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Paul's Thorn in the Flesh (1) (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

It seems reasonable, does it not, that an experience of the magnitude Paul describes in vv. 1-4 would serve to subdue and perhaps even eradicate sinful impulses from his soul? How could sin possibly continue to exert its influence in the heart of a person who saw and heard the things Paul did? Surely anyone who has been blessed with such a stunning privilege as was Paul would forever cease to sin. Surely anyone who heard such transcendently glorious things as fell on the ears of the apostle would be set free from sinful ambition and self-aggrandizement. Well, not exactly.

It's nothing short of shocking that rather than being wholly sanctified by his transport into Paradise, Paul is immediately stirred to pride. As he reflected on his experience, it seemed only natural for him to conclude: "I must be special! No one else that I know of has entered the third heaven. There's obviously something unique about me that captured God's attention and warranted his favor." Well, not exactly.

The result of his "visions and revelations" wasn't humility but hubris, not gratitude but presumption, not holiness but arrogance. This isn't to say that revelatory experiences are sinful, only that Paul is.

Have you ever prayed like this: "Oh, Father in heaven, if only you would transport me into your glorious presence I am convinced that I would be able to overcome this sinful addiction with which I daily struggle. If only you would disclose to me the marvelous revelatory truths that Paul saw and heard, I would have strength to resist all sin. If only you would grant me an experience like his, I'm sure that I would be humbled beyond words and filled with gratitude to such a degree that the mere mention of sin would turn me away in disgust." Ever prayed that prayer? I hope not. Here's why:

"So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

It was in order to prevent Paul from falling into pride that he was given what one has called "a bridle that held him back from haughtiness." Whatever Paul's thorn may have been, there can be no mistake about its purpose: "to keep me from becoming conceited" (v. 7). The thorn was no accident. God's hand is evident at every turn. As Paul Barnett notes:

"This verse [v. 7] is powerfully intentional; each of these elements is purposive: the 'thorn' was given to Paul lest he be 'over-uplifted,' to buffet him, lest he be 'over-lifted.' It was God's will for Paul" (567).

We will devote several meditations to this truly remarkable paragraph. So let's begin with a number of questions and observations.

First, where or from whom did the "thorn" come? What is its source? Observe that the subject is left unexpressed: there "was given me" (v. 7a). Most commentators recognize this as an example of what is called "the divine passive" in which God is the unidentified cause or hidden agent that accounts for certain events in human experience. It is a conventional use of the passive voice to avoid mentioning the divine name.

Had Paul wanted to say that Satan was the ultimate source, he probably would not have used the Greek verb didomi, the word typically employed to indicate that God had bestowed some favor (cf. Gal. 3:21; Eph.3:8; 5:19; 1 Tim. 4:14). If Satan were the ultimate source of the thorn, more appropriate Greek words were available to express that thought (e.g.,epitithemi, "lay upon" [Lk. 10:30; 23:26; Acts 16:23]; ballo, "cast" [Rev. 2:24]; or epiballo, "put on" [1 Cor.7:35]; see Ralph Martin, 412).

That God is the ultimate source of the thorn is also evident from its purpose, namely, to prevent Paul from being puffed up in pride. Satan would have loved nothing more than for Paul to feel elated, elite, and arrogant as a result of his experience. Whatever Satan's role in the thorn may have been, you can rest assured it wasn't his design that Paul be kept humble!

But if the thorn was from God, why does Paul say it was "a messenger [lit., ‘angel'] of Satan"? We must remember that God often uses the devil to accomplish his purposes (cf. Job; 1 Cor. 5:5). Although Satan and God work at cross purposes, they can both desire the same event to occur while hoping to accomplish through it antithetical results. Satan wanted to see Jesus crucified, as did God the Father (Isa. 53:10; Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), but for a different reason. The same is true in the case of Job. What Satan had hoped would destroy Job (or at least provoke him to blasphemy), God used to strengthen him.

