Rethinking Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

“There was given me a thorn in the flesh . . . ”

~ 2 Corinthians 12:7

For generations, Bible commentators have offered countless theories as to what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. The most popular range from various and sundry illnesses (malaria, epilepsy, ophthalmia, etc.) to haunting guilt for persecuting the church to a sexual addiction that Paul never got victory over.

I’ve never found any of these common theories to be persuasive or satisfactory.

To my mind, if we take the text just as it is written and compare it with other texts that use similar language . . . and then step back to take a fresh look at the New Testament narrative in its chronological sequence . . . an entirely different picture emerges. One that I personally find compelling.

Let’s look first at the text carefully: 

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

Paul plainly identifies the thorn. It was a “messenger of Satan” whose purpose was to torment Paul. The word “torment” means to strike with the first, to rain blows upon, to treat with violence. It’s often translated “harass.”

When Paul asks the Lord to remove the thorn, the Savior responds saying, “My power is perfected in weakness” (v.9).

Paul immediately says that he would rather “boast in his weaknesses” so that Christ’s power may dwell in him (v. 9).

What’s telling here is that Paul’s entire discussion in Chapter 11 (just before he mentions the thorn in the flesh) is about his “weaknesses.” In that chapter, Paul gives us a robust list of hardships that he endured for the gospel.

At the end of the list, he refers to these hardships as “weaknesses” (see 11:30). This is the same Greek word that’s used for “weaknesses” in 12:5 and 12:9-10.

In addition, Paul begins his argument in chapter 11 by talking about the “false apostles” and “deceitful workers” who transform themselves as angels of light. He goes on to say that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (11:14).

Interestingly, the Greek word for “angel” in 11:14 is the same word for “messenger” in 12:7 (which Paul refers to as a “thorn”).

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel [messenger] of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). 

Paul tells us that these “false apostles” are “servants” of Satan. That is, they are messengers of the devil, doing his bidding. They masquerade themselves as messengers of light just as Satan does. They traffic in slander, innuendo, misrepresentation, and defamation (see 12:10; Paul calls this the “evil report” in 2 Cor. 6:8). They also bring persecution.

Right after Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh, he brings up the false apostles again saying:

I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing (12:11). 

Consequently, if we read Chapter 11 to Chapter 12 as a discussion about Paul’s weaknesses in which he is boasting, we begin to make better sense of what Paul’s thorn is all about.

In the Old Testament, the term “thorn” is used as a metaphor for a person or group that persecutes God’s 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 (Numbers 33:55; see also Joshua 23:13 and Judges 2:3).

In this context, God’s enemies are called “thorns” in Israel’s sides (flesh) that “vex” and torment them. These “thorns” were human beings inspired by God’s enemy.

When we read the New Testament in a narrative way, taking it in its chronological sequence, we discover that everywhere Paul planted a church, a group of detractors opposed his ministry and sought to discredit his apostolic authority in the eyes of the Christians for which he cared.

In Galatians, Paul indicates that this group of detractors was headed up by one man in particular.

The group of people = But there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:7). As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:12).

The one man that headed them up = But the one who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is (Galatians 5:10).

At the end of the letter, Paul says something interesting:

From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus.

You can almost hear a prayer behind this statement in which Paul is asking the Lord to remove this person who is troubling him and the churches.

Putting all of this together, an interesting picture emerges.

Paul’s thorn appears to be a man (inspired by Satan) who was obsessed with discrediting Paul and his ministry.

This man followed Paul wherever he traveled, beginning in South Galatia (Acts 14ff.). He sought to undermine Paul’s work.

This “messenger” or “servant” of Satan was in league with a group of others who followed him (Galatians 1:7; 5:12). They followed in Paul’s footsteps to the churches in Galatia, probably Thessalonica, and then to Corinth (he possibly could have been the leader of the “super-apostles” that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 11).

On three occasions, Paul asked the Lord to remove this person from his life. For he was a torment, a frustration, a harassment to Paul and his work.

But the Lord answered and said that His grace is sufficient. The Lord didn’t remove the thorn. He instead caused Paul to forebear it.

Near the end of his life, Paul would reflect back on the persecutions he endured in Galatia saying,

You know all about my . . . persecutions, sufferings – what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra [churches in Galatia], the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them (2 Timothy 3:10-11). 

