Summary: For many years, I have understood and taught that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical sickness, most likely poor eyesight, that God had ordained that he keep so as not to be lifted up in pride. However, some time back, I began studying the Scripture
For many years, I have understood and taught that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical sickness, most likely poor eyesight, that God had ordained that he keep so as not to be lifted up in pride. However, some time back, I began studying the Scriptures on the subject of prayer, something I had done many times, but I began seeing some things in some new light, and it caused me a certain amount of confusion, concerning this passage dealing with Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
In Mark 11:23, I discovered that Jesus said that we were to talk to the mountain in our life about God, instead of talking to God about the mountain. Now, I know other people have seen that, and it’s old hat to them, but for me, it’s a new way of praying. I might add that I have seen some tremendous results by simply praying like Jesus said to pray. In many other instances of Scripture, I see Paul, in the authority of Christ, commanding demonic spirits to come out and sick people to be healed. Yet, here, it says that he asked the Lord three times to take this from him.
In Matthew 8:16-17, I both discovered something and came to a point of confusion. I discovered that when sick people were brought to Jesus, He healed them all. He did not say to any of them, “It’s not My will for you to be well,” or “I’ve got a purpose for you to be sick.” After 30 years of making the study of the Bible a major priority in my life, I got to thinking, and I could not think of a single case where Jesus told a sick person that He was unwilling to heal them; except, this one case: Paul’s thorn in the flesh. What confused me about this was Matthew 8:17, where it says that Jesus healed all these sick people who were brought to Him “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses.’” I had always understood and taught that this meant spiritual sicknesses, but it is clear that in this verse it is applied to people who are physically sick, not to mention the fact that the sinners problem is not spiritual sickness, but spiritual deadness, according to Ephesians 2:1. Matthew 8:17 quotes Isaiah 53:4. If Isaiah 53:4-5 are to be interpreted that Jesus bore our physical sicknesses, then a Christian should not have to be saddled with sickness. But, Paul’s thorn in the flesh kept coming to my mind. It appears that Paul had to have this thorn, and I could not reconcile it with Matthew 8:16-17, nor could I explain Matthew 8:16-17 any other way than that it applies to physical sickness.
I have long ago settled in my heart that the Bible is the infallible word of God, and that when passages seem to contradict one another, it is a matter of my lack of understanding, and not a problem with the correctness of the Bible. Therefore, more study is needed on my part on these passages. I will share what I have discovered about Paul’s thorn in the flesh:
The Reason For It
In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul said it was “lest he should be exalted above measure by the abundance of revelations.” As previously mentioned, I had always assumed that to mean lest he be too prideful, and when I read this verse in the New International Version, it added to my thinking this very thing. The phrase, “lest I should become exalted above measure,” is the Greek word “huperairomai,” meaning “to raise oneself over,” so it becomes extremely easy to conclude this is something God did to Paul to keep Him humble. I believe it is sound biblical interpretation to say that this is something that God allows to happen to every Christian, and that the result is that we realize daily our dependance on God.
The Identity Of It
Verse 7 says that it was “a messenger of Satan sent to buffet” him. Paul did not say that it was the Lord’s doing, but he said that it was a messenger of Satan. Did God allow it? Yes, because Satan can nothing beyond that which God gives him permission, or we, through ignorance or rebellion, give him permission to do. But there is no real evidence that this messenger of Satan was a sickness. The reason that people so quickly conclude that it was sickness is, I believe, four-fold: 1) It makes a very convenient explanation for us, concerning our own lack of health; 2) in verse 9, he says he will “boast in his infirmities;” 3) in chapter 4:13-15, he speaks of “preaching to them in the physical infirmity of the flesh,” and how, “if it were possible they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him;” and, 4) in chapter 6:11, he says, “you see how large a letter I have written to you with my own hand.”