The thorn in Paul’s flesh has been the topic of discussion for many years. There has been many different ideas as to what this particular thorn was and I believe this is important to understand because many have built theologies and ideologies around what they believe this thorn represented. Some conclude this thorn to be a physical sickness or infirmity, even blindness is widely embraced to be this infirmity. Others believe the thorn to be a struggle with sin Paul was having difficulty overcoming. Yet still, others believe that this thorn represents literal demons oppressing or indwelling Paul in which he needed deliverance from. All of these are schools of thought in which the accurate interpretation and meaning is unsettled even among the greatest biblical scholars.
I will attempt to biblically prove what I believe the thorn in Paul’s flesh represented and the message I believe he was trying to relay to the disciples in the church of Corinth.
“Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my INFIRMITIES. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, A THORN IN THE FLESH WAS GIVEN TO ME, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:5-10 NKJV)
One of the initial things we have to do in order to create an accurate perspective is bring definition to certain words and concepts. Paul had a unique way of writing and would often use certain words, phrases, and analogies that were familiar to his audience. As an apostle, he would bring revelation to the scriptures by proclaiming what was written, then bringing new definition and understanding as to how the scriptures impact them in relation to the message of grace through Jesus Christ. The “Thorn in the flesh” is not a new concept. In fact, This language has been used throughout the Old Testament. Paul simply used language the people were familiar with in order to get a particular message across. Here are some examples.
“But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and THORNS IN YOUR SIDES, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell.” (Numbers 33:55 NKJV)
“Know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. But they shall be snares and traps to you, and SCOURGES ON YOUR SIDES AND THORNS IN YOUR EYES, until you perish from this good land which the Lord your God has given you.” (Joshua 23:13 NKJV)
“Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be THORNS IN YOUR SIDE, and their gods shall be a snare to you.’ ” (Judges 2:3 NKJV)
These scriptures plainly show that the use of the word “THORN,” as in “THORN IN YOUR EYES” or “THORN IN YOUR SIDE,” throughout the Old Testament is used as a metaphor. Whenever “thorn in your side” is used it is not referring to sin or sickness. Instead, it refers to literal nations, people, or messengers who were allowed or sent to be irritants or messengers of persecution. This lines up perfectly with Paul’s statement and does not contradict Paul’s revelation about how we are given grace to overcome sin, sickness, and disease. Jesus said persecutions will come, which explains His allowance of this particular messenger (aggelos) of Satan to buffet him.
Now, concerning the term “infirmity” in 2 Corinthians 12, lets look at the context. Although, infirmity can mean sickness or disease. Is this the case in Paul’s discourse? Paul was known to be a very prolific writer and would use words he knew the readers would clearly understand. Why don’t I believe the infirmity spoken of by Paul in 2 Corinthians is physical illness or him being filled with demons? Because, there are several words Paul could have used to describe the nature of the infirmity. In the Greek language, several words are translated as infirmity. Here they are.
Peirasmos: Temptation or test. Paul used this word in relation to sinful temptation or tests.
Nosos: Disease or sickness. This was was used in the Gospels and Acts when referring to diseases leaving people when demons are casted out.
Malakia: Illness, weakness, or sickness
Astheneia: Want of strength, weakness, illness, suffering, frailty. This refers to an ailment or burden that deprives someone of enjoying or accomplishing what they would like to do. This word focuses on the handicaps that come with the weakness.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul uses the last word, astheneia, to describe his infirmity. In fact, a more accurate word to use instead of infirmity is weakness. This word is used because of the nature of his situation which is found in the text. Whatever this thorn in his flesh was became a BURDEN to his ministry. He was HANDICAPPED from being as effective as he could because of this THORN, this MESSENGER OF SATAN. He did not think he would be able to accomplish his assignment while this messenger was in his midst and had to receive the word of the Lord that God’s grace is sufficient. So, I believe the thorn in Paul’s flesh represented persecution that was faced through an individual or group of individuals that were demonically sent to distract him and through the various obstacles he faced at that time. Throughout this discourse of scripture, Paul connects this infirmity or weakness with the many disadvantages that were brought to him and the persecution he has faced as a minister of Christ. Nevertheless, his posture agreed with his co-laborer, James. He was determined to count it all joy and boast when trials, persecutions, and weaknesses were before him because he knew they all added up to his maturity in Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul connects infirmity with persecution.
Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my INFIRMITY. (II Corinthians 11:23-30 NKJV)
His infirmity, according to the context dealt with that descriptive list of persecutions and moments of frailty and weakness which he encountered. Although persecutions may come due to the gospel and heavenly revelation, God’s grace is sufficient!