The persecutions and afflictions still came, but they didn’t stop Paul from moving forward. By God’s grace, Paul endured them all, for God’s grace was sufficient. While this text probably isn’t referring specifically to Paul’s “thorn,” the principle involved is the same.

Note that the men who visited Galatia and Corinth with their “gospel” seemed to have been fellow Hebrews from the Jerusalem church (although undoubtedly operating without its approval and misrepresenting the assembly — see 2 Corinthians 11:22 and Galatians 1-2).

That is, these men were recognized Christians – in name at least.

(Incidentally, when a person is being driven by the devil to attack or harass a servant of God, the attacker/harasser is never in touch with the source of his or her behavior. In fact, they will often use religious language and justifications to clothe their fleshly obsession.)

To my mind, this interpretation fits the evidence better than the alternatives. And it’s one that is confirmed by the experience of many servants of God.

In short, if you are serving the Lord Jesus Christ in a way that touches that which is closest to His heart, you will encounter a “thorn in the flesh” . . .  sooner or later. And woe to the person who allows themselves to be manipulated by God’s enemy in that way.

But remember: Even when His grace is not sufficient (at the moment), you will look back and discover that His grace is sufficient . . . always.

Much more can be said about that, but this blog post is already too long.

Can you think of anything that would make this interpretation implausible?

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Comments

  1. Lisa says

    I was diagnosed with late stage cancer in 2011. Not grounded in Gods word. Still on milk, and thinking I was ‘good’ enough. So when this tragedy struck, I clung to Jesus. Its all I could do. One night In my deepest despair, I went to bed. I had no dreams. I heard a male voice say AWAKE. As soon as I opened my eyes, there was a bright star out my bedroom window. It was magnificent. I felt such love and peace yet a sadness. Then, one word was given to me on the screen of my mind white capitol letters on a black background-ABANDONED. This is how I felt before I had gone to bed. I felt a deep connection and love from the Lord. I understood the communication to be revelatory and that we as a nation had abandoned Him. I hadn’t considered that I had abandoned Him in my lack of prayer life, etc. I took a photo of the beautiful star and went back to sleep. (Incidentally about 10 days later, the pope resigned.) Then, one day months later, I decided to develop the photo and realized in deep shock that I was seeing divinity manifested in the physical realm. I then looked for the word abandoned in the bible. NIV it was everywhere=confusion, KJV (the bible I read) was not there at all, NKJV it was there ONCE. It was the bible my pastor taught from. The verse was lamentations 2:7. Soon after this realization, I fell on my knees in deep repentance and reverance for the Lord realizing I was like a Pharisee- I geuss like Paul was? And my mind was attacked constantly that God had abandoned me and this was bringing me guilt and shame of my past and my sin. I have to pray constantly to keep these thoughts captive to Christ. I even called it ‘torment’. I consider these attacks very real, very spiritual and I very much agree and it makes sense that there is a ‘law’ in the spiritual realm like that in the physical where for every action there is an equal and opposing reaction by the enemy. And man, if this is what Paul is talking about to keep Him humble. My hats are off to that man. I possibly have experienced just a glimpse of the spiritual attacks Paul experienced and how they can wear someone down. Through an angel, demon, spirit, vision, divine message, or through another person. I have grown in Christ so much in the last 10 months and did not read this thorn Paul had until recently. It intrigued me and It gives me hope to endure and to use my authority in Christ to overcome this ‘thorn in my side’ I geuss you could call it. I am definitely not an apostle and rely in the hope of Gods mercy and grace and forgiveness daily. God knows what He is doing. I know that for sure. He is a soverign God who is righteous and just. God Bless you all. Jesus loves you. I hope my post encourages someone today. Jesus is coming soon.
    Lisa

  2. jess lester says

    You avoided 3 clear references to the eyes being the “thorn” in your discussion. Gal 4:13-15-you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Gal 6:11 see with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. Ac 23-3-5 Paul did not recognize or identify that he was talking to high priest who wore ”
    gaudy garments. Paul , having beena pharisee would have had no difficulty in recognize a high priest. This confirms his poor vision . Rom16:22 identifies one of several amanuenses that Paul used. Even though I am an Eye surgeon, the scripture seems to back me up.

    • says

      I beg your pardon. Those 3 references aren’t linked to Paul’s thorn anywhere in the text. So they weren’t “avoided.” One has to read such a link to the thorn into them. Even if Paul had bad vision as most older men did in that day — it was very common in the ancient world — that doesn’t at all mean that poor vision was the thorn. Hardly. The texts where Paul actually explains what the thorn in 1 Cor. 11 and 12 fits the narrative far better as explained in the post.

