What Was Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh?

THORN IN FLESH_bannerThe phrase “thorn in the flesh” came from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians – 2 Corinthians 12:7: “Therefore so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me…” There are several speculations in Christiandom about what this thorn in the flesh is. Some posit it is a sickness, some disease – some going as far as suggesting that Paul suffered from an eye problem. The truth though is that the idea of God afflicting Paul (or any Christian) with a disease or ailment will be inconsistent with the New Covenant. And it would be counterproductive for God. Indeed it attacks the very foundation of the new covenant. The prophecy of the atonement of Jesus, upon which rests the entire new social contract with mankind called the New Testament repudiates the notion of God afflicting his children with disease: “But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done. He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5 NET) Apostle Peter would echo this prophecy millennia down the line, writing as follows: “He (Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree (cross), that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wound(s) you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24) If Jesus went to the cross to effectuate our healing it would be self-contradictory of God to put on his beloved children those same disease for which his first Son died to save us from. Concerning the anointing of Jesus the Bible says: “And you know that God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. Then Jesus went around doing good and healing all those who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38 NLT) That sickness you have is not God punishing you for some sin you committed. Jesus took our sicknesses on him on the cross. The beatings inflicted on Jesus provided healing for your body. Lay claim to the rights you have in Christ Jesus and don’t buy the lie of the devil. Healing is an embedded part of the atonement. By the stripes of Jesus you were healed. Let your faith bring forth the efficacy of that which has already been accomplished on your behalf. If we sin the Bible says we should simply confess our sins to God and ask for his forgiveness. “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.” (1 John 1:9 NLT) Once we fess up our sins to God, God says the matter is closed. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from ALL unrighteousness. God is not a man. He keeps his word about forgiveness of sins. It’s the devil who keeps reminding us of sins, that we might deem ourselves unworthy of the favour and mercy of God. You are the righteousness of God in Christ sin or no sin. (1 Corinthians 5:21) That righteousness is a gift and it was bestowed the moment you gave your life to Christ. (Romans 5:17, Romans 3:22) It’s not something you earn. It’s not a reward for being sinless. Righteousness is credited to you the moment you believed in Christ. (Romans 4:24 AMP) You can’t become born again again. You get born again once! You never cease being a child of God, even when you sin. It’s why the prodigal son was still called a son despite his life of debauchery. And he called God his father. Just come home. God never stopped loving you. It’s the righteousness of Jesus that makes you acceptable not your own righteousness. And you can’t be unborn again. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 1:13-14, 2 Corinthians1:22) The seal of the Spirit is your guarantee of salvation. God cannot lay a sickness on Paul or any child of God. It contradicts the terms of the atonement of Jesus. Therefore the “thorn in the flesh” Paul wrote about CANNOT be a disease.

But in order to facilitate our understanding let’s look at the context in which Paul was speaking. One of the great misfortunes in Christiandom is the taking of scriptures out of context – the isolating of text in passages of scripture. Let’s look at the context of this statement.

Paul had been having serious issues with the Corinthian church. It was an incredibly gifted congregation. God bestowed so much grace on that church. Paul wrote, “I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. Through him, God has enriched your church in every way – with all your eloquent words and all your knowledge.” (1 Corinthians 1: 4-5) But the Corinthian church was immature and so full of carnality. Holy Communion had become a status thing. And because they could not discern the Lord’s body and ate the bread unworthily, many became sickly and some even died. (1 Corinthians 11:30) In that same church a guy was dating his step mum. (1 Corinthians 5:1) The city of Corinth, which provided context for the church, was an extremely libertine city. Being immature Christians the Corinthian church easily got carried away with nonsense. They were quite gullible when it came to spiritual things. And so they fell prey to false apostles, out for the money. They were mesmerized by the smooth eloquence of these so–called apostles (Paul derisively called them “big-shot apostles”). These fake apostles were actually preaching another Jesus – a different message under a different spirit. But it all sounded convincing. The Corinthians couldn’t tell the difference.

