In a recent thread there has been a rabbit trail that lead to some discussion on the nature of the "thorn in the flesh" that Paul spoke of in his second letter to the Corinthians. I thought I would start a new thread so as not to take away from the topic of that thread.
It has been proposed that the thorn was some sin that was in Paul's life. It has also been proposed that the thorn was a physical ailment, this is a view that I have held myself for some time. However, after reading the following article I have been reconsidering my position. Please read it for yourself and provide any comments you may have...
[b]The Thorn In The Flesh[/b]
(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
by Tony Warren
I. What is the Biblical Definition of a Thorn?
Many Theologians of our day have made the assumption that the thorn in the flesh which Paul testified of in 2nd Corinthians, was likely some physical ailment. The theories are that it was probably stammering speech, or bad eye sight. Many others make the supposition that we can't really know from the scriptures what the thorn in the flesh was. Has biblical hermeneutics digressed so far that comparing scripture with scripture is considered an option? Even the use of the common concordance would reveal the truth here. One of the first principles of sound biblical hermeneutics is that the scripture is it's own interpreter. i.e., they are not subject to private interpretation, therefore, before we can assign a meaning to any passage, we must search both the passage in question, as well as the whole Bible to to see how the word is used throughout scripture. We are careful to study to note if there are any other related verses or references. In this way, we have God, via His Word, interpret His Word. We cannot arbitrarily assume anything in discerning difficult passages. In the case of Paul's thorn in the flesh, simply looking up the word thorn throughout scripture and examining how "God" uses it, what it represents, and the context in which the word is used by Paul, would reveal what this thorn represented. The scriptures, both the Old and the New testament, are replete with examples. This term "thorn" is a common word found frequently used figuratively. Paul was very familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, and he surely used this term in the same way that it is used throughout scripture. Indeed, God is the author of these scriptures, and we would "expect" there to be consistency in the use of the word, in like situations.
"Know for a certainty that the Lord your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you".
God is not using this language of scourges in their sides and thorns in their eyes to signify some bodily disorder (as man would assume today) God is using them to illustrate that the people of these other nations will be entanglements for the Lord's people, to trouble them and cause them to fall. In the book of numbers, God uses the same language, but switches the use of the thorn to the side, and scourges to the eyes.
"But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell".
A thorn in your side "is" a thorn in the flesh. And contrary to popular belief, it's not a physical ailment, it's people who if left among the Children of God, would vex or trouble them. This is what the thorn in the side "signifies" in God's Word. Paul, being a man of knowledge of scripture would be very familiar with these terms and God's use of them. He is indeed inspired by God to use this term to signify people who trouble the children of God. The Judaizers, who were the enemies of God, were a thorn in the side of Paul, because they hated him for teaching against their doctrines.
"Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you".
These were the men who vexed the Lord's people, and whose god was not the true God. They would be a snare and trouble to God's Children. In fact, we use very similar language to describe those who vex us today. For example, we would say someone is, "a burr in our saddle." Another term we use is to say someone is, "a pain in the neck." These colloquial phrases convey the exact same meanings as Paul's thorn in the flesh. They don't mean we have some sickness, and they don't convey that we have literal pains in our necks. Likewise, Paul obviously isn't talking about a literal thorn sticking out of his flesh. He was simply using a common expression of those days, just as they are used in our day.
It is a common mistake to assume that the thorn in the flesh was desease or ailment that Satan gave him. But there is obviously symbolism involved here (since it's not a literal thorn), and when symbolism is involved, we have to let God's Word itself interpret the symbolism. We cannot privately interpret, make assumptions, or guess at what it might mean. We compare scripture with scripture to discern God's truth.
"And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among SCORPIONS: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house".
The briers, thorns, and scorpions are all symbolic of the people of Satan which come against the Lord's Children to vex them. These are the adversaries of God's servants who come to revile and trouble them. This symbolism holds true consistently in the New Testament scriptures as well as the Old (and why not, since it's all God's consistent Word). We can see this as Jesus talks about those who call themselves of God, yet are revealed by their fruits to be false messengers. i.e., by their fruits ye shall know them.