      • Carolyn Lawson says

        Very good point. I like this article. I believe, as you said, that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was persecutions and NOT sickness. This seems very clear and obvious to me. God is Jehovah Rapha after all. And Paul knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand so the references to a thorn in the flesh make a lot of sense. Also, the more we know about God (the greater the revelation), the more that Satan will fight us to steal the Word from our lives (John 10:10, Mark 4:14-). The greater the revelation, the more the opposition. That should come as no surprise. We are called to be “good soldiers of Jesus Christ.” The opposition is not authored by God! This is where people miss it. God is for us, not against us. Trials and tribulations come from this world and not God (John 16:33, James 1:13; 17). As long as we continue to use our faith when we encounter this opposition from the enemy and never give up, we are turned into gold vessels that can be used in a greater measure for the glory of God. Thanks for going against the flow and studying the Word for yourself to “rethink” this thorn. God bless you!!

  3. Jeff says

    Frank, this is a great article. It clears up a lot of questions I had about this topic. On another subject I want to thank you for being so humble and deflecting attention away from yourself all of these years. A week ago I visited a church you planted. I hardly heard the members mention your name except once, with a lot of appreciation and affection :), but all they talked about was the Lord. You taught them well. I’ve not found this kind of experience in other churches. People are always talking about the pastor or the planter. Your humility is really refreshing. I thought this would encourage you.

  4. Susan Wapensky says

    Wow – This is what taking Scripture and chewing on it is all about. I had an urgency from the Holy Spirit to respond to a severe rebuke from a legalistic elder in a church that we are no longer members of. This verse came to me as a direct prompting from the Holy Spirit, never realizing the actual meaning of the verse. Obviously the Lord was delivering to him a message, he was the thorn or a tormenter. When I sent him this verse in my e-mail I wondered if he would realize that I was referring to him. Due to his pride, he believed that I was the one who needed to remain humble and never saw himself as the proverbial thorn.

  5. Matt says

    Frank, thank you for the interpretation, and explanation of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. It makes much more sense to me that this thorn was a person, a false messenger of satan. In the chronological context of the epistles, Paul and the churches he planted were harassed from the very beginning by these judaizers of high reputation “the circumcision party” from the Jerusalem church.

    This reminds me of 2 points that Jesus made to the disciples. 1. When he warns the disciples of impending persecution in John 13-16,
    “they will hate you because they hated me”……”They will throw you out of their synagogues”.
    2, When He tells them about “tares among the wheat”
    These are religious people who are persecuting believers, some are even professing Christians i.e. the circumcision party. This stuff is happening today within the body of Christ. Oh, by the way, a Christian facebook friend sent me an email warning me away from you, and your books. And so it continues…….lol!

  6. Kevin says

    This may get a bit wordy – I’m going to step out there and suggest that because of God’s dislike for sexual sin, and the fact that this is something that has the ability to turn Christians from God by making them feel incredible guilt and shame, as well as turning Pharisee types against us, that Paul’s sin was that of a sexual nature. It is also a sin that has an immense grip by making us feel unworthy of calling ourselves Christians. But wait a minute, aren’t we saved by grace, and absolutely nothing we can boast about? Do we need to be reminded that God has made us holy in the weakness we are in, not the weakness we are able to get away from? Can we not boast that the feelings of guilt and shame will not have dominion over us because we have been bought? We are redeemed by Christ and not in our ability to become sinless, because we all do and will continue to sin. No wonder the world has such a struggle with salvation as we fail to offer them grace without cost, as Jesus paid it all. What we need to do is extend grace to others, and help them in their plight realizing that none of us can stand before God as worthy in anything we can do. And the power of sin has no dominion over us, even as we continue to sin, and we all will. We are urged to “sin no more”, which has already been noted as something we simply cannot do in our humanity, it’s the whole reason Christ came. Instead of trying to make ourselves sin free, we need to extend grace to sinners, to show them that sin does not have to grip them and continue to be a barrier to Christ. In doing so, slowly our actions through Christ will transform us. We have always concentrated on the acts of sin, but i believe the “way of the world” is to allow sin to beat us up, and shame us into feeling that Christ could never love us, because we can never change our sinful nature. If nothing else, I hope this is read with open hearts and minds.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Kevin. Can you provide any biblical support for your theory? What I’ve done in this post is give scriptural support for my thesis. I could be wrong, of course, because I wasn’t there. ;-) But the texts seem to indicate what the thorn was. However, I’m open to your idea if you can show me any biblical connections to what Paul was talking about in 2 Cor. 12. For instance, does he mention “guilt” and “shame” in the text somewhere? Thx.

