; Galatians 4:13; Hebrews 7:28 etc.). The word translated I am weak (Gr. ἀσθενῶ, Gtr. astheno) is the verb which corresponds with the noun "astheneia", and can also refer to weakness or sickness, again depending on the context.
The question is, "What do they refer to in this context?" There are certain words which we would naturally contrast together: large and small, good and evil, light and dark etc. Here in these two verses, the word "astheneia" is contrasted with "strength" (Gtr. dunamis), which also means "power", while the word "astheno" is contrasted with "strong" (Gtr. dunatos), which also means "mighty" or "powerful". So in both of these cases the translations "weakness" and "weak" are perfectly good; but we couldn't contrast "strength" with "sickness" or "disease" could we? We would have to contrast "sickness" or "disease" with "health". So what does it mean where it is translated "infirmities" (vv 5, 9,10)? Considering that it is all the same context, it aught really to be translated "weaknesses" to be consistent. This article will examine what that weakness is.
But, why did Paul use such an expression as "a thorn in the flesh," (2 Corinthians 12:7) when describing his affliction to the Corinthians? If he was sick, why didn't he say that he was sick? He said that Epaphroditus was sick (Philippians 2:26), and he also said that Trophimus was sick (2 Timothy 4:20). So if a "thorn in the flesh" refers to sickness, why didn't Paul say that Epaphroditus had a "thorn in the flesh"? Why didn't he say that Trophimus had a "thorn in the flesh"? Where in the bible does it ever record anyone being healed of a "thorn in the flesh"? When people were sick or diseased, doesn't the bible state it plainly everywhere? God does not try to hide, or disguise the fact that Christians get sick, but rather set gifts of healing in the church (1 Corinthians 12:9), and ordained that the prayer of faith would heal the sick (James 5:15). Paul wasn't trying to confuse the Corinthians by referring to his affliction as a "thorn in the flesh." So why did he use the expression "Thorn in the Flesh"?
The Old Testament
The Apostle Paul used terminology from the Old Testament, which explained his situation very well. He said that he believed, "all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:" (Acts 24:14), so he knew what these scriptures meant, and they would also be available to the Corinthians too. When the Israelites went into the promised land, they were told to drive out the inhabitants of the land (see Exodus 23:32), but when they did not obey, and mixed with them, then they would vex them, and come back and persecute them in times of weakness. Notice that a "thorn" always refers to people:
"But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell." (Num 33:55).
"Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you." (Joshua 23:13)
"Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you." (Judges 2:3).
"And there shall be no more a pricking brier unto the house of Israel, nor any grieving thorn of all that are round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I am the Lord GOD." (Ezekiel 28:24).
In this last scripture, the word translated "thorn" (Hb. קוֹץ , Htr. qōts) is similarly translated elsewhere also. The fact that it does refer literally to a thorn is evident by its use everywhere.
The word translated "thorns" (Hb. צְנִנִים , Htr. tsenīnīm) only occurs twice in the Old Testament (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13). In two of these scriptures Numbers 33:55; Ezekiel 28:24 the word used in the Septuagint (Gtr. skolops) to translate the Hebrew word "qōts", is the same word used by Paul when he referred to his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7). This shows us that this was exactly what Paul was referring to. Nowhere in scripture does a "thorn" ever refer to a sickness, or disease, or physical infirmity, but only to people who were a nuisance, and irritation or harassment. So why then would Paul ever use it in any other context? The answer is that he wouldn't. Paul used this terminology to convey to the Corinthians the exact nature of his affliction, just like we might refer to somebody who troubles us today as "a pain in the neck". J.P. Holding writes, "The word skolops is found only here in the NT. Elsewhere it is used metaphorically to refer to an annoyance or irritation. In rabbinical literature it refers to something that causes pain or annoyance, but never an illness. The expression, 'to throw thorns in the eyes' means to annoy, vex, or irritate. Other linguistic forms support this meaning." (Article, Paul's Thorn in the Flesh, emphasis his).
Obviously there was a person who was an annoyance to Paul, a thorn in his flesh, and he called him, "the messenger of Satan to buffet me," (2 Corinth 12:7). Who was this person who was an irritation to Paul, and what did he do?