Paul had some kind words for these fake apostles: “‘Money grubbing” preachers.” “They’re a sorry bunch – pseudo apostles, lying preachers, crooked workers – posing as Christ’s agents but sham to the core.” (2 Corinthians 12:11-15 MSG) He called them “impostors who rob your freedom, rip you off, steal you blind, put you down – even slap your face.” (2 Corinthians 11:20 NLT) They weren’t Christian ministers. They were agents of Satan posing as ministers of God. Fake men of God are as old as Christianity. “And no wonder! Satan does it all the time, dressing up as a beautiful angel of light. So it shouldn’t surprise us when his servants masquerade as servants of God.” (2 Corinthians 11:15) But Paul wrote that these false preachers would not get away with it: “In the end they will get the punishment their wicked deeds deserve.” (1 Corinthians 11:15 NLT)

Paul’s satirical argument is that if the Corinthians could tolerate the eloquence of these fake apostles surely they could tolerate a little bit of foolish boasting from him too. And so he launches into a narrative of his accomplishments and adventures in Christ. If these people could brag about being Jews, why, he Paul was also a Jew. And he’s been jailed, beaten up, for preaching the gospel. He’s been flogged five times with the famed “39 lashes” of the Jews, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummelled with rocks. He’s had to fend off robbers, he says. He’s been endangered by desert heat and sea storm, betrayed by fake brothers. He’s known drudgery and hard labour. He’s even had to scale a city wall, lowered in a basket to escape the arrest warrant of the government of King Aretas and run for his life. You’ll find all this in 2 Corinthians 11.

Then he goes into an account of his visions and revelations in 2 Corinthians12. 2 Corinthians12 is a continuation of 2 Corinthians11. Remember Paul didn’t chapterise his letter, we did. He was “hijacked” to Heaven twice by Jesus, he said. And he heard some confidential stuff – top-secret information the narration of which will violate the Official Secrets Act. “Because of the extravagance of these revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head,” Paul said he was given a “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)

What exactly was this thorn in the flesh? The answer is right there in Paul’s letter. No need to go on a voyage of discovery. Our penchant for not reading what comes before and after verses of scripture we’re interested is what makes us miss so much of God’s revelation. Context is key to understanding scriptures. To understand the context of a piece of scripture you must read what comes before (pre text) and what comes after (post text). Sometimes we have to go a chapter or two like we did in this article. It’s not the verses of scripture we cram that matter, it’s our UNDERSTANDING of what we’re reading. We do know from Paul’s letter that the “thorn in the flesh” is some being: “…a thorn in the flesh was given me, a MESSENGER OF SATAN to trouble me…” So we do know this “thorn” was Satan’s agent, not a disease. The assignment of this Satan’s agent was “to torment me” Paul wrote. Your sickness is not a “thorn in the flesh” from God. Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not a sickness. God is not punishing you with disease. He’s not condemning you either. There’s no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) What Satan did was dedicate a special agent to Paul to organize insurrection against him and harass him. Everywhere Paul went there was trouble. Sometimes the people would come from one town to another. Sometimes there were mob riots, even trade union protests. (Acts 19:23-41)

But God allowed the situation for his own end, which is to keep Paul humble. Which is why despite Paul’s repeated entreaties God kept telling him, “My grace is all you need. My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into it’s own in your weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8 MSG) And Paul was specific about what this special agent doing against him. The over-arching theme was harassment. The whole purpose was to cut him “down to size.” He organized “abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks” against Paul. (2 Corinthians 12:10) Think of this guy as a clandestine secret service agent fermenting trouble, organizing protests everywhere Paul went. Paul was God’s special agent and Satan deployed a special agent against him. It’s CIA vs. KGB. And that’s the story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh.


If you’ll like to give your life to Christ please pray this prayer: “Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus. I know that I am a sinner. I believe Jesus died for me and that you raised him from the dead. I confess with my mouth that Jesus is Christ is Lord and I receive him as my Lord and my Saviour. I am now born again. Amen.”

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