      • Kimberly says

        I agree, you have given lots of scripture which has convinced me that it was a person (and not his wife ;) )Thanks for sharing, i enjoyed reading your post and appreciate the supporting scriptures you shared.

  7. Pedro Anosike says

    Insightful post!

    There is a great doubt if Paul’s thorn was sickness because, if it was, I guess he could have told Timothy that his ulcer was a thorn from God since it prolonged. But rather, he gave him a medical advice (which probably he learnt from Luke).

    While my comment is not an express affirmation that Paul’s thorn is specifically an individual, I see correlation in 2 Tim 4:14.

    Paul complained of no one else in his ministry life as he did about Alexander. He did of Alexander who was meant to be a believer more than he did; of the blind Jewish religious leaders and even the avowed sorcerers who opposed him. While he prayed the Lord to forgive others who mistreated him, for Alexander, Paul asked that he (Alexander) receive the reward of his evil did against him.

    Also, I hardly know of anyone else Paul specifically warned others to beware of.

    The Satan’s massager (thorn) withstood Paul. That was its main purpose. The word “withstood” as I see it in the bible, almost always related to the devil specifically empowering a being to resist God’s purpose 2 Tim 3:18, Acts 13:8, Daniel 10:13—or, God giving His servant(s) specific boldness to resist the devil’s attempt to derail His purpose in the Church or in the life of individual(s) 2 Chro 26:18, Gal 2:11-12. This gives credence to the thought that Paul’s thorn most likely was a being.

    • benwhittle says

      Paul’s thorn was his homosexual desires. Single man who hang around other single men…get real. I live it every day.

      • John says

        Sitting here thinking how amazing it is that so many years after Paul has passed on, this thorn or opposition that Paul talks about is still here for him; when people claim he had homosexual desires etc. Makes me wonder what other types of stuff he was accused of. People today also say Jesus was gay because he was always around men. Never with scripture to back the idea. I always thought the thorn was a messenger that’d remind him of his past & it wore on him mentally, but this is good too..& you found plenty of scripture as well. Very interesting.

  8. Steve Trevino says

    Frank, for a few years my friend and I (who is also an elder of the church I pastor) have held the position that Paul’s thorn was the Judizers. Thanks for this post. I’m forwarding it to him and I’m sure he will enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks for this!

  9. Deborah says

    Hi Frank,

    I’ve had a tendency to think of this thorn in terms of opposition too. On the other hand, I get concerned whenever someone starts preaching that his thorn “definitely was not a physical illness” b/c it is usually followed with a health and wealth gospel (or at least health). I am a charismatic who believes in and has seen and ministered healing. Yet I myself have been severely chronically ill for 14 years. So I’ve been through lots of spiritual abuse on the subject of illness (people who think I must be in unbelief or sin who bring a guilty-until-proven-innocent-by-healing tactic to the table).

    So there’s my caveat/concern.

    Blessings,
    Deb

    • says

      Right. Though just because the conclusions may be the same as those who have a specific agenda doesn’t mean the exegesis is off. The interpretation unfolded here isn’t based on any particular views about illness in general.

  10. Jamie says

    Thank you for this post. Seriously, thank you.

    On the topic of thorns… If a thorn is a individual who is slandering you then how does this relate to the crown of thorns?

    Just a thought. My mind runs in circles. lol.

  11. says

    I.Love.This. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect. I have one of these thorns, actually more than one. But one in particular that has caused me more pain and suffering than the cancer I have battled for thirteen years. But I can see how God has used this thorn to drive me to Himself, and it may be the very thing that ultimately has caused me to be stripped of myself and believe God for so much. I will add this to my list of scriptures to memorize, in this new light, I am certain it will give me comfort and strength. Thank you!

  12. says

    I wrote about this before. Throughout the Bible, thorns are consistently used to depict adversaries. In his letters Paul is lamenting the challenge that false brothers presented him. Jesus wouldn’t remove their slander as it served to keep Paul’s ego in check.