"For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes".
And so we see that consistently throughout scripture, the symbolism of what the thorns represent is clear. Here they are false teachers who are the enemies of God's people and come bearing no fruit. Their defining characteristic is that they are thorns and bramble (brier) bushes, not a tree from which to get fruit. Here we see the same consistent "signification" of thorns and scourges as those who vex the Lord's people. Jesus says they were those of Satan bearing no fruit, not messengers of God. Likewise, these thorns which were sent to buffet Paul were not of God, but messengers of Satan. In the book of Hebrews, God speaks of those fallen away from Him..
"But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.
But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany Salvation, though we thus speak".
Here we see the contrast between the messengers of God, and the messengers of Satan. One planting, whose work is signified as thorns and briers, and the other, who God says will bring forth better things, things which accompany Salvation. The clear illustration of thorns as the fruit of the wicked who are under God's judgment. And it's very important to note that though many noted Theologians make the claim that the thorn could represent an illness, not once does the Holy Canon use this term "thorn" to represent any physical illness or sicknesses. And in Biblical hermeneutics where scriptural validation or biblically based interpretation is paramount, that is most certainly not an insignificant FACT!
II. Other Defining Characteristics of Paul's Thorn
We have seen consistently what the symbolic thorn represents throughout scripture, now we can take what we've learned and see if it will fit consistently with both the content and context of 2nd corinthians chapter 12. The first thing that we notice is that God further defines the thorn in the flesh as, "The Messenger of Satan!" This is totally consistent with what we have learned. The example in Ezekiel 2 of the false messengers of Satan among the Children of Israel that God calls thorns and scorpions is the same signification that we have here. God's scriptural symbolism of thorns is totally consistent with messengers of satan, and totally contradictory to it being understood as an illness. For literal deseases and sicknesses are "not" messengers of Satan come to buffet us. Nowhere in scripture is the term Messenger of Satan ever used to describe an illness. That is also not an insignificant fact! But we all know that evil men (and particularly false teachers), are indeed messengers of Satan. The fact that we have no Biblical warrant or justification for calling this Messenger of Satan, a desease, or illness, should rule out any legitimate basis for calling Paul's thorn a sickness or illness. Unless for some extraneous reason we are simply predisposed to believe that. Thorns in the bible never signifies sickness.
Moreover, Satan has no more power in the body of the true Believer! He can send evil men against us, but we are a temple of the living God, and the Lord abides within us. Satan cannot indwell us, nor can he put deseases or illness in our body. God takes full responsibility for any short comings or sicknesses we get. Not a sparrow falls to the earth without His say so.
"And Moses said unto the LORD, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
And the LORD said unto him, Who hath made man's mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the LORD?"
God makes the blind, deaf, Dumb. He gives one sight, and another to have no sight. This is not the work of the devil. Satan had no power to put any desease or illness in Paul. How a Theologian could ever believe that Satan could buffet Paul with a physical illness is not clear. Satan buffets believers by indwelling others and then using them to persecute, revile, or kill us (which goes along perfectly with the thorn being unsaved men), but He cannot send illness in a believer's body. The real question is, why would bad eyesight, stammering speech, or any other physical disorder, be called a messenger of Satan. There is no biblical mandate or warrant for such a conclusion. What was vexing Paul is these Judaizers, messengers of Satan who followed him from town to town persecuting and reviling him. These are the thorns in the flesh that he wanted taken away. But God told him no, His Grace was enough. ..which brings us to God's purpose in allowing these thorns to remain.
III. What was the Purpose of the Thorn?
Those who believe that this was an illness are not carefully following the characteristics of this thorn. First, it is a thorn that even they realize is not literal, therefore it's symbolism must be prescribed by what is in scripture. And throughout scripture it is defined as men who trouble God's people. The second characteristic is that it is defined as the Messenger of Satan. And the third characteristic is that it was sent to buffet Paul. Is there any biblical instances where God says illness buffets anyone? No, this is not illness, that's those people who hated Paul and his teachings, and did everything in their power, including beating him, to stop him. The same Judaizers that persecuted and buffeted Christ.