What does "buffet" mean? Did Paul say that this messenger of Satan was sent to make him sick as some suggest? No, it was sent to "buffet" him (2 Corinthians 12:7), which literally means "to strike with blows". The verb translated "buffet" (Gr. κολαφίζω, Gtr. kolaphizo) comes from the noun "kolaphos", which means "a fist", and so means "to strike with the fist", or "to punch". (see Strong's #2852) So if this was what the messenger of Satan did to Paul, how could it ever refer to sickness, or physical infirmity? The same word is used of Jesus when he was on trial before his crucifixion, they "buffeted him;" (Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65). We could only honestly interpret this as a blow or a punch; it couldn't mean that they made him sick, could it? In fact, everywhere this word is used elsewhere (1 Corinthians 4:11; 1 Peter 2:20), taking it in context, it is always used of people persecuting, and that is what Paul's "thorn" was. Paul even says, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." (2 Corinth 12:10).
However, we now need to answer the question, "If a thorn in the flesh means persecution, why doesn't the bible say that other Christians had a thorn in the flesh"? Jesus said his people will be persecuted, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you;" (John 15:20). Most likely because it was already understood-that the church of God was spiritual Israel (Gal 6:16), and that the things that happened to Israel was "examples" for the church (1 Corinth 10:6). So like Israel being persecuted by thorns (people of the Canaanites), the church of God also would be as with "thorns" irritations, persecutions from people of the world, and from religious people and institutions, as well shall see.
Now Paul said the thorn was in his flesh? How did it affect his flesh? Obviously by persecutions, and beatings that he took, it affected his body, his flesh.
"through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel",
(Galatians 6:17) "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus."
(Colossians 1:24) "the afflictions of Christ in my flesh".
Notice where he said that his afflictions were, "in the body", "in my body", and "in my flesh", exactly where his "thorn" was. Notice also that elsewhere he refers to "the afflictions of the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:8), and preaching the gospel "through infirmity of the flesh" (Galatians 4:13). When he went into Macedonia, he said, "our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fighting's," (2 Corinthians 7:5). Please take note of how many times he was beaten and flogged (2 Corinthians 11:23-25).
Now these persecutions Paul endured were done by religious and the non-religious alike. But this particular thorn was a messenger of Satan, and a religious person. The Apostle Paul speaks of, "For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
"And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.
"Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works." (2 Corinth 11:13-15). Satan has ministers on this earth, his messengers. One of these messengers irritated Paul, and persecuted him. These were preaching "another Jesus" and "another Gospel" (2 Corinth 11:4). Trying to establish their version of the Gospel in the church of God, but the Apostle Paul was preaching and teaching the truth, and did not allow anyone to stop him, "As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions of Achaia." (v.10).
The Apostle Paul was proving that he was a true minister of Jesus with the signs of an Apostle, "Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds." (2 Corinth 12:12). These religious people who thought themselves as "chiefest Apostles" (1 Corinth 11:5; 12:11), but are really "false Apostles" did not demonstrate that they were Apostles of Jesus. These were preaching "another Jesus," "another Gospel" without the signs of an Apostle, even though they though they were great, and these persecuted Paul because they though they were superior to Paul, but Paul asked, "For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles?"(1 Corinth 11:5; 12:11). People's New Testament writes there were, "The false teachers who had claimed at Corinth to be leading apostles."
In no way was the Apostle Paul speaking of the Apostles of Christ in these passages, but the false Apostles. The concept of "chief Apostle" was not in the church of God. This doctrine comes from the false Apostles, as JFB Commentary says, "This sense is proved by the fact that the context contains no comparison between him and the apostles, but only between him and the false teachers; 2Cor 11:6 also alludes to these, and not to the apostles; compare also the parallel phrase, false apostles (see on 2Cor 11:13 and see on 2Cor 12:11) [Alford]." (emphasis added, see also Vincent Word Studies). In these passages the Apostle Paul mocked the whole idea of "chief Apostle" and called people who preached this "false Apostles." When Paul spoke of this idea of the "chiefest Apostles" it was "a stroke of sarcasm." (People's New Testament). Or as Gill's commentary puts it, "he jeeringly calls them." Paul mocked the whole idea of a "Chief Apostle." Only Jesus is the "head" of the church and "chief Shepherd" of the flock of God (see Ephesians 5:23; 1 Peter 5:4).
So this was a religious person, part of a body of ministers of Satan who beat Paul because of his ministry. Paul letting no one stop him from teaching and preaching the truth, and exposing these people for who they really are, False Apostles, who preached and "another gospel" and "another Jesus." So this religious person persecuted Paul, "buffet" or beat him, fulfilling what Jesus said would happen, "...yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." (John 16:2).
2 Corinthians 12
Now understanding what the "thorn" is in Paul's flesh, of being persecuted by some religious person, or institution we can understand what his "weakness" was and why his weakness actually showed strength.
