Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh was Allowed to Show the Power of Grace and Our Dependence on God

Paul had a thorn in the flesh.

By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. (2Co 12:7 WEB)

This is such an interesting section. The issue here is that Paul was given a thorn in the flesh. Now this thorn in the flesh was “a messenger of Satan to torment me”. That means that this thorn was not given by God, rather it was a messenger of Satan. The reason that this messenger of Satan was allowed to torment Paul to whatever degree he was tormented was because of the “exceeding greatness of the revelations” and that Paul should not be “exalted excessively”.

In other words, Yahweh allowed this so that Paul would not get a big head. I mean, after all, Paul was given the revelation of the mystery, that it is Christ in us and that the Gentiles would be joint heirs in this which was a mystery up until this point. Paul was given all the revelations that we read in his epistles. Not only that but he had a mighty ministry.

God worked special miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out. (Act 19:11-12 WEB)

But it is the prerogative of the Lord to allow this “thorn in the flesh” to help keep Paul’s head in balance.

Look at the rest of the context of this section.

Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong. I have become foolish in boasting. You compelled me, for I ought to have been commended by you, for in nothing was I inferior to the very best apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were worked among you in all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty works. (2Co 12:8-12 WEB)

Look at these words by Paul. He begged the Lord not once, but three times to have the problem depart. The Lord’s answer was that his grace was sufficient for him for God’s power in us is made perfect in weakness! So Paul responded that he would take pleasure in weaknesses, injuries, necessities, etc.

Was this really a problem? Look at Paul’s own admission, “I have become foolish in boasting.” After all Paul admits that he writes of himself as a great apostle with signs and wonders and mighty works. The thorn in the flesh helped Paul overcome this.  The thorn in the flesh help Paul focus that it was God in Christ in him, not just him alone. The thorn in the flesh focused his mind on the source of the power.

This here presents us with one of the limitations of what is able to be believed to receive.

All things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Mat 21:22 WEB)

When we read the above we need to remember the verse in James.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (Jas 4:3 ESV)

Paul knew and acknowledged that he had become foolish in boasting.  He prayed three times for the thorn to be removed, but he was asking amiss.  So, sometimes we need to put up with things as much as they are bothersome.

There have been numerous commentaries on what or who Paul’s thorn in the flesh was.  What it was is not spelled out because that’s not the main point.

There have been numerous speculations over the years about what the thorn of the flesh was. There is a Wikipedia article that cites multiple sources and conclusions. The article admits that some of the best Bible scholars conclude that there is not enough information to be definitive.[1] The Wikipedia article also cites that there have been conclusions that it was that Paul suffered from impiety, physical ailments, the rejection of the gospel by the Jews, or simply an opponent.

In terms of scriptural interpretation, one important key is to look for context as to what something means so we look for where the term has been used elsewhere in Scripture. This concept of a thorn is used in the books of Joshua and Ezekiel.

Know for a certainty that Yahweh your God will no longer drive these nations from out of your sight; but they shall be a snare and a trap to you, a scourge in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which Yahweh your God has given you. (Jos 23:13 WEB)

“There will be no more a pricking brier to the house of Israel, nor a hurting thorn of any that are around them that scorned them. Then they will know that I am the Lord Yahweh.” (Eze 28:24 WEB)

Good scriptural interpretation requires that we give weight to these uses of the word “thorn” in considering the message of Paul in Second Corinthians. Here we have two places where the word thorn is used to describe the trouble caused by outside people to God’s people.

So, in 2 Cor 12:7, we have to at the very least consider that Paul is talking about a person or people. That is especially likely, as it is also referred to as a messenger of Satan.

But focusing on what the thorn is can lead you to miss the point.  The point that Paul is making is that his thorn in the flesh, i.e., troubles, worrisome people, whatever, are allowed because they serve God’s purpose of keeping us grounded in knowing that his grace is sufficient for us.  No matter how incredible a ministry we have, no matter how powerful the miracles that we are part of, our focus has to be on how great our Father, Yahweh, is!  And it can never be about us.

[1] Thorn in the Flesh,,description%20in%20Numbers%2033%3A55.

© copyright 2023 Mark William Smith, All rights reserved. Last revised 9/8/23

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