Paul's Thorn in the Flesh
We see repeatedly in 2 Corinthians how Paul is compelled against his will to defend his apostolic authority. He finds it distasteful and foolish to do so (cf. 10:8,17-18; 11:1,16-21,30; 12:5-6), but the well-being of the Christians in Corinth is at stake. They have left him no choice. "Boasting is necessary," says Paul, "though it is not profitable" (12:1). If those who question his authority are demanding apostolic credentials, he will provide them, not least of which are the "visions and revelations of the Lord" granted him (12:1).
Whereas on the one hand Paul acknowledges that referring to his heavenly experience is "not profitable" (v. 1), he feels compelled to describe it. Paul's point here is simply that such "visions and revelations" (v. 1), though exciting, are irrelevant to the question of apostolic authenticity.
Question: did these visions and revelations come "from" the Lord or were they "of", i.e, "about/concerning" the Lord? The fact is, Paul gives us no information at all concerning the nature and content of what happened. Perhaps both ideas are intended. Although he refers to "visions," there is no indication he "saw" anything, only "heard" unutterable words. However, given the obvious reluctance in Paul to give details about this experience, one cannot draw dogmatic conclusions about what he did or did not see, hear, feel, experience, etc. As for other "visions and revelations" given to Paul, there was his experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9; 26:19; Gal. 1:12), at Troas (Acts 16:9,10), twice at Jerusalem (Acts 22:17-21; 23:11), at Antioch (Gal. 2:1-2), at Corinth (Acts 18:9-10), and at sea en route to Rome (Acts 27:23-24).
The time of this experience would be approximately 41-42 a.d. (see below for the reckoning). The experience was so overwhelmingly intense or so utterly shrouded in mystery that Paul was unaware of whether he was in the body or out. Note: if so-called "out of the body" experiences were either impossible or occultic, Paul would not have said what he did here; clearly, he acknowledges at least the possibility of this sort of phenomenon, even if he remains unsure about whether that is what he himself experienced. Paul describes his experience in the third person ("I know a man . . .") because of his refusal to boast about his accomplishments and experiences. This is another example of how distasteful he finds this entire exercise in "boasting" and pointing to himself. The suggestion that he really had someone else in mind must be rejected for two reasons: first, vv. 6-7 clearly refer to Paul, and second, if it wasn't Paul, the entire discussion of his "thorn" and its purpose is meaningless.
Comments on important words and phrases:
· The word translated "caught up" is a form of the verb harpazein (used in vv. 2,4). Paul uses it in 1 Thess. 4:17 to describe the "rapture" of believers at the second coming of Christ. In Acts 8:39 we read that "the Spirit of the Lord caught up (or snatched away) Philip" and Rev. 12:5 refers to the "catching up" of Christ into heaven (a reference to his ascension to the right hand of the Father).
· The word translated "Paradise" (paradeisos) is found in only two other NT texts: Luke 23:43 (in Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross) and Rev. 2:7. It was used in the LXX to refer to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:8.9,10,15,16; 3:1,2,3,8[twice],10,23,24; 13:10; Num. 24:6; Isa. 51:3; Jer. 36:5; Ezek. 28:13; 33:8[twice],9; Joel 2:3). It may well be that Paul is portraying heaven as a restored "Eden."
· While in Paradise, Paul heard "unutterable utterances," an interesting paradox indeed! These are words that "a man is not permitted to speak," not because they are incapable of translation but because it is "unlawful" to speak them. They are things intended only for Paul (why? what might they have been?) and not for others on earth.
Barnett points us to the significance of this experience:
"The experience of being 'caught up' to the third heaven in apparent power was the necessary prelude to being brought down to earth in the weakness of the stake/thorn, where the . . . revelation of real power was given to him. Despite the grandeur of the experience, it was useless in authenticating his ministry; nothing he heard in Paradise was allowed to be told to others! . . . He had been humiliatingly let down the Damascus wall in a net like so much merchandise (11:33), only to be powerfully whisked up to the heights of Paradise to hear the voice of God – the whole point of the experience – where, however, upon his return, the things he heard were unutterable because he was not allowed (by God) to speak" (561-63).
Paul's point is this: he refuses to "boast" about the man who had been caught up to Paradise (which is precisely the sort of experience the false-apostles prized as self-authenticating), but he is more than happy to "boast" about the man brought down in weakness by the thorn.
It wouldn't be foolish for Paul to boast about such revelatory experiences, for they really happened. They are true. But so what? After all, the only "boasting" that counts is boasting in weakness, and he is happy to do that.
