2 Corinthians 12:7-10

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

A Thorny Subject

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 him, used by God 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. Utter skepticism isn’t necessary, in other words.

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).

When we boil down the OT use of the phrase, therefore, 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 one’s side” and its parallels are used in the Old Testament. This fact becomes helpful and the only background grid through which to 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 and his demonic servants, as we’ve seen most especially in the last two chapters. 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 (ἄγγελος, 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 these 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’ve been observing recently in 2 Corinthians. Paul has had to defend his apostleship throughout the letter and the last few chapters are his defense in its most concentrated form. 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). It is by means of these Satanic servants that the Serpent of old has sought to lead astray the Corinthians and to harass Paul by opposing his 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 super-apostle opposition. These “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 and 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 (in our case, the Corinthians) and God’s messenger (Paul).

The answer to the question of the identity of Paul’s thorn 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, the objection goes, would the Lord give Paul an anti-Paul group of false teachers/brothers/apostles? It seems counter-productive to God’s plan of spreading the gospel. Is God shooting himself in the foot? It also doesn’t seem very loving of God to do to Paul his follower. There is much to be said about the relationship between God and deception, but a brief response may be better than nothing.

If you read Deuteronomy 13:1-3, you’ll see some of God’s first words on prophecy and false teachers. If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams comes, gives a sign, but gives a message against God, what are the Israelites to do? Not listen to the false prophet, of course! But notice that in verse 3, this whole prophetic scenario takes place only because of the Lord’s testing. The Lord stirred the pot! The Lord, in essence, is bringing a false teacher into the Israelite camp to test them: will they be loyal? Will they be lovingly devoted to him alone? How sovereign is your God? Is he so sovereign that he directs and uses error to test his people, that he might highlight the truthfulness of his own Word? If that’s not your view of God, then your view is contrary to the Scripture at that point. That’s how he dealt with the Israelites, and that’s how he dealt with Paul.

And what about Paul and 2 Corinthians? What did Paul tell us? He told us that it was given him to keep him from being conceited (12:7) because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations he had received. In this verse, Paul begins and ends with the Lord’s purpose in mind: to prevent a conceited heart. The only other time this word is used is in 2 Thessalonians (another of Paul’s letters), when he speaks of the man of lawlessness. This lawless man exalts himself against every so-called god and proclaims himself to be God! Paul knows well that knowledge can be used to puff yourself up. Look at yourself when you learn something; the temptation is there to be proud of yourself. Consider Paul, who had received great visions and abundantly great revelations. The Lord pulls back the curtain for Paul, shows him who-knows-what? Of course, it was awesome, then the Lord stealthily slips a thorn in Paul’s side. Surpassing revelations…then a messenger of Satan. This messenger was sent to harass Paul (literally, to beat him up). It sounds like God sent a mercenary to do his divine bidding. Would God really do that? He did it to Adam, to Job, to Israel, and to Paul.

And there was one more person who was tested, someone who came into the world with devils filled that threatened to undo him, someone who came into the world with thorns and thistles. In Matthew 4:1, it says that Jesus was up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. Who led Jesus? Satan? No way. It was God the Spirit! What did the Spirit lead Jesus to? To devilish temptations. To not merely a messenger of Satan, but to Satan himself, that Christ might be tried, tested, and opposed. And in those temptations, the Word of God is challenged; it’s perverted, twisted, softened, and subtly and craftily denied. God sends the Son to be tested, and that testing included the opposition of God’s very Word. God does not spare his own Son. And it was that testing that was essential to Jesus’ state of humiliation, as he retraced the steps of Adam, retraced the steps of Israel, and succeeded at every point in his thorny trials. At every point when Adam and Israel got pricked, beaten up, got “thorned and thistled,” they sinned. They compromised God’s Word. They failed. Not so with Christ. When he was tempted in every way as we are, when he was crowned with that thorny crown, he remained sinless. He held fast to the Word. He succeeded. He earned our much-needed righteousness.

God gave Paul that thorn of apostolic opposition to remind him that his grace is sufficient for Paul 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. When we fail to respond faithfully to God in our trials, we need not despair, because Christ is ours. Christ now by his Spirit is at work in our lives to sanctify us partly through testing. In the face of thorns, we can rely on God whose power runs through our spiritual veins. When we are tested and opposed, we are being driven back to the God of all comfort, whose Word is truth, and who cares for us. Christ’s power abides in us. When we are weak, then we are strong…because Christ!

  • Romans 11:33-36

    Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
    For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?
    For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

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