What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?

Author: BibleAsk Team


The identity of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is a topic that has been debated among theologians and scholars for centuries. The passage in question is found in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NKJV), where Paul writes about a personal affliction that he refers to as a “thorn in the flesh.” Let’s delve into this passage, explore various interpretations, and examine its theological significance.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

In this passage, Paul reflects on a personal struggle that he describes as a “thorn in the flesh.” He writes:

“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.”

Interpretations of Paul’s Thorn

Throughout history, scholars and theologians have proposed various interpretations regarding the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Some of the most prominent interpretations include:

a. Physical Ailment: One common interpretation is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh refers to a physical ailment or bodily affliction. This could have been a chronic illness, a physical disability, or some other form of bodily suffering. Supporters of this interpretation point to Paul’s use of the term “flesh” and his description of the thorn as a source of weakness and suffering.

b. Spiritual Opposition: Another interpretation suggests that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a form of spiritual opposition or temptation. Some scholars argue that the phrase “a messenger of Satan” indicates that the thorn was a spiritual attack or harassment aimed at undermining Paul’s ministry and faithfulness to the gospel.

c. Persecution and Opposition: Some commentators propose that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was related to the persecution and opposition he faced in his ministry. This could include opposition from Jewish authorities, conflicts with false teachers, or the challenges of spreading the gospel in hostile environments. The thorn may have manifested in the form of verbal attacks, rejection, or imprisonment.

d. Conscience or Remorse: A less common interpretation is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was related to his conscience or feelings of remorse over his past actions. Some scholars suggest that Paul may have been haunted by guilt over his previous persecution of Christians or his role in the stoning of Stephen. This interpretation emphasizes the psychological and emotional dimensions of Paul’s struggle.

Supporting Evidence and Context

The supporting evidence shows that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was related to his body. It was not spiritual or mental. The thorn was clearly something important, which caused him great pain and inconvenience. It was obviously some affliction that affected his eyes as seen from his words:

“Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first.  And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me” (Galatians 4:13–15). 

Another reference that may point to Paul’s thorn in the eyes is found in Galatians. “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand” (Galatians 6:11). Some have suggested that his poor penmanship was because of his poor vision. The affliction was of Satan, but permitted by God. Thus, it was with Job (Job 1:6–12; 2:7; Luke 13:16). It is of Satan’s nature and work to cause bodily suffering and disease. 

Theological Significance

Regardless of the specific nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, the passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 carries profound theological significance for understanding the nature of Christian suffering, weakness, and dependence on God’s grace.

On three different times, Paul had prayed for God to remove this disturbing thorn. But when the answer was denied, he accepted God’s will for him. The Lord did not remove the thorn of Paul, but He gave him with grace to bear it. Paul asked for deliverance from his thorn because it was an obstacle to his work. But the Lord supplied his need with a great provision of grace.

The Lord has never promised to change circumstances or free people from their troubles. To God, bodily weaknesses and hardships are secondary. Inward power to bear is a much higher revelation of God’s grace than taking away the troubles of life. Externally a person may be tired and weak, yet inwardly it is his benefit—in Christ—to have full peace (Isaiah 26:3, 4).

a. Sufficiency of God’s Grace: One of the central themes of this passage is the sufficiency of God’s grace in the midst of weakness and suffering. Despite Paul’s plea for relief from his thorn in the flesh, God assures him that His grace is enough to sustain him and empower him to endure.

b. Strength in Weakness: Paul’s experience of weakness and suffering becomes a platform for the demonstration of God’s power and strength. Rather than boasting in his own accomplishments or abilities, Paul boasts in his weaknesses, knowing that it is through weakness that the power of Christ is made manifest.

c. Paradox of Strength in Weakness: The passage highlights the paradoxical nature of Christian strength, which is often found in weakness and dependence on God. Paul’s willingness to embrace weakness and suffering for the sake of Christ reflects his understanding of the counterintuitive nature of the gospel, where the cross leads to resurrection and weakness leads to strength.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the identity of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is hinted in his letters. The passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 offers profound insights into the nature of Christian suffering, the sufficiency of God’s grace, and the paradox of strength in weakness. Ultimately, Paul’s thorn in the flesh serves as a reminder of the enduring power of God’s grace to sustain us in the midst of life’s trials and challenges.

    In His service,
    BibleAsk Team

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