Paul's Thorn in the Flesh (2) (2 Cor. 12:7-10)
As noted in the previous meditation, there are four broad categories in which most of the interpretations of Paul's thorn have fallen. We now turn our attention to the two most popular (and likely) views.
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 opponents: those who contended with him and fought against him, those who cast him into prison, those who beat him, who 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 2 Corinthians 11:23-33. R. V. G. Tasker takes this view and 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 often made to 2 Corinthians 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, on this view 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).
A related view is that of Paul 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. Craig Keener also believes this view to be the likely one: "It is not difficult to envision ‘an angel of Satan' stirring crowds to persecute Paul; it is also possible that the opposition includes the agents of Satan against whom Paul has been railing (11:13-15)" (240).
Others have rejected this suggestion (rightly so, in my opinion), 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.
There are other insurmountable problems with this interpretation.
(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 Corinthians 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? I don't think so.
(3) Most decisive against this view is that the fact that Paul says he received the thorn "fourteen years ago" (12:2). Since we know that 2 Corinthians 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 he 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) Finally, 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" (415). 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.
One more comment is in order. My sense is that the primary reason many have embraced this view is that they are uncomfortable with the idea that God would afflict any of his children (and certainly not an obedient and faithful apostle like Paul) with a disease and then decline to answer their prayer for healing. They also struggle with the notion that disease or a lingering and painful physical malady of any sort can have a redemptive or sanctifying purpose in God's economy.
But we must not allow a theological presupposition to dictate what the biblical text can or cannot mean. The data in the text itself must determine the most likely interpretation. And when all is said and done, I'm persuaded that the "thorn" is a reference to some form of physical affliction.
A few have argued 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, malaria, gallstones, kidney stones, gout, deafness, dental infection, rheumatism, earaches, headaches, sciatica, arthritis, and leprosy (has anything been left out?!).
Many have adopted the view that Paul suffered from a severe case of ophthalmia or conjunctivitis. In Galatians 4:13-15 he said,
"You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged 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 distressing 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 with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand" (6:11), a statement consistent with his suffering some sort of ophthalmic disorder.
Could it be that Paul contracted this eye affliction as a direct result of the visionary experience itself? 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 becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations," 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 was never intended to be proclaimed to others. He heard "things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (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). Of course, in saying the thorn was a good thing I'm not suggesting it was inherently good, but only that it was designed by God to accomplish something beneficial in Paul's spiritual growth.
In conclusion, many have noted (and I agree) that there was great pastoral wisdom in Paul's decision not to identify the thorn in the flesh. If he had been any more specific as to its nature, those who themselves never suffered from the same affliction could easily conclude that the passage has no bearing on their lives. But in leaving the door open, so to speak, concerning the nature of the thorn, each of us is able to identify with Paul's struggle and to learn and grow from the way in which he yielded to the sovereignty and sufficiency of divine grace. And to that we now turn our attention.