A Thorny Subject: What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

If you’ve spent any time in Christian circles or studying the life of Paul, you’re probably like everyone else wondering what the deal is with Paul’s thorn in the flesh mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Paul goes on to say that the thorn was a “messenger of Satan” sent to harass Paul to prevent a conceited heart in Paul. What, pray tell, is Paul’s fleshly thorn? Inquiring minds inquire.

There’s no shortage of suggested solutions to that quagmire of a question. Answers abound. Was it an issue of sexual lust? Ophthalmia? Malaria? Migraines? Epilepsy? Speech impediment? An ongoing sin problem? Demonic opposition? Persecution? Anxiety about the churches he has established? Hymenaeus and Alexander (1 Tim. 1:20) as Chrysostom suggested? How about Calvin’s view that the thorn represented every kind of temptation and not one in particular? With an abundance of answers for the picking, one gets the impression that no one this side of heaven will know (except for Paul and God, of course). What I suggest below is not entirely unique to me (even though I came up with this conclusion independently of others), but my borderline dogmatism may be. In other words, I don’t think we can know with certainty what Paul’s thorn was, but by knowing how the phrase is used in the Old Testament, and through a contextual reading of 2 Corinthians, we may be closer to an answer than we think.

Old Testament Use

Paul’s use of “thorn” (σκόλοψ, skolops) in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is the only time the New Testament uses the word. In situations like this, it’s helpful to see if the Old Testament uses the word or phrase. As it turns out, there are four instances of the phrase “thorn in the flesh/side” in the Old Testament, and the use in every one of them is consistent. First, in Numbers 33:55 we read: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs (σκόλοπες, skolopes) in your eyes and thorns (βολίδες, bolides) in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell” (ESV). The Lord promises the Israelites that unless they utterly drive out the Canaanites from the Promised Land, the Canaanites will be a pain in their neck, or a thorn in their sides. Second, in Joshua 23, Joshua summons all Israel and warns them, saying that even though the Lord has graciously given them all this land, they will be driven out of the land if they marry Canaanites and do not drive them out utterly. Joshua 23:13 says that these pagan nations will “be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes.”

Third, more of the same occurs in Judges 2. In fact, the fulfillment of what the Lord says in Joshua 23 is seen in Judges 2. Because the Israelites did not obey the Lord, the angel of the Lord, speaking of the Canaanites, says, “I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you” (v. 3).  Finally, in Ezekiel 28:20-26, the son of man, Ezekiel, prophesies against Sidon. And this prophecy against Sidon is good news for Israel, as it points to a reversal of the mistreatment and contempt that Israel’s neighbors showed her. The Israelites will dwell in safety, because “…for the house of Israel there shall be no more a brier to prick or a thorn to hurt them among all their neighbors who have treated them with contempt…” (v. 24).

In each of these instances there is either the threat of God sending the wicked to the Israelites for their faithlessness to the covenant, or the promise of the wicked being removed. In all these passages we see the wicked, persecuting, troublesome, godless nations being a thorn in Israel’s side. These are antagonistic, hostile, subversive, and unbelieving people opposed to God and his people. This is how the phrase “thorn in side” and its parallels are used in the Old Testament. This fact becomes helpful in how we understand Paul’s context and thorn in 2 Corinthians.

Second Corinthians

We may be right in boiling down Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians thus: there’s much affliction, but even more comfort in the lives of God’s people, because their God is the God of all comfort. We see this theme of God comforting the afflicted from start (1:3) to finish (13:11). One source of affliction is Satan. Paul early in the letter recognizes the crafty, Satanic designs aimed at God’s people by tempting them not to forgive the repentant sinner in their midst (2:5-11). The theme of Satanic opposition and affliction doesn’t pop up overtly (i.e., using the term “Satan”) again until 11:14 when Satan is seen as an “angel of light.” But when it does pop up, its use is significant for our present purpose. Indeed, Paul uses the same word for “angel” in 11:14 as he does for “messenger” of Satan in 12:7 (γγελος, angelos), speaking of his thorn in the flesh. In chapter 11, Paul speaks of this Satanic deception in the form of “false apostles,” “deceitful workmen,” who are “disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (11:13). Because Satan is an angel/messenger of light, so are Satanic servants (v. 15). The emphasis of deceit and disguise recalls the garden of Eden where we read that the serpent was “more crafty” than all the other beasts (Gen. 3:1). Eve was right to point out that the serpent “deceived” her (3:13). Most significantly, this serpentine deception is noted at the start of 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul brings us back to the garden by highlighting the cunning serpent that is seeking to deceive the Corinthians (11:3-4). This is who Satan is; this is what he does. He’s the father of lies, the grand deceiver (John 8:44). So, is it any surprise that his children will likewise lie, deceive, and disguise themselves against God and his true messengers?

