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Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you. 1 Timothy 4:16

What Was Paul's "Thorn in the Flesh"

by Jay McMullan
© 2009

     I have heard many a sermon where the speaker referenced Paul's "thorn in the flesh" and many of those speakers used God's clear refusal to deliver Paul from the torment of that thorn to make their point that God refused to heal Paul of a physical ailment. It is plain that many in the body of Christ, even experienced ministers, are not sure what that “thorn” was. Some believers assume it was a sickness. Some assume that Paul had some kind of eye problem and consider that to be the “thorn in the flesh”.  Examining Paul’s letter to the Galatians explains plainly and unequivocally what that “thorn” was.

     Let’s start with a little background. Paul was writing to the Christians in the church at Corinth. Apparently some in the church were boasting about who they were and what they had done. To prove his apostleship and authority, Paul shares with them about his “Pauline Revelation” and what had happened to him because of the abundance of the revelations given to him by God.

In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 Paul speaks about his visions and revelations.

2 Corithians 12:1-11 NAS

 1Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.

     If anyone had a right to boast, it would have been Paul but he chose to boast in the things of God, not himself. Paul had some enemies at Corinth, men who despised the true Word of God, and to answer their criticisms, it was important for him to give some detail on his visions and revelations. The word “revelations” comes from the Greek word “apokalupsis” which is “an unveiling of things unknown”. Certainly God used Paul to shed light on His plan for the church in this age of grace or church age. Paul's revelation is an absolute necessity for Christians to be able to understand God's grace and how God relates to the believer in this time.

 2I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago--whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows--such a man was caught up to the third heaven.

     Fourteen years before Paul wrote this letter would put the time of his visions and revelations at about 46 a.d. Paul here is speaking of himself as the man who received these visions and revelations. He makes it clear that he went to the “third heaven”. The first heaven is the sky, or the earth’s atmosphere. The second heaven is the universe with all the stars, planets and galaxies. The third heaven is the literal planet of Heaven in which God dwells. So Paul is telling the believers at Corinth, and us, that he was taken to Heaven where he received those visions that we refer to as  the “Pauline Revelation”.

 3And I know how such a man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know God knows—

     Paul was not clear whether these visions and revelations were received “in the body” or “out of the body” but it is clear that it is possible for a natural man to go to Heaven. At least three people mentioned in the Bible have gone to heaven in their earthly, unregenerated bodies; Enoch, Elijah and John. Enoch and Elijah are in Heaven at this moment in their earthly bodies being prepared for their role in the last half of the seven years of trials and tribulations. It is entirely possible that Paul could have gone to Heaven in his natural body but he was not sure. I would think that he was so caught up in the incredible things he saw and heard that he probably never thought about whether he was there bodily or not.

 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.    

     It could be possible that Paul was commanded not to speak of some of the things he saw and heard in Heaven but it is much more likely that what he saw cannot be explained by human words. It could even be possible that there were things Paul was commanded not to reveal and some things which could not be put into human words. In John’s revelation, he saw the future but could only illustrate it in the ways and terms he knew. There were also things John was commanded not to reveal.

Revelation 8:10,11

10The third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters.

 11The name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter.

     Did John actually see a star fall from the skies or was it a meteor, was it a comet, or could it have been something like a missile? Obviously, in John’s day the world had never seen a rocket or a missile so he had to describe things in ways and means that he understood.

Let's go back to 2 Corinthians 12

5On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.

     The word “weakness” (Grk: "astheniah") is correctly translated here in this translation. Other translations translate the word into “infirmities” which is sometimes misconstrued as meaning “sickness”. This word, more often than not, when translated as "infirmity" means a "moral failure".

     Luke 7:21 says, "In that same hour He cured many of their infirmities and plagues and of evil spirits and unto many that were blind He gave sight." The Greek word for infirmities here is "nosos" which means a disease, sickness or physical malady. This Greek word is "rarely figurative of a moral disability or failure".