The Apostle Paul in verse one says, that, "It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord." (1 Corinth 12:1). The Apostle Paul could glory and boast with his visions and revelations that God gave but he did not.
In Verses 2 through 4 he spoke of a vision of the "third heaven," and he said, "Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities [weakness]" (v.5). Paul could glory about him seeing the great vision of Paradise, yet he decided to glory in his "infirmities" instead. He would rather glory in his sufferings for Jesus Christ-To glorify in being persecuted and being beaten as Paul tells the Corinthians for Jesus sake than glorify in visions and revelations, "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities [weakness], that the power of Christ may rest upon me....Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." (vv.9-10). (Further explained below)
He recognized this, and notice what he says, "For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me." Paul says he is tempted to glory in those things but it would be foolish because this would lead to the church exalting their leaders and Paul did not want that.
Then Paul says, "And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure." (v.7). Does it say God gave him that thorn? No! Satan gave him that thorn. But notice what Barnes Notes says about this passage, "It is that this thorn in the flesh' was given to him, implying that it was a favor. He does not complain of it; he does not say it was sent in cruelty; he does not even speak of it as an affliction; he speaks of it as a gift, as any man would of a favor that had been bestowed. Paul had so clear a view of the benefits which resulted from it that he regarded it as a favor, as Christians should every trial." Paul turns this attack on him and views it as a favor, to keep him humble, and not to exalt himself. He turned a negative into a positive. Christians can learn from this, that any obstacles in your Christian walk, no matter how bad, you turn it into a positive thing in your life.
This persecution he endured from this messenger, this false Apostle, whoever it was, and whatever religious institution he represented, made Paul realize that we humans are delicate, and temporal, and to exalt someone like they are a god is wrong. We are all human with the same weaknesses, and can face death and die at any moment. We are all the same and should not be exalted, only God should be because he is immortal, and cannot be bruised, or broken. Paul knew the scripture that says, "The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever." Humans are just temporal beings that can die at any time. We are frail, and persecutions prove that we all bleed, and bruise the same. Paul had no confidence in the flesh (see Philippians 3:3).
Then the Apostle Paul asked God to take this "thorn" from him after he had been humbled, "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me...And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness...." (vv.8-9). Jesus did not remove the thorn, he gave him grace to bear it; and again turning a negative into a positive. Through his suffering, Christ was magnified. To endure this persecution, the beatings he took, and for Paul to continue doing God's work showed that "the power of Christ may rest upon me." (v.9), and he gloried in his infirmities instead of revelations, that was the proof God was with him. This is true strength, true will, that no matter how many obstacles we have in life, to endure and go on in Jesus name and to bear it, is true strength, "Your weakness is might," and proof God is with you!
Many people today in religion take pleasure in saying that they received a special revelation from the Lord, or that they are God's special servant etc... God through The Apostle Paul however demonstrated his power, true strength in his persecutions and beatings. To endure that kind of punishment and go on is true strength. Enduring a life of persecutions and ridicule, and staying the course no matter what; he saw this as God's power on him. He was an apostle, he had special revelations and visions, but he exalted his infirmities, and not those other things, "Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities [weakness], in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." (v.10). Alford's The Greek New Testament says, "I am well content...in infirmities (four kinds of which are then specified...)" (emphasis his and mine). The reproaches, necessities, persecutions, and distresses made him weak, but to endure it demonstrated God's strength.
It is pretty obvious what he weakness was!
Ellicott's Commentary about verse 10 says, "The thoughts of the Apostle go back to the sufferings of which he had spoken fully in 2 Corinthians 11 and elsewhere." (emphasis added). 2 Corinthians 11:21-25 speaks of the beating Paul received and says " we had been weak" (v.21) How did he become "weak"? In this context, "weak" is the opposite of strong. Thayer's says, "lack of strength...frailty" The Hebrew equivalent means to be "wounded" (Strong's #6094). When one is beaten "Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned..." (2 Corinth 11:25), one is weak and their body frail, delicate, this was Paul weakness, not some sort of illness that he had. Paul was "weak" due to the beatings and persecutions that he endured.
So the "thorn in the flesh" was a false Apostle who persecuted and beat the Apostle Paul, "the messenger of Satan to buffet me." The Apostle Paul looked at it as a positive, to humble himself and not to glory himself with the spiritual gifts that he had. The wounds he received by the persecutions he gloried, and displayed it as strength, proof God was with him! God gave him the strength to endure this displayed the power of God that rested upon him. Truly this was true strength, and may all of us learn this lesson, that to endure in this world, with everyone against you is true strength and to glory in that which glorifies God.
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