Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

Tom Wheeler

FrontLine • November/December 2008

2 Cor. 12:7–10

Christians for a long time have speculated about the identity of Paul’s thorn in flesh. It is interesting to consider what Paul was talking about. God has a helpful message for all believers in various kinds of trials through this divinely recorded experience of Paul.

What Was Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh”?

Commentators differ about the identity of Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

Suggestions include a physical problem (an illness or disability, such as poor eyesight), or a moral temptation (taking “flesh” in the sense of our fallen nature), or a relational issue (such as opposition to Paul’s ministry in context). Commentators would agree that Paul uses “thorn” (Greek skolops) figuratively. The word is used in the Septuagint in Numbers 33:55 with a figurative application based upon physical imagery (people as a thorn in the side). In support of the idea that the thorn is a moral temptation, one can note that Paul sometimes in 2 Corinthians uses “flesh” to refer to our fallen nature (2 Cor. 1:12; 10:2). In support of the idea that the thorn is a relational issue is the fact that Paul does mention personal opposition to his ministry in the context (2 Cor. 10–11). However, this evidence does not rule out the thorn in the flesh being a physical problem.

Paul uses “flesh” several times in 2 Corinthians to refer to the body or our mortal existence (5:16; 7:1; 10:3a). He describes the thorn in the flesh as a “messenger of Satan” (v. 7) that keeps on buffeting him (present tense). God allowed Satan to afflict Job physically (Job 2:5–7). Paul also describes his thorn as “weakness” or “infirmities” in verse 9, which are translations of the same Greek word. The Greek word can refer to physical weakness or infirmity. Paul uses the verb form of the Greek word in the preceding chapter (11:29) in the context of physical weakness related to such things as “weariness, toil, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, fastings, cold, nakedness” (11:27). These considerations give weight to the idea of the thorn in the flesh as a physical problem.

The bottom line is that we do not know the precise identity of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. God probably communicated Scripture that way on purpose so all believers could identify their struggles with Paul’s struggle and God’s solution. Also, in verse 10, Paul lists in addition to his “infirmities” other troubles in life such as “insults” or “injuries” (a similar word used for Paul’s receiving shameful treatment at Philippi in 1 Thess. 2:2), “hardships” or “necessities” (a word used for material needs in 2 Cor. 6:4), “persecutions” (opposition for Christian testimony—2 Cor. 11:23–26), and “calamities” or “distresses” (2 Cor. 4:8, hard pressed on every side but not crushed; note the translation of these words in the ESV and ASV). Believers in our congregations go through physical maladies, financial pressures, emotional hurts, and personal opposition like Paul. All of us as believers should identify with his struggles and God’s solution for similar kinds of trials.

What Does God Teach Us through It?

Second Corinthians 12:7–10 teaches us that God has power over, a purpose in, and provision for our difficulties. God has power over our difficulties. God sends our difficulties (note the divine passive “was given” in v. 7). God is the one to whom we pray about our difficulties (v. 8), and He is the one who sovereignly decides whether to answer our prayers by removing them (v. 9). Considering God’s loving character and powerful control can encourage us that God will keep our problems under control and will not let them become more than we can bear with His grace (1 Cor. 10:12).

God has a purpose in our difficulties. He uses our difficulties for a good purpose (Rom. 8:28)—to humble us and make us more dependent upon Him (vv. 7, 9). Paul had extraordinary revelations from God (2 Cor. 12:1–6), and God saw fit to keep Paul humble through the thorn in the flesh. God keeps us humbly dependent on Him through trials.

God has provision for our difficulties. God does not promise to remove our difficulties. However, He does promise His sustaining grace through our difficulty (v. 9). His grace would involve undeserved mercy upon our plight and enablement to endure our trials. Therefore, we can view our troubles in our life with positive hope (v. 10), because of God’s good purpose and provision of sustaining and enabling grace (compare James 1:2,3; 1 Pet. 1:6, 7). A few chapters earlier Paul communicates to the Corinthian believers that our life difficulties are light and temporary in light of our future eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:17). Therefore, even if God does not answer our prayer to remove our difficulty, we can still have confidence that it will eventually pass and will not keep us from enjoying future glory with the Lord. Like Paul and like Job, we can recognize that all people have troubles that bring pain and difficulty in this mortal life (Job 5:7) and that God can sustain and purify us through those troubles, of whatever sort they are (Job 23:10).

Hopefully, this consideration of God’s encouragement through Paul’s trial will bring encouragement to the reader. Also, hopefully this study will give food for thought for Christian counselors, teachers, and preachers as they minister God’s Word to believers in need of encouragement. Whatever our trial and however God chooses to answer our prayer about our trial, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain His people in life’s trials.

Dr. Tom Wheeler works as an author with the BJU Press Bible Team.

(Originally published in FrontLine • November/December 2008. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

Leave a Comment