Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology

What Was The Thorn In The Flesh

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

by Tony Warren

I. What is the Biblical Definition of a Thorn?

    Many of the theologians of our day have made the assumption that the thorn in the flesh that Paul referenced in 2nd Corinthians was likely some physical ailment, but what was Paul's thorn in the flesh? The majority theories are that it was probably stammering speech, arthritis, malaria, bad eyesight or some other illness or malignity. Others believe that we can't really know from the scriptures what this thorn in the flesh was. One would wonder if biblical hermeneutics have digressed so far that "comparing scripture with scripture" is now not even considered an option? Even the use of the common concordance would reveal much of the truth of this idiom used here. One of the first principles of sound biblical interpretation is that the scripture is its own interpreter. In other words, the Bible is not subject to our assumptions, personal opinions or private interpretation. Therefore, before we can assign a meaning to any passage, we must search both the context of the passage in question, as well as the Scriptures as a whole, to see how the word is used throughout the Bible. A sound Biblical system takes care to note if there are any other words or passages that might somehow relate, and in this way surrender to God (via His infallible word) as the interpreter of His own word. We must not arbitrarily assume or guess at anything in discerning the meaning of difficult passages.

In the case of Paul's thorn in the flesh, we look up the word thorn throughout the Bible and examine how "God" uses it, what it most often represents, and the context in which the word is found. This will help reveal what God intended this thorn of God to represent. The scriptures (both the Old and the New Testament), are replete with examples illustrating the thorn that would vex God's people. It is a common word that is frequently used very figuratively exactly the way Apostle Paul was using it. He of course would be very familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, idioms and symbolism. Under inspiration of God, he surely used this term in the same way that it is used throughout the Old Testament books, and being God authored we would "expect" there to be harmony and consistency in the use of the word. For example:

Joshua 23:13

God is not using this language of a scourge (piercing or pricks) in their sides and thorns in their eyes to denote some bodily disorder as many might assume today. Rather, God is using these terms to signify people who were not covenanted children of God who would be entanglements for the Lord's people, vexing or causing them spiritual affliction. They are represented as "scourges and thorns" in their sides and eyes to signify that they will trouble them and cause them to not see things clearly. In other words, these foreigners will be their nemesis to frustrate them in serving their Lord. Likewise, in the book of Numbers, God uses these same type idioms, declaring these who were not of God would be pricks or scourges in their eyes and thorns in their sides.

Numbers 33:55

Saying they would be a thorn in their side is synonymous with saying they will be a thorn in the flesh. Their side is heir flesh. Understanding this, we can understand these were the people who were thorns in Paul's flesh and who constantly vexed or abraded him. Number chapter 33 is no more illustrating that God's people would literally have thorns in their sides than 2nd Corinthians was illustrating that Paul would literally have them in his flesh. It was symbolic language pointing to an irritation that these people in bondage to Satan would cause them, even as a thorn, burr or scourge would in your flesh or side. God's Word in numbers was that if they are left among the Children of God, they would vex or trouble them in their own land. That's why God uses the imagery of thorns, because as anyone who has come in contact with them knows, they are an agitation. These thorns didn't represent any physical ailments, but rather spiritual vexation of God's servants. Allowing scripture to interpret Scripture, this signification becomes clear. Paul, being a man of great knowledge of the scripture, would be very familiar with these terms and God's use of them as idioms illustrating this vexation. In the apostle Paul's case, it is very clear from Scripture that it was the Judaizers, the enemies of he gospel, who tormented Paul as if a thorn in his flesh. Moved of Satan they followed him and persecuted him because they hated that he was teaching against their doctrines, and was spreading the revelation of the doctrines of Christ. The thorn is illustrative of the people who detest, frustrate (in one sense) and cause spiritual problems for the Children of God. Look at another example we find in Judges:

Judges 2:3

Again, these were the unsaved represented by God's Word as thorns, and they would be a snare or trap to the Lord's people. They would ensnare and trouble God's Covenant people, enticing them in their worldly lusts and wickedness that they serve other gods. In fact, we use very similar language to describe those who vex us today. For example, have you ever heard anyone say a person was like "a burr in his saddle?" Or have you ever heard someone say that a person was, "a pain in the neck?" These colloquial phrases convey the exact same meaning as Paul's thorn in the flesh. They don't mean we have some physical sickness, and they don't convey that we have literal pains in our necks. Likewise, Paul isn't talking about a sickness in his flesh either, rather he was using a common expression of those days, just as we use many in our day.

Ezekiel 28:24

Thorns are common expressions used to convey pain, vexation, irritation, distress, trouble or torment. While it is a common supposition by some Christians that the thorn in the flesh was disease or an ailment, but these aren't messengers of Satan. What Satan sent to vex him was not physical disease, but his messengers, people ruled by his spirit to trouble him throughout his ministry. There is obviously symbolism involved here (since no one to my knowledge considers this a literal thorn), and sound hermeneutics dictates that when symbolism is involved, we have to let God's word itself interpret the symbolism by comparing Scripture with Scripture. We