"Then did they spit in his face, and BUFFETED him; and others smote him with the palms of their hands"
1st Corinthians 4:10-11
"We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.
Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are BUFFETED, and have no certain dwelling place;"
Paul was likewise despised and buffeted by the messenger of Satan. To him, they were thorns in his flesh who constantly vexed, reviled and persecuted him. These cast him into prison, and they beat him, and followed him from city to city. They made Paul's life very difficult.
2nd Corinthians 11:25
"Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep;"
And in this vexing and persecution by these thorns in the flesh, we can see why God did not remove it (just as He wouldn't for many of the martyrs). For tribulation is normal for the Christian, and Grace is sufficient, or enough for us. In this persecution, Paul (as are all of us), is kept from being exalted and prideful. We know that Paul was one of the most faithful men of the early Church, but as are we all, he was still a sinner Saved by grace. And as we all would be, tempted to be exalted.
2nd Corinthians 12:7
"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure".
Yes, these thorns keep Paul, and the rest of us, humble! God said (more than once) we "ALL" will have Tribulation in this world. And that included Paul, though He had seen Glorious things (2 Co 12:7) and received many revelations (Acts 9:3-6, 16:8-10, 18:9-11, 22:17-21, 23:11, 27:22-25, 2 Cor. 12:1-6) and was used mightily of God! Yet God says this thorn in the flesh would not be taken away, for Grace (His unmerited favor upon Paul) was enough for him!
Consider the context, Paul is talking about His being blessed to Know Glorious things, which He heard of a man whether in or out of the body, he could not say. He's talking about the Glory of God's Revelation and how he won't Glory in himself knowing all these things. He will Glory only that He can suffer for Christ! He wants no man to think of Him as something Special! That's the Humbleness of true Christianity, as opposed to pomp and pious ceremony and traditions. It has nothing to do with a healing physically, it has to do with the trouble and tribulation from wicked men which believers will have in this world, and how Grace is sufficient.
"These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world".
We are in Christ who has overcome the World, therefore can we be of good cheer in the midst of trial and tribulations when the messengers of satan come against us. In other words, in the World we don't have peace. Our Peace is with God, which puts us at enmity with the world, and with the messengers of Satan. This is the position in which Paul found himself, and yet God would not extract him from it. Because it may have been a cause of exaltation to do so, and God's Grace was enough!
IV. Paul's Reaction to this Thorn
Being human, just like the rest of us, Paul wanted to have this thorn, this messenger of satan removed. He wanted to preach the gospel without the constant trouble or vexing of those who hate him. ..sound familiar?
2nd Corinthians 12:8
"For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me".
We should find it difficult to believe that a man as strong and faithful as Paul, would be so distraught as to plead with the Lord three times to have mere poor eyesight or a physical ailment removed from him. It seems even on the face of it, in contrast to the rest that we read about Paul, to be odd. The fact is, there is nothing whatsoever in scripture that clearly supports the theory that Paul had some lingering illness which is described as a thorn in the flesh. There is clear evidence of the persecution and troubling by the Messengers of Satan who buffeted him. Letting the Bible be it's own guide, comparing scripture with scripture, it is consistently seen that the messengers of satan did these things. Why, and his reaction to it, is also clearly seen.
2nd Corinthians 12:9-10
"And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient 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.
"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".
In Paul's affliction he learned to surrender his own will to the will of God. He would acquiesce and take the buffeting by the messengers of Satan. He would take it patiently, and glory in his infirmities (weaknesses). The very same principle put forth in,
1st Peter 2:20
"For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God".
Paul prayed three times that the Messenger of Satan be removed from him, and God's answer came back, "My Grace is enough for you". This is not unlike when the Saviour in Gethsemane prayed three times, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Luke 22:42). It's a demonstration of surrendering our will to the will of God! There is a basic and practical lesson here, related to Humility. It is a trait which is evident in the Children of God, and absent from the children of men. God knows that strength is made perfect in our weakness. Outside influences help to keep us humble. For it is in these times of weakness and hardship that the Lord's strength can be experienced most. It's in these times that we really come to recognize our infirmities (weaknesses), and to depend upon the Lord, rather than our own strength or wisdom!
