August 7, 2016.
“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.”
(II Corinthians 12:7)
Paul’s thorn in the flesh was mentioned, somewhat in passing, in a lesson that I heard this past week. Though this is a rather well known passage amongst Christians, there is no true consensus as to what Paul’s thorn actually was. In this post, I would like to share my thoughts on his thorn and how it applies today. THough I believe I have a solid foundation as to why I think the thorn is what I will propose (it is not a new proposition, but I don’t think it is the majority view either), I begin with humility, fully aware that I could be very wrong about this. However, I believe the story can give us valuable insight and find application in each of our lives. Let us take a few minutes to contemplate what Paul’s thorn could be.
It is always important when we look at a passage in scripture to take it in context, both the context of the book and the context of the writer, to get the purest understanding of what the author is trying to get across in any given writing. We find Paul’s statement here in his second letter to the Corinthians (or third, depending on if you take the view that II Corinthians actually has two of Paul’s 4 known letters to the christians in Corinth). In context, Paul is defending his apostleship to a group of people to whom he himself had brought the gospel originally, yet now they were being led astray by “super-apostles” who were teaching another Jesus and another gospel than that of which Paul first brought. Imagine the emotional pain Paul must have been in here, as we know his extraordinary love for this group of people. It almost seems as if Paul is closer to the Corinthian church than any other church that he founded when we read through the Corinthian letters. But now these people that he deeply loved were questioning whether or not he truly had authority as an apostle, especially when compared to these other “apostles” whom it it would seem were very charismatic and persuasive in speech (II Cor. 11:5-6). Paul uses the greater portion of chapters 11 and 12 to defend his apostleship to them, a task that he feels like a fool for having to boast in such a way.
In Paul’s boasting, he speaks of a time that he was caught up to the third heaven, or paradise (we’ll leave the exact meaning of that phrase for another day) to receive surpassing visions and revelations from the Lord, things that man could not even utter. If Paul wasn’t already known as a rock star in the early church, this experience alone would solidify his position. Because of this special position that he was given by the Lord, and the likely consequence that would follow (pride), Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh,” a “messenger of Satan” to keep him from becoming conceited.
As we are contemplating the nature of Paul’s thorn, I think we should note that the sufferings and persecutions that he mentions in chapter 11- labors, imprisonments, beatings, stonings, lashings, anxiety, etc.- are likely not to be the thorn that he describes in the next chapter, since this thorn is talked about in addition to these sufferings. Paul is in the middle of boasting (like a madman, in his words) about his sufferings for Christ. It would not make much sense, to me at least, that the thorn he was given to keep him from being conceited would be something akin to the very things he was boasting about to the Corinthians here to defend his authority.
So what was Paul’s thorn? There have been many possibilities given. Some would say that it was sickness, others a physical disability such as poor eyesight or a speech impediment. Still others would say it was specific outside persecution or physical suffering that he was going through. Though these positions have their strengths, I don’t think it was any of them. I think Paul’s thorn was a deep struggle with temptation/sin. Let me break down why I have come to this conclusion.
A thorn in the flesh
When I think of the phrase “in the flesh,” especially when it is used by the apostle Paul, I immediately think of the war between the spirit and the flesh. Flesh is often used in the New Testament to denote worldly desires and temptations to sin. We see that this is how Paul uses the phrase when he was writing to the Romans:
“Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members“
(Romans 7:13-22, emp. mine)
Paul also clearly uses this metaphor when he is writing to the Galatians:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other,to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions,envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience,kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
(Galatians 5:19-24, emp. mine)
Paul sets the flesh against the spirit, and explicitly links the works of the flesh to specific sins. I do not think it is a stretch, then, to propose that this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote about his “thorn in the flesh.”
Those who take the position that Paul’s thorn was persecution from the people around him will sometimes note that Paul could be referencing what the Lord said through Moses he talks about his thorn:
“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 in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.”