This is exactly what we observe in 2 Corinthians. Paul has to defend his apostleship throughout the letter. He has to refute false gospel (11:4), false apostles (10:12, 17; 11:13), and so-called “super apostles” (11:5; 12:11). These false apostles who are opposed to Paul and the gospel of Jesus Christ say that Paul is a hypocrite, that he is weighty while away but weak while present (10:1, 10). Clearly, Satan has sought to lead astray the Corinthians and to harass Paul by sending his serpentine servants to oppose Paul’s gospel efforts.

What does all this Satanic opposition have to do with Paul’s thorn in the flesh? All this contextual build-up helps us to see that Paul’s mention of his thorn is smack-dab in the middle of false apostles, deceitful workmen, servants of Satan. In fact, a brief outline of chapters 11-12 shows that in 11:1-15, Paul mentions these false apostles, in 11:16-12:10, he speaks of his sufferings and the thorn in the flesh, then he again speaks of the false apostles in 12:11-13. The connection should be clear. Paul sees his suffering in general, and his thorn in the flesh in particular, in the context of false apostle opposition. These apostles (false brothers, super apostles), like Paul, were messengers, but they brought a message of Satan, one that condemned and deceived, not one that saved.

What then is Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Paul tells us it’s a messenger of Satan. It’s these false teachers, viewed collectively in 12:7 (“messenger,” not “messengers”), aimed against Paul calling him an imposter (6:8). It’s an anti-Paul movement or group that opposed his apostleship, that sought to lead astray the Corinthians, and that was hostile to Paul as a true messenger from God confirmed by signs (6:8; 12:12), one whom God himself commended (5:20; 10:8, 18), evidenced further by the Corinthians themselves (3:1-3) and by Paul’s tearful affliction (6:4). Like the godless nations against Israel in the Old Testament (one might even call them offspring of Satan a la Gen. 3:15), Satan, by raising up false teachers/brothers/apostles, has kept up his deceitful opposition against God’s people (Corinthians) and God’s messenger (Paul).

The answer to the question seems quite plain (hence my borderline dogmatism). But there is a reasonable objection against this view. The objection reasons in this way. In 12:7, this thorn is given to Paul. Paul pleads with the Lord to have it removed. Therefore, the Lord gave this thorn to Paul. Why would he give Paul an anti-Paul group of false teachers/brothers/apostles? It seems counter-productive to God’s plan of spreading the gospel. There is much to be said about the relationship between God and deception, and I resist the temptation to pursue that here (as this post is long enough already). But let’s confine our answer to 2 Corinthians. What did Paul tell us? He told us that it was given him to keep him from being conceited (12:7) and to remind him that God’s grace is sufficient for him in his weakness (12:9). Paul can say that despite the “insults” and “persecutions” (12:10), he will rest upon Christ. After all, that’s exactly what he said when he began the letter. Paul, recounting all the affliction he experienced in Asia, was to the point of despairing for life. Why would God give him such affliction to the degree that Paul despaired of life? That question is just as difficult a question as the objection about God giving Paul an anti-Paul group of false apostles. What’s Paul’s answer? That intense God-given affliction in Asia was to make Paul rely not on himself but on God (1:9). That doesn’t sound too different from God sending the thorn to prevent conceit in Paul. After all, suffering has, as one object in mind, the need for reliance on God’s grace and comfort and not on oneself. Wasn’t that in part what God was saying to the Israelites? “Depend on me, not on those godless nations.” Isn’t that what God says to us? “Depend on me and my word and my gospel, not on teaching contrary to my word, not on your imaginations.” Perhaps that’s why also he would give Paul this thorn in the flesh.

     
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