Paul says He would "gladly Glory in his infirmities (-2nd Cor. 12:9)". Yes, rather than bemoan his troubling circumstances, he will glory in them, for in them he has the opportunity to experience the power of Christ. He says "I take pleasure in infirmities, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (-2nd Cor. 12:10)".
"Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered."
This isn't talking about our physical sickness, but about our spiritual weaknesses. We should understand that the Greek word infirmity is [astheneia], and it's from the root word [asthenes] a negation of strength, meaning weakness. We can see in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul speaks of perils and painfulness, suffering shipwrecks, hardships because of his preaching the gospel message, and in verse 30 calls it infirmities, saying He will glory in this. This is not physical sickness, but hardships under which he suffered and endured. In speaking of persecution of God's people, we read in Hebrews:
"Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness, were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
That word translated "weakness" is the exact same word [asthenes] translated infirmities. In these times of weaknesses, Children of God are made strong, and it can be a time of rejoicing.
"By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
And not only so, but we GLORY IN TRIBULATIONS also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly".
In weakness, that can be a time in which to experience the strength which only Christ can give. For he alone is without our weakness of sin. And that infirmity is not physical, but a sin weakness.
"For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin."
Again here we see the word infirmity used in the sense of frailty or weakness. It's at these times of infirmity when we more perfectly develop character that is pleasing to God. It's when we throw our hands up and surrender to the will of God that we know true contentment. Not my will, but Thine be done. When we are tried and buffeted by the Messenger of Satan, it works patience in us that we learn to depend on Christ for Strength. And this was Paul's infirmity that He would glory in.
"My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;
Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.
But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing".
This is an example for all of us. God knows what is best for us, and the answer to our prayers may not be what we wish, but it will always be what we need. This is the valuable lesson we glean from the scriptures here. The Lord would not give Paul what he prayed for, what he wanted, but He would give Paul what he needed. What was sufficient for His Salvation. And that wasn't deliverance out of times of tribulation. In the big picture, Paul has everything, and the Messenger of Satan had nothing, because Paul has the Grace of God which is sufficient! It indeed would be the answer to all his prayers, for in all things we pray, "Not my will, but Thine be done!"
It is not only possible to determine the nature of Paul's "thorn in the flesh," but it is incumbent upon us to compare scripture with scripture in order to do just that! Paul parallels the "thorn" with an infirmity or "weakness" in which he will glory for Christ's sake, and in 2nd Corinthians 10-13 he links his weakness with persecution. Paul says that this thorn is a Messenger from Satan, which is never identified with sickness or illness in scriptures. The word messenger always refers to a human being or angel. By contrast, Thorns are seen continually in scripture, a signification of those who are of Satan.
2nd Corinthians 11:29-33
"Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?
If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.
The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not.
In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me:
And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands".
These men persecuted and troubled Paul, and in this pleading with God for deliverance, Paul would learn patience and where his help is. In this would Paul glory, not in that He was used marvelously of God and received great revelations.
2nd Corinthians 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".
Paul desired and prayed that this Messenger of Satan be removed from Him three times. The number three is the number of God's Purpose and will. It was not God's will that Paul have no persecution nor trouble from the Messenger of Satan. God tells us, We all shall have it. Indeed, through this trouble, Paul would be brought to a closer dependence upon Him, wherein his strength is made perfect in weakness. God's answer to Paul's prayer was that His Grace was sufficient for him. The Salvation of God was enough! The Lord didn't remove this Messenger of Satan, He instead gave him the strength to endure it. And in this, Paul could glory, and rejoice in the Power of Christ.
2nd Corinthians 13:3-4
"Since ye seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, which to you-ward is not weak, but is mighty in you.
For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you".