  13. Carole says

    “a fresh look at the New Testament narrative in its chronological sequence . . .” Thanks Frank! I am inspired to look with ‘new eyes’ at scripture, to take a step back and think. A challenge for this season upon The Church, that we study to show ourselves approved to God – yet old themes, dogma, interpretation of scripture one can so easily parrot.
    To search out the matter through the lens of the Holy Spirit, may that be the cry of our hearts.
    Rethinking Paul’s thorn in the flesh is fabulous. No other way to put it!

  14. says

    Frank, thank you for these thoughts & the exegetical work you’ve done to support them. I’m saving this to come back & look at the Greek & LXX some more, but from the spiritual POV it rings true to my personal experience. I’ve had more than 1 such thorn, and have commented to those who’ve walked alongside me “in Christ” for decades that there is something familial about the tenacious evil that pursues for years and decades.

  15. Vince says

    Interesting thesis. I’ve heard similar interpretations before but not with the kind of specifics you’ve given and how you grounded it in the immediate context. The interpretation is reasonable the way you laid it all out here. I don’t see anything that would disprove it.

  16. says

    Frank. Logical exegesis. Nicely done. I had moved on from the eyesight interpretation to a spiritual opposition through a person some years ago, but never organized the thoughts like you did. It doesn’t make sense that Paul would agonize so much over a physical malady after he had listed all the physical things he had endured. It only makes sense that it would be spiritual opposition to his message to the Gentiles – that was what he lived for. Since the spiritual and physical realms are from the same Creator, it is logical that there would be valid extrapolations between the two (Jesus used parables). In physics there is a “law” that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” which I think also applies in the spiritual realm. I believe God allows Satan to meet the work of His true apostle and the work of the church so that the works that are of the flesh will not last and can be exposed as tares and crumbled, so that the fruit of the Spirit will remain like gold in the fire or a house on the rock. I think this “messenger” was used by Satan, but allowed by God in order to keep Paul’s message pure and on target. “My grace is sufficient” = “I’ll give you the strength.” so, Paul wasn’t perfect, but his message was. (Maybe this speculative opinion is what you called “fiction?” If so, please delete.)

    • says

      Thx. This is helpful. No, there’s no fiction in what you presented. I was referring to the dozens of “historical fiction” books that speculate on the NT, but give no scriptural support.

  17. SJ says

    “But remember: Even when His grace is not sufficient (at the moment), you will look back and discover that His grace is sufficient . . . always.”

    I hope you will elaborate on this thought in a future blog post. I have often struggled with this verse.

  18. Lynn says

    Hi Frank,
    For some time I have thought that! After being a victim of those type of thorns in the flesh it is amazing how God by His Spirit reveals those truths to us. It was like one day the lights went on! The proverbial penny dropped. If I had not experienced it personally I may never have seen it.
    What concerned me when I realised this, was the times I had, thinking without malice, spoken against others ways and teachings and their credibility. Being a thorn! I had to ask for forgiveness and learn to bite my tongue and turn my eyes and thoughts upon Him to who gives Grace to all.

    Thanks for your posts, I do hope you come to Australia some time soon.
    Blessings.

  19. says

    Nice work tying the context and words together.

    It actually creates a very interesting story. Paul vs. the false apostles. They hounded him his whole life and he stayed faithful.

    It humanizes him as well. “Why won’t they just leave me alone?!”

    Nice post, Frank.

  20. Greg Gordon says

    I would personally say that the scriptures you put together brother are true and that does happen to men of God in our day in the same way. It surely happened to Paul. Yet it is interesting that the purpose of this “thorn” was ” to keep me from exalting myself” in which Paul says that twice. So the idea of it being an accuser of the brethren could be a possibility, even people accusing Paul of scandalous things that he did not do. I liked what you said in the end brother but if we get close to God’s heart and will we will also run into these same problems. “Marvel not brethren that the world hate you.”

  21. Thomas Loy Bumgarner says

    Frank, the late Ethelbert Bullinger, an Anglican priest from the late 1800′s to early 20th Centuary came to the same conclusion in How To Enjoy the Bible, and The Companion Bible. We stil say that people are a thorn in the flesh or a pain in the rear end. Good work, brother.

  22. kent retzer says

    Frank,

    Thank you for this insight.