Question: Do experiences such as Paul's have any bearing on the qualifications or fitness of a person for pastoral or missionary ministry? What would Paul point to or put on his resume if asked for his credentials?
In 12:1-6 Paul has described his "translation" into Paradise, an event of such profound spiritual magnitude that it threatened to generate pride into his apostolic, though still sinful, heart. But in order to prevent Paul from falling into pride he was given "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 exalting myself" (v. 7). 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).
1) The source of Paul's "Thorn"
Where or from whom did the thorn come? The subject is left unexpressed: "there was given me." Most commentators recognize this as an example of what is called "the divine passive" in which "God is the hidden agent behind events and experiences in human lives" (Ralph Martin; cf. Mt. 7:2). 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. As Martin points out, "this word was usually employed to denote that God's favor had been bestowed (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]).
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.
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).
2) The nature of Paul's "Thorn"
Several things are to be noted:
First, 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 (Iliad 18.177), 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, as it were, to the ground 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 Cor. 11 would not petition the Lord so strenuously for the removal of some minor irritation that could be easily endured.
Second, note also that the purpose of the thorn was "to buffet me, to keep me from exalting myself" (12:7; a verb that means "to beat or strike a blow with a fist"; cf. Mt. 26:67). The present tense of the verb may be his 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.
There is another possibility. "Possibly 'three times' was 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)" (Barnett, 571).
Third, 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 that 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 (cf. 1 Cor. 7:28 where Paul describes those who marry as having "affliction for the flesh"). If one adopts the second view, Paul is more likely to be describing a thorn that was relational in nature (see below). However, Calvin wrote:
"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).
Fourth, what exactly was the thorn? There are four broad categories in which we may classify the many and varied interpretations.
1) Roman Catholic interpreters have based their interpretation on the Vulgate 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? No. Would Paul have boasted about sexual weakness (12:9)? No. Would Paul have acquiesced contentedly to its power in his life (12:10)? No. Also, this view conflicts with 1 Cor. 7:1-9 where Paul refers to his having received the gift of celibacy.
2) Some believe that the "thorn" was an emotional 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, 4:8 and 6:10.
3) Many take the view of Chrysostom, a famous preacher of the fourth century. He was the first to suggest that the thorn is simply a reference to all the enemies of the gospel who opposed and persecuted Paul during his evangelistic and theological labors. Alexander the coppersmith and Hymenaeus and Philetus are among the first who come to mind (see, 2 Tim. 2:17; 4:14). Taking the term "Satan" in its Hebraic sense of "adversary," "thorn in the flesh," would be a collective and figurative expression for all of Paul's adversaries: those who contended with him and fought against him, those who cast him into prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death, etc. In effect, the "thorn" is a collective reference to all those who were responsible for the sufferings he described in 11:23-33. R. V. G. Tasker explains:
"As there is nothing which tends to elate a Christian evangelist so much as the enjoyment of spiritual experience, and as there is nothing so calculated to deflate the spiritual pride which may follow them as the opposition he encounters while preaching the word, it is not unlikely that Chrysostom's interpretation is nearer the truth than any other" (176).
Appeal is made to 2 Cor. 11:14-15 where Paul's opponents are described as the "servants" (lit., "ministers") of Satan, who is himself "an angel of light" (but note that in 12:7 the word is "messenger", not "servant"). We are also reminded that in the LXX this word "thorn" is twice used metaphorically of one's enemies (Num. 33:55; Ezek. 28:24). Thus, when Paul speaks of his "thorn" he means something similar to our modern idiom "a pain in the neck".
If this is the correct interpretation, the word "flesh" would then be a figurative expression referring neither primarily to his physical body nor to his fallen nature but simply to himself, to who he is and what he does as a minister of the gospel, to his whole earthly existence (i.e., "these enemies are a constant source of pain and inconvenience to me; they are an irritating thorn in my side," or something similar).
It should also be noted, in support of this view, that the verb "to buffet" or "to beat with a fist" is generally inter-personal, i.e., is used of activity among people. Moreover, the verb translated "depart" in v. 8b is also used in the NT of persons.
A related view is that of Barnett who contends that the thorn refers not so much to Paul's enemies in general but to the Judaizing, anti-Paul movement which was so obviously present and active in Corinth. Others have rejected this suggestion, contending that it is unlikely Paul would have said that God gave him something as evil as the Judaizing movement. Furthermore, it seems reasonable to conclude that the thorn was given to Paul immediately subsequent to the heavenly rapture. The latter occurred in 41-42 a.d., but Paul did not enter Corinth and encounter opposition there until some eight to nine years later.