Such is the end of the matter. Paul rejoiced in his weakness, that the power of Christ rested upon him. Paul came to understand Grace was all that is necessary. It wasn't necessary that Paul's work go un-fettered, or that He be allowed to preach un-persecuted by the Messengers of Satan, for it's not by works, but by Grace we are Saved. And these persecutions and troubles only made him strong in the Lord. They worked patience. We are not justified by anything we do, but by Grace. And it was sufficient!
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;
Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour;
That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life".
So why do many theologians misinterpret Paul's thorn to mean sickness? In many instances, the reason is as simple as the word "motive." Some who are against the cessation of signs and healings do it in an attempt to prove that the Devil can place sicknesses in believers, and therefore they are given the gift of healing to combat it. Still others who are for the cessation of Signs and Healings do it in an attempt to prove that Paul couldn't heal himself, therefore they reason this gift of healing was not meant for the Church after the canon was completed. Ironically enough, in their zeal to prove the cessation of the signs gifts, many of the cessationist camp "choose" to do something they don't normally do, which is to ignore the "Sola Scriptura" policy and pay no heed to the pertinent scriptures, in order to claim that this thorn was an illness. But the end doesn't justify the means, and their motive clouds their judgment. While on the other hand, many of the anti-cessationist camp rightly search the scriptures and present scriptures which prove that this thorn in the flesh Messenger of Satan was not illness. In this, they have it right, even though in the big picture, they have it all wrong.
God made it clear that Jesus bore our sickness and infirmities, and that He did it by the cross. It was our sin sickness that He went to the cross to heal, not our physical sicknesses. The Signs and wonders which He did in healing physically, were "types" pointing to the power of His blood. But the Thorn in the flesh which was the Messenger of Satan was not physical illness. It was the persecutors of God's servants. It's normal for the believer, and they had to endure it! Grace was enough.
In this world we "shall" have Tribulation God says! That's the nature of true Christianity! It always has been. People hate you, and what you say. When you come with the truth of the gospel, that's a given. They therefore revile and persecute you because of it. These are the thorns in the flesh, the Messengers of Satan. The reproaches, the necessities of life, the persecutions and the infirmities, yes Paul had them. We all do.
Every Christian has some illness at sometime in their life. But Satan didn't give it them to them! Illness isn't a Messengers of Satan placed in our body and sent to buffet us. That's an unsound and unbiblical position. Satan works from without the body, through other evil men, not from within the Temple of God, which is our Body.
On the other hand, when the scriptures themselves say that this Thorn in the flesh was "A Messenger of Satan" I'd say we're on safe ground saying (testifying) that it was a Messenger of Satan. Who would disagree? And since we know no Messenger of Satan is put within a Christian's body, and it's impossible for Satan to dwell there with Christ, and considering the myriad of scriptures (which I've only barely touched on) which illustrates that the thorns in believers sides as those Messengers of Satan, false Prophets, fallen congregationalists, evil men, etc., I'd say we're on solid ground. In other words, we have shown where a thorn in the flesh is used by God to symbolize those of Satan who come against, and buffet believers. God calls them "thorns in their sides!" Can anyone show us one scripture which says a thorn in the flesh (or side, hand, toe, anywhere) is a desease, ailment, or sickness? What I'm saying is, interpretations must have some Biblical foundation. It's the most basic rule of biblical hermeneutics. If we start out with pre-suppositions like "it's a physical ailment", we end up with mind block where we won't even consider other possibilities.
All the Disciples had ailments, and they all died from ailments. As You will die from an ailment, and I will die from an ailment (if Christ doesn't return before, or we're in an accident or killed). Ailments are a normal part of life, not a Messenger from Satan! The miracles the disciples did of healings were "signs." Significations for the scriptures. When the Holy canon was completed, the Signs and Wonders ceased! The Only prophesies of end time or future signs and wonders are references to Satanic activity (rev. 13, 2nd Thess. 2, matt. 24, etc.). Can I convince anyone of this? No, not in a hundred years of writings. But God can. Truth is discerned not by my writings, but by the Holy Spirit working within each believer, through the searching and careful consideration of God's Words!
..May the Lord who is Gracious above all, give us the Wisdom and understanding to discern His truth.