    Even though they have both been misquoted by many modern commentators, who often repeat each others mistaken ideas, early church fathers Tertullian and Chrysostom have the same interpretation as you do.

    Tertullian says it was blasphemers like Hymanaeus and Alexander

    “It is evident, that the seme apostle delivered Hymenaeus
    and Alexander unto Satan, that they might learn not to
    blaspheme, as he writes to his friend Timothy. – ‘But he says himself, that there was given unto him a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan, by whom he was to be buffeted, lest he should be exalted above measure.”
    http://www.tertullian.org/articles/claesson_pudicitia_translation.htm

    And Chrisostom writes that is was the adversaries of the Word:

    “And so by the “messenger of Satan,” he means Alexander the coppersmith, the party of Hymenæus and Philetus, all the adversaries of the word; those who contended with and fought against him, those that cast him into a prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death; for they did Satan’s business. As then he calls those Jews children of the devil, who were imitating his deeds, so also he calls a “messenger of Satan” every one that opposeth. He says therefore, “There was given to me a thorn to buffet me;” not as if God putteth arms into such men’s hands, God forbid! not that He doth chastise or punish, but for the time alloweth and permitteth them.”

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.v.xxvi.html

  23. Scott Shirley says

    Here we have a neat little chiasm which places the thorn in his flesh in apposition to a messenger from Satan. I take the comma that separates the to clauses to indicate an appositive. This technique is used in abundance in OT Wisdom Literature to demonstrate the similarity or equality of two things. However, the same technique could be used to demonstrate contrasts as well. I don’t think this is the case with 2 Cor 12:7 though. In our English Bibles, one verse of a Psalm might be separated into four lines, but Paul’s statement here, unfortunately, has not been. So I shall do it for us.

    2 Corinthians 12:7
    A to keep me from exalting myself,
    B there was given me a thorn in the flesh,
    B’ a messenger of Satan to torment me—
    A’ to keep me from exalting myself!

  24. Alice Spicer says

    I’ve heard it suggested that this person’s or these people’s (if the thorn is a person or people group) main beef with Paul was that Christians ought to be circumcised and follow the law. This is referenced by Paul as the “perver[sion] the gospel of Christ,” hence Paul’s allusion to the most extreme circumcision (and what I interpret to possibly be Paul’s sarcastic sense of humor), why stop with the foreskin, chop the whole thing off – “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!”

    • Nancy says

      Alice, thanks to you, I am beside myself with laughter and trust me, I needed a good laugh today.

      Blessings on you.

  25. Kevin D says

    Great Post, this is a subject about which my wife and I have discussed on more than one occasion … and have reached the same conclusions contrary to what we have been taught. The only other place we have ever heard this even mentioned was at a conference where Graham Cooke was ministering he only mentioned it almost in passing.

  26. says

    Frank,

    Great work. I really enjoyed reading that. If you haven’t read Jervell’s Luke and the People of God you really should. He spends a lot of time on Paul and the Law in Acts. It almost seems like Luke’s purpose in writing Acts is to legitimize Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and show what great lengths Paul went to in order to still respect the Law and Judaism (without of course saying the Law saves or Jesus + anything saves).

    Acts never tells us what happens to Paul because the book is not about Paul. The book ends with Paul preaching the Gospel in Rome. It is like Luke makes sure that we get the completion of Acts 1:8 about how the Gospel will eventually be preached to the ends of the earth.

    Paul received a lot of criticism for preaching to the Gentiles and the Judaizers weren’t happy about it one bit. There are so many verses about Paul still being a Jew and still holding to the Law (although not for salvation or to add to Christ).

    Read Acts 21-26 and look for two things:
    1 – The accusations his fellow Jews made against him
    2 – The length Paul went to defend his Judaism and even uphold the Mosaic law to some extent.

    Here are some verses that jump out:
    The importance of the Law to Paul: 21:24-26, 22:3-5, 23:1-6 (Paul is more faithful to the Law than the high priest), 24:14-18, 25:8, 26:4-11, 26:22f, esp 28:17

    Accusations that Paul violated or condemned the Law – 21:21, 21:28, 24:5

    People have such a hard time wrapping their mind around a Christian who still pratices the law (21:24-26) and some will even say Paul was sinning when he did these things. I guess they would have to say so were James and all the Jerusalem elders for advising Paul to do these things as well in order to defend Paul’s “obedience to the Law” (21:24).

    Keep up the good work.