They note how the enemies of Israel would becomes thorns to the Israelites if they were not driven out of the land. However, I think that if Paul was referencing this passage, then he was still making the point that his thorn was temptation. Think about it- why would (and did) the Canaanites who were not driven out of the land be thorns to them? Because they would entice them to sin. God’s warning here did not have to do with physical harm, but rather the apostasy that would and did follow when the children of Israel followed after the gods of the other nations. Thus, I think this reference could be a solid foundation for Paul’s thorn to be temptation to sin.
A messenger of Satan
Earlier in II Corinthians, Paul warns the Corinthians not to be outwitted by Satan when he is pleading with them to forgive the man, presumably, who was disfellowshipped by Paul’s recommendation in his first letter (see II Corinthians 2:5-11 and I Corinthians 5, respectively). This sets precedent in his writing that Satan was actively seeking to lead he and his audience astray through temptation and sin. This is a consistent teaching given throughout the New Testament. Jesus tells Peter that Satan had demanded to have Peter to tempt him, just before He told Peter of his denial (Luke 22:31). Paul tells the Thessalonians that he was afraid that the tempter had tempted them and led them astray (I Thes. 3:5). And of course, there is that famous passage in I Peter 5:8 that tells us that the devil is a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. It makes much more sense to me that a “messenger of Satan” would be one that brings temptation, not a physical disability. I will grant that an argument of merit could be made from the story of Job. However, I think the New Testament cast Satan in the role as tempter more than one who brings physical ailments.
To keep Paul from being conceited
I also believe we need to take into consideration of the purpose of the thorn, why Paul was given it in the first place. Paul was given the thorn to keep him from being conceited. Why would Paul have been conceited? Because of his position and intimate relationship with the Lord. Not many, even in Paul’s day, were given the opportunities and revelations that Paul was. In many ways, he was a special and chosen vessel for the Lord, unique among believers (Acts 9). What then would have keep him from becoming conceited?
We already touched on this earlier, but I do not believe physical suffering would have kept Paul from being conceited. In context, physical suffering and persecution is exactly what Paul is using to boast and defend his apostleship. I also do not think a physical disability would have kept him grounded. He has already admitted to knowing that he was not a very good speaker (II Cor. 11:6). It would seem that this did not hinder his self confidence nor prevent him from knowing where his strengths were. What then would keep Paul from being conceited in Christ?
I posit that it would be the same thing that keeps any of us from being puffed up: our own weakness to temptation and sin. Think about it? When do you feel most unworthy to be called a Christian? Is it not right after you have fallen? I know this is the case for me. I feel even more unworthy when I fall to the same temptation that I have given into time and time again in the past.
We looked at Romans 7 in a point above to see how Paul uses the phrase “in the flesh” when he is talking about sin. Notice what Paul says at the end after he has described his turmoil with the war of temptation that raged within him:
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
It would seem to me that temptation/sin was the thing that was most effective in keeping Paul grounded. He spends the better portion of Romans 3 describing how no man was worthy to stand in the presence of God, for all are filthy in sin. If Paul’s conceit would come from his position in the church and his special revelation of righteousness, I believe the best way to keep him aware of who he was in relation to God and others would be a messenger of Satan to tempt him, likely successfully. Paul was boasting of the physical suffering that he had endured for the cause of Christ. He would never boast about his sin, except to emphasize and glorify Christ, who took his sins away (more on this later).
“My grace is sufficient…”
Finally, I think we can learn about the nature of Paul’s thorn from the message that the Lord gave Paul in response to his prayer. Paul earnestly prayed three times that the thorn be removed from him. (Side note: this prayer for his thorn to leave him also resonates with me as indicative of his thorn being a specific temptation, as I have often prayed for specific temptations to leave me.) However, the Lord tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you…” What is the point of grace?