But there are problems with this view:
(1) The singular "a messenger of Satan" of v. 7 and the singular "it" or even "he" of v. 8 is hardly a clear and unmistakable way to refer to an entire group of people. If Paul had his opponents in mind, he chose an especially obscure way to make his point.
(2) Paul has already said in 2 Cor. 4:7-15; 6:9-10; and 11:23-28 that opposition and persecution are normal for every person in ministry. No servant of Christ is exempt from such resistance. Yet, Paul describes his thorn as something uniquely his, given to him for a particular reason subsequent to a truly singular event. Is it likely that Paul would have prayed to be delivered from an experience which was the common and expected lot of all who shared his faith?
(3) Paul says he received this thorn "fourteen years ago" (12:2). Since we know that 2 Cor. was written in either late a.d. 55 or early 56, Paul could have received his thorn no earlier than a.d. 41-42 (at which time Paul would have been in his native Syria-Cilicia [Gal. 1:18,21; 2:1; Acts 9:29-30; 11:25]), a full eight years after his conversion to Christ (assuming, as most scholars do, that Paul was converted in @ 33 a.d.). Yet we know from Acts 9:23-30 and elsewhere that Paul encountered Satanically inspired opposition to his ministry from the moment of his conversion.
(4) As Ralph Martin puts it, "would the apostle pray to be spared persecution? This is doubtful, since persecution was the fuel on which Paul seemed to thrive. The more he was persecuted, the more he seemed determined to press the claims of his apostolate." And Paul knew better than anyone (cf. 2 Cor. 2:12-17) that the success of the gospel was not in his power to control, but rested with the providential oversight of God.
On the other hand, Paul does solicit prayers for protection from those who are his enemies. See Rom. 15:30-31; 2 Thess. 3:1-2 (cf. 2 Tim. 3:10-11; 4:16-18). Perhaps we should understand this to mean that whereas Paul anticipated persecution everywhere he went and knew that it was an inescapable part of his calling, he asked others to pray that this opposition not result in the silencing of his voice or perhaps the loss of life.
4) Another view is that the "thorn" is a reference to some form of physical affliction.
C. K. Barrett contends that it was a speech impediment, possibly a severe stutter (10:10; 11:6). But Paul readily denies dependence on rhetorical eloquence. Furthermore, if Paul stuttered or had a more severe form of speech impediment, it was most likely something he had from childhood, at least. Yet, he says here that the thorn came in response to his heavenly experience only fourteen years earlier.
Other suggestions offered down through the centuries include epilepsy (an affliction experienced by Caesar, Napoleon, Cromwell, Muhammad), malaria, gallstones, kidney stones, gout, deafness, dental infection, rheumatism, earaches, headaches, sciatica, arthritis, and leprosy.
Most have adopted the view that Paul suffered from a severe case of ophthalmia or conjunctivitis. In Gal. 4:13-15 he said,
"But you [Galatian Christians] know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you for the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness, that if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me."
Evidently Paul suffered from a painful eye affliction that was especially humiliating, because loathsome and repulsive to others. Although the statement in v. 15 may only be figurative, emphasizing the sacrificial love the Galatians had for Paul, it is just as likely an indication that this loathsome illness from which he suffered was related to his eyes. We should also note that Paul closes his letter to the Galatians by saying, "See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand" (6:11), "a statement one is tempted to understand in terms of some sort of ophthalmic disability" (Belleville, 306).
It has been suggested that perhaps Paul contracted this eye affliction as a direct result of the visionary experience. In other words, the brightness(?) of the experience, the impact of what he "saw," damaged his eyes. Some argue that he suffered from something similar to solar retinitis, an affliction caused by staring improperly at an eclipse.
[There is another interpretation of Paul's thorn that I mention here only to show the extremes to which some people will go in their attempt to make the text say what they want it so say. Charles Capps, in his booklet Paul's Thorn in the Flesh (Dallas: Word of Faith, 1983), offers a totally fanciful interpretation of the purpose of the thorn. According to Capps, when Paul says "to keep me from exalting myself," he is referring "to the fact that if it had not been for the messenger of Satan assigned against Paul to stir up trouble, to cause him problems everywhere he preached, Paul's revelations would have been exalted till they would have influenced the whole nation. But he was not able to preach them freely, for Satan hindered him on every hand" (14). But note that it was Paul who was inclined to self-exaltation, not his "revelations." Perhaps what Capps means is that Paul would himself have been exalted above measure in the sense that everyone would have listened to his gospel and would have accepted it as true, had not Satan prevented it from happening. But this is in conflict with the fact that this "revelation" Paul received (vv. 1,7) was never intended to be proclaimed to others. It was given to him in "inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak" (v. 4). It would seem that in his attempt to evade the force of this passage, Capps has turned it upside down. In other words, Capps argues that Paul's thorn in the flesh was not a good thing to keep him from doing a bad thing (namely, be puffed up in pride), but a bad thing to keep him from doing a good thing (namely, proclaim the "revelations" he received in Paradise)!]