  27. Nancy says

    Thank you for your interpretation. It sheds new light on this subject for me as well and encourages us to dig deeper as we study.

    I think the real message is clear to all of us. We can all interpret ‘the thorn’ in ways that are applicable to us but the message is the same “God is sufficient” in all things. I find though in my own life nothing hurts and affects me as deeply as a person who is bent on creating havoc in my life. I bet my bottom dollar that anyone with a tormenting ailment will tell you, they don’t find that ailment nearly as difficult as someone who harasses them and causes difficulty for them. So you could very well be right, in fact I’m thinking most pastors would agree with that. I guess that’s one of those details that we can look forward to knowing for sure in the future.

    • says

      I’m not sure how many Bible teachers agree with this interpretation. I’ve only heard a similar version postulated by two people over the years, but it wasn’t *exactly* the way I’ve portrayed it here. Their theory was somewhat vague and no Scriptural support was given in any detail. I’d be delighted to see if someone else has presented this same theory in as much detail. But I’m not aware of any. If you are, please share a link. And please, I’m monumentally disinterested in fictional accounts of the Bible. Those are a dime a dozen. I’m interested in solid biblical exegesis.

      • Nancy says

        We know it’s only a theory but the point is you get us thinking outside of the box. I appreciate very much that you are not the least bit interested in fiction; I’ve realized that about you … that’s why I’m blogging with you; there is trust but not blind trust. I’m not interested in fiction either and like you, I’m only interested in truth. I happen to like the mother-in-law theory though, ha. And no, I haven’t heard this theory elsewhere which makes it original to me and worth contemplation.

      • Mac says

        This is good! You can find some similar thoughts in FF Bosworth’s “Christ the Healer”, even though you seem to take the thinking one step further pointing to a specific person/group of people being the thorn in the flesh (compared to persecution per se).

  28. NMKJR says

    Frank!
    Thanks again! Your way with words and your understanding always sheds light in areas needed.
    I always look forward to your posts.

  29. says

    Great post. I’ve long leaned toward the idea that the thorn was agitators, but never noticed the connections to other of Paul’s letters. Also love the emphasis that this person (or persons) would not have seen themselves as anything other than a defender of the true faith. If you were to write a followup, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on how we can diagnose whether we’ve fallen into the trap of being used by the enemy in this way.

  30. says

    Thanks Frank. The only other explanation that I have ever found equally convincing is that Paul was referring to his mother in law ☺ . Joking aside, the one fascinating conclusion of this view is that is seriously challenge the orthodox interpretation of 11v14′s “angel of light” and the accompanying assumption that spiritual deception is a demonic counterfeit of some spiritual/mystical experience. This places the possibility of deception safely out of reach for most us who do not dabble in such things or encounter angels. However, if this is an earthly “messenger”, then it makes the possibility of deception eerily real – as close as the next person you will meet who does not understand God’s purpose with his church and who propagates a perversion thereof. This is certainly a prime example of Scripture interpreting Scripture. I think the “angel” translation is lamentable.

    • says

      True. When a person is allowing themselves to be used by the enemy — obsession is often at work — and they aren’t in touch with the source of that obsession. It’s not the Lord, but His enemy.

  31. Aaron says

    I’ve never focused on the specifics of Paul’s “thorn” because I’ve focused on the “grace is sufficient” part. I find it fascinating that the “thorn” is considered a person, and not specifically a physical affliction. I appreciate the insight provided here.

  32. Rick L says

    Well said, I like this because it takes the entire context of Paul’s experience into account. Before Paul came to faith in Christ as Messiah, he was a doing exactly what you described, following and hunting believers and persecuting them. It would be naive to believe the Sanhedrin would not replace him.

  33. Ann says

    This is a most cogent and sensible explanation and as I read it, it resonated with me. The most painful thorns I have ever had were attacks from “spritual leaders” while working in ministry who relentlessly pounded me and then my family. One man in particular would dissect every facebook post and email I sent and hound me non stop and try to discredit my life and ministry any way he could. And you are correct – he clothed his attacks in spiritual lingo. The physical things in life have not been nearly the torment that experience was. But I was also refined by it and gained much wisdom.

  34. Tommy Sherman says

    I too found this understanding a couple of years ago. Explained it to my preacher who thought I was nuts. It’s good to here that I’m not the only one to think Paul’s thorn was those that harassed him. This was one of the key verses that put my on this track:(Numbers 33:55 KJV) “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.”