“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Grace comes to deal with sin. Paul makes this connection here and then uses the connection in the next few verses:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Whenever Paul talks about grace, it is typically, if not always, in conjunction with salvation from sin or describing what is given in spite of sin. Perhaps the most well known passage about this is found in Galatians:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We are saved by grace, for the grace of God is what covers our sins. Could it not be, then, that Paul’s thorn was temptation/sin? God’s answer to sin is grace. Thus again, I do not think it would be too far of a stretch to propose that God’s answer to Paul indicates that Paul’s thorn was temptation/sin.
So let’s say this is the correct interpretation of Paul’s thorn. Does it stop there? Was this just an academic exercise to study the bible? I think that if we just leave it there, feeling good that we have come to a conclusion about a mystery of the text, then we have missed the point entirely. The passage continues past the thorn, and Paul’s message to the Corinthians is not to inform them about his weakness, but rather to transform them through his weakness. Better put, the point is for Christ to transform all of us through our weakness.
“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.”
(II Corinthians 12:9-10, emp. mine)
Paul uses his thorn as a lesson to the Corinthians, that the power of God is shown through our weakness. Paul endured the thorn, pain, suffering and persecution all by the grace of God, and through this endurance, the power of Christ was exalted. There are two very important lessons that I think we need to take from this passage, especially if Paul’s thorn was temptation/weakness:
1. Power is perfected in weakness. It is truly amazing that God can take the vilest of sinners and use them in His plan of glory. He took those who crucified the Lord and used them to become the foundation of the church (Acts 2). Note the power of the grace of God, that it covers all sin. No matter how “bad” you have been, God’s grace will be sufficient for you. Paul reflects on this in his own life, noting how God gave him overflowing grace and further used him as a chosen vessel even though he was, in his words, the foremost of sinners when he is writing to Timothy:
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal,invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
(I Timothy 1:12-17)
The power of God is shown in a transformed life. Some of the most influential testimonials are those that comes from a life that has gone from one end of the spectrum, deep in sin and darkness, to the other, flourishing in the grace of God. Some of the best apologetics for christianity are lives that were once so opposed to Christ that there was no chance that they would ever embrace him, yet somehow (i.e. through the grace of God), they were completely changed. We are made strong through our weaknesses, for we show others that it is not through our own strengths and abilities that we stand, but rather we stand by the power of Christ.
This is why we should not hide our weaknesses, our failures. Sharing our struggles humbles us and lets others know that we are not any better than them. It lets the world know that we are sinners too, yet sinners washed in the cleansing blood of the Lamb. It is through this power, this grace, that we can break off the chains of sin and darkness and embrace abundant life and true joy. When we hide our sin, we become prideful and we are bound for a fall.
2. Weakness is not an excuse, but rather an opportunity. Too many times do christians say “I can’t spread the gospel because I (insert weakness here).” We are plagued with thinking that we are not good enough, or we don’t know enough, or we just don’t have the right set of attributes to contribute to the kingdom of God. Brothers and sisters, this is simply not true. The truth is, God’s power is perfected in our weakness. Earlier in II Corinthians, Paul has this to say:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.”
(II Corinthians 4:7-12)
Though we are jars of clay, riddled with weakness, we have been given the message of surpassing glory and the task of taking this message to the world. God knows that we are weak. Yet He chose us to proclaim the message anyway. Paul goes on to say:
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
(II Corinthians 4:13-15)
Our job is not to be perfect. Our job is not to win every soul without fail. Our job is not even to save the world. Our job, rather, is to believe, and thus to speak. Christ’s power is made perfect in our weakness. Therefore, we must never use our weakness as an excuse as to why we cannot work in the kingdom. There is no zero talent man (Matt. 25:14-30). Each of us have a role to play, not in spite of our weaknesses, but rather through our weaknesses.
Brothers and sisters, we have a job to do. Let us let Christ use our weaknesses to bring many to glory. Weakness is not an excuse. It is an opportunity.
Suggested reading: Romans 5-7, II Corinthians 11-12.
May the grace of God be sufficient for you.