3) Concluding Observations
First, Paul learned something about divine providence and how to respond to it. His reaction in v. 9, once the Lord had declined his request three times, was not one of stoical resignation to an inexorable fate, but a joyful delight in the privilege of being an instrument for the manifestation of Christ's power.
Second, although Paul willingly embraced his thorn, it was only after he had passionately prayed that it be removed. Clearly, Paul believed that physical affliction was something from which we are to pray to be delivered. In other words, neither Paul nor we should embrace physical affliction as being God's will unless shown otherwise by death or divine revelation. Paul was shown otherwise by divine revelation and happily embraced it at that time.
The question has been raised: "Who is the 'Lord' to whom he prayed? God the Father or God the Son?" In view of the response he receives in v. 9, clearly it is God the Son. In v. 9, the "Lord" to whom he has prayed says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." He then identifies this power as the "power of Christ" (v. 9b). The deity of Christ is thereby affirmed once again.
Third, Paul learned the value of human weakness: it provides a platform for divine strength. This does not mean that we are to seek out suffering on our own. Paul is not encouraging morbid, self-imposed suffering or asceticism. His affliction was God-given, for Christ's sake. Paul's joy was not in pain but in his realization of the complete adequacy of God's grace in Christ to meet his every need and to transform his weakness into an opportunity for the glory of Christ to be displayed.
"Only a morbid fanatic can take pleasure in the sufferings he inflicts upon himself; only an insensitive fool can take pleasure in the sufferings that are the consequences of his folly; and only a convinced Christian can take pleasure in sufferings endured 'for Christ's sake,' for he alone has been initiated into the divine secret, that it is only when he is 'weak,' having thrown himself unreservedly in penitence and humility upon the never-failing mercies of God, that he is 'strong,' with a strength not his own, but belonging to the Lord of all power and might" (Tasker, 179).
Fourth, note the word in v. 9 translated "dwell" in me. This is a rendering of the word episkenose, which is used of the tabernacle of the old covenant where God is described as 'pitching his tent' with his people (Ex. 40:34). This word is also found in John 1:14 describing the incarnation of the Word (he "pitched his tent" among us). It is also used to describe God's future dwelling with His people (Rev. 7:14; 12:12; 13:6; 21:3). "In what has been described as a 'bold metaphor,' Paul teaches that Christ in his power 'pitches his tent' with his saints in their weaknesses. Ecstasy has all the appearances of divine power; but the reality is otherwise. Christ draws near to us, and gives his grace and power to us, in weakness" (Barnett, 575). See especially 1 Peter 4:14.
For those with an understanding of Greek verb tenses, there is much to learn here, for "the Lord's reply is in the perfect tense: 'He said to me --- and what he said continues to hold good. . . .' Moreover, the content of his words to Paul is in the present tense: his 'grace' 'is sufficient' (present tense) and his power 'is being made perfect' (present tense). The stake/thorn remains, and Paul continues to be buffeted. But the Lord's reply stands: his grace is sufficient, his power is being made perfect in the unremoved 'weakness' of the stake/thorn" (Barnett, 573).
Fifth, observe that in v. 9 Paul says "I will rather boast about my weaknesses." The word "rather" implies a comparison. In comparison with what does he prefer this boasting? He probably has in mind his rapture to the third heaven described in vv. 1-6. His point, then, is that "such an experience, astonishing though it doubtless was, does not accredit his apostleship. He will make nothing of it, that is, 'boast of it.' 'Rather' than boast of his ecstatic, (non)-revelatory experience, he 'will most gladly boast' of his 'weaknesses'" (Barnett, 575).
Sixth, Paul learned that his spiritual purity was more important to God than his immediate physical pleasure. Of greater value to God than Paul's comfort was Paul's holiness. If, in the divine wisdom, it was necessary to give him pain in order to protect him from pride, Paul was willing to yield to the divine purpose. If, as God saw it, the best way to make Paul humble was to make him hurt, so be it.