  35. says

    How PERTINENT and encouraging for me now. At 4 this morning, I struggled with this very thing in my mind and spirit, but had the wrong perspective, bringing great discouragement and self-doubt. I’m TOTALLY into looking at Scripture fresh from routine interpretations and in context, and you did this well. It brings me life and perseverance. Thank you.

  36. Chuck Phillips says

    Thank you Frank for shedding light on this issue, it is definitely a better way to understand this subject! So thanks for sharing!

    I wasn’t aware that there was a limit on how long a blog should be – but if there is – thanks for letting the Spirit help you break that rule today!

  37. Max Allen says

    Love it when a new thought fits so well!

    I was a line um up and deliver um kinda guy… til I got tired of weekly “redos”. It was Dr. Edward Smith that challenged me to find deliverance ministry in the Bible after the cross and Pentecost. What I believed simply wasn’t there after Acts 2. Satan is still active against us THROUGH unbelievers (and false teachers). Paul’s casting the demon out of the slave girl appears to be partly motivated out of frustration.

    All this to ask myself why I still fight the trouble God allows into my life. Does He not love us deeply even in our deepest conflicts? Perhaps our greatest evangelical testimony is resting in His finished work as others watch the waves crush down on us.

    Blessings!

  38. Josh says

    Thanks Frank! I couldn’t agree more…..BUT

    I have a dear friend that is convinced that his mental illness is his “thorn in the flesh”. In the past, this person has been told by religious leaders that “if you have faith” that God will heal you, so he has dumped his meds down the toilet many times… and this leads to disastrous results for him and his family… both physical and spiritual.

    The question is… in light of Paul’s thorn NOT being a thing but a person, do you believe that God would, in fact, saddle someone with a mental illness and regardless of their faith that He can heal them… would choose not to???

    I realize I am asking you to assume what God may or may not do… and that’s not fair… but I would love to be able to explain to this person HOW God is Love…in the midst of a lifelong battle, that as it looks at the moment, isn’t going anywhere.

    Grace and peace my Brother!!!!

    • Aadel says

      Josh,

      I absolutely believe that you can have a mental illness that God does not take away. My pastor’s wife suffers from a severe psychological disorder. I have had friends who had schizophrenia. Our bodies are fallen, and we get ailments of the body and mind. Our job is to trust God through those ailments. God may never heal us, and if he doesn’t, we know that he has a better plan that we just cannot see yet.

      It is not a “sin” to have a mental disorder just like it is not a “sin” to have diabetes. If God cured every ailment because we mustered enough faith, we would never be able to see him revealed in our weakness.

      • Josh says

        I agree. Thanks for the encouraging words. Sometimes it just bothers me that I don’t have an easy answer for everything….. I guess the soulution could be a smaller God… Nah.. I’ll take a big God with lots of mysteries over a small God with pat answers any day.

  39. Aadel says

    I had never thought of Paul’s thorn in that way- but it makes much more sense! In order for the thorn to be a physical ailment, you would have to explain the “messenger of Satan” very vaguely. Plus Paul never mentioned his physical ailments much- only that the churches received him “trembling and sick”.

  40. Dee Cologero says

    I can believe that explanation. I always felt it was his eyes though. He wrote ‘see how big I have to write’ and ‘I know you would take out your own eyes and give to me’. So I felt that it was his eyes ever since the vision of Jesus. But I could be wrong. I like both explanations. Thanks for giving us more to think on. Both tell us to watch how He shows His power thru it.

    • says

      Most people in Paul’s day at his age would have difficulty with their eyes for reading. So I think it’s a stretch to tie that obscure text in Galatians with the thorn. There’s nothing about an eye problem in 2 Corinthians 11 or 12. So it seems to me anyway. But contrary to popular opinion, I wasn’t there. So we can’t be positive. ;-)

  41. Ben says

    This is Soooo Good! I have long rejected the notion that Paul’s thorn was a sickness or something the Lord sent him, which is the popular teaching in most circles. I wrote a paper a few years ago explaining why I had reason to believe that this”thorn” was either a spirit, or a person being driven by an evil spirit. My exact reasons were based on the usage of the word in the OT, and the fact that the word In Greek here denotes an actual being…just as you have said! I have not seen this anywhere else til now! Very Refreshing and well done Frank!!

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