     So, it is clear here that Paul is not talking about a physical ailment, sickenss or disease but rather his shortcomings or "moral disabilities or failures".

 6For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me.

     Paul’s purpose was to always bring glory to God and not to himself.

2 Cor. 12:7 And lest I should be exalted (become haughty) above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given (the Greek word here is "didomee" which implies that it was given violently like striking someone with your fist) to me a thorn (Greek "skolops" which figuratively means a bodily annoyance or something that would "bug you") in the flesh, the messenger (Greek "angelos" an angel or messenger. In this case, the angel could have been a demon, a disembodied spirit from the Pre-Adamite world where Lucifer ruled or it could have been an angel that fell from the grace of God with others who are being held in chains in Tartarus until the day of judgement. The Word of God here is not clear. What is clear, is that this angel was of Satan, NOT of God) of Satan to buffet (Greek "kolafidzo" literally to "rap with the fist". The meaning here is that Paul was hit with the torment of this "thorn" over and over like the waves that buffet the shores of the sea.) me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

     It is impossible for us to understand the “surpassing greatness” of the revelations Paul received. The revelations that God gave Paul have changed the world! This age of grace in which we live was not seen or understood by the prophets of old. Even the believers at the time of Christ’s death did not understand God’s grace for they were natural men, not yet born of the Spririt. They had no way to understand that the Spirit of God would actually dwell within the heart of men. What a wonderful age this is and how blessed we are to live in it!

     How easy it would be to be puffed up in pride because of these great visions and revelations. The King James translation says “and lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations”. The word “exalted” comes from the Greek word “huperairomai”. This word is only used twice in the New Testament. It is the same word used in reference to the Antichrist exalting himself in 2 Thes. 2:4. It is the same self pride and self exaltation that caused Lucifer to fall.

2 Cor. 12:8
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

2 Cor. 12:9
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient (Greek "arkeho" enough) for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

     Paul sought the Lord three times to be freed from the torment of this satanic angel but God refused to give him relief. Paul was constantly under attack, not only from the demon that God stationed with him but also Judaizers that would try to pervert the gospel of Christ and the everyday care of the churches he had established.  

     The purpose of this satanic angel was to torment Paul so that he would not be puffed up in self exaltation. Now that we know the “thorn in the flesh” was a satanic angel that was there to constantly torment Paul, what did this demon do to torment the man that God used to bring us such wonderful revelations?

2 Cor. 12:10
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.

    Here, Paul gives us some of the things that this demon would cause; weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions and difficulties. Every time Paul turned around someone was opposing him or there were other troubles he had to face for the sake of the gospel.

     If we back up just a little in his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul gives us more examples of the torment caused by the impish angel.

2 Corinthians 11:23-28

 23Are they servants of Christ?--I speak as if insane--I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.

 24Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.

 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.

 26I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren;

 27I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.

 28Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches.

     We can clearly see that the scriptures never claim that Paul’s thorn was an eye disease or any other kind of physical disease. You see, physical healing is as vital a part of the new covenant as is our spiritual healing. Paul asked God to deliver him from the persecution he was undergoing not from a physical malady.

At a certain point in his ministry, Paul could have suffered from some damage to his eyes after being stoned at Lystra.

Acts 14:19

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.

     Undoubtedly, being stoned would cause serious bodily injuries. The entire purpose of stoning is that of capital punishment. Some Bible scholars believe Paul actually could have died when he was stoned and that this was the time that Paul was taken to the third heaven, when he received his visions and revelations. There is no doubt that the people stoning Paul would not have stopped until he was pronounced dead.

    There are absolutely no grounds on which to base that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was sickness or disease. The satanic angel that followed him everywhere he went caused constant trouble to keep Paul humble. I am sure he was reminded of just how weak he really was as a human when these torments would occur and he would see God’s power at work daily. The church owes a debt of gratitude to Paul and the early apostles for their faithfulness in carrying to gospel to the world despite the suffering they endured.
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