The same is true here. Although we can't be sure, it seems likely that the demon was not acting consciously in the service of God. Most likely by God's secret and sovereign providence this demonic spirit was dispatched to Paul intent on oppressing and thereby hindering (or even destroying) his ministry. The divine design, however, was to keep Paul from sinful pride and to utilize this affliction to accomplish a higher spiritual good (cf. 12:9-10).

Our second concern is with the nature of the "thorn". What exactly was it? We begin by noting that the word translated "thorn" is found only here in the NT. In classical Greek it was used with reference to a pointed stake on which the head of an enemy was impaled after decapitation, or in reference to spikes used to impede a siege force. More commonly, though, it simply referred to a splinter or thorn stuck in the body. Paul apparently envisions himself impaled by this affliction, pinned to the ground, as it were, and thus rendered helpless by it. This must have been an excruciating condition, whatever it was, for the man who willingly endured the sufferings and anguish and deprivations listed in 2 Corinthians 11 would not petition the Lord so strenuously for the removal of some minor irritation that could be easily endured.

Note also that the purpose of the thorn was "to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited" (v. 7). The verb "harass", also translated "buffet", means "to beat or strike a blow with a fist" (cf. Mt. 26:67). The present tense of the verb may be Paul's way of telling us that the affliction recurred periodically throughout his life and was even at this time bearing down heavily and painfully on him. This is confirmed in v. 8 where Paul says he prayed three times that he might be delivered. Perhaps the affliction had flared up on three distinct occasions when its humiliating effect would have been most evident. Or again, the reference to his three-fold prayer may simply be Paul's way of likening his suffering to that of Christ's in Gethsemane, who also petitioned God three times but was not delivered.

Others explain the "three times" differently. According to Barnett, "three times" may be "a conventional symbol for repeated prayer. . . . Threefold actions appear to have been customary in matters relating to piety (cf. John 21:17; Acts 10:16); prayer was offered three times a day (Ps. 55:16-17; Dan. 6:10,13)" (571).

Of greater importance is that the thorn was "in the flesh" (v. 7). The Greek permits either of two translations, depending on how one interprets Paul's use of the word "flesh". If "flesh" is a reference to his physical body or his "mortal existence," in the flesh is the appropriate rendering. That is to say, the thorn was embedded in his body, as if some sort of physical malady or some experience battered his body in an extremely painful way. However, if "flesh" refers to his fallen nature, for the flesh or with regard to the flesh would be more accurate. If one adopts the second view, Paul is more likely to be describing a thorn that was relational in nature (see below). John Calvin contends for a slightly different nuance:

"I for my part think that this phrase is meant to sum up all the different kinds of trial with which Paul was exercised. For here in my view flesh does not mean body, but rather the part of the soul which is not regenerate, so that the meaning would be, 'To me there has been given a goad to jab at my flesh for I am not yet so spiritual as to be exempt from temptations according to the flesh'" (159).

We now come to the question everyone asks: What exactly was the thorn? There are four broad categories in which we may classify the many and varied interpretations. We'll take up the first two now and the other two in the subsequent study.

Roman Catholic interpreters have largely based their interpretation on the Vulgate (or Latin) translation, stimulis carnis, a "stimulus" to the flesh. Thus they take it to be a reference to inordinate sexual desire or lust.

But would God have told Paul to cease praying for deliverance from sexual lust? I don't think so. Would Paul have boasted about sexual weakness (12:9)? Again, no. Would Paul have gladly acquiesced to its power in his life (12:9-10)? Absolutely not. Furthermore, this view conflicts with 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 where Paul refers to his having received the gift of celibacy, which at minimum would have entailed a greatly reduced (or at least controllable) sexual drive.

A second option is that the "thorn" was an emotional or psychological problem from which Paul couldn't shake free, perhaps hysteria, periodic bouts with depression, debilitating feelings of insecurity, etc. Although Paul does refer to his "depressed" state prior to the coming of Titus (2 Cor. 7:6), there is no indication this was a recurring problem for him. See especially in this regard, 2 Corinthians 4:8 and 6:10.

In the next meditation, we'll turn our attention to the two most likely interpretations of Paul's thorn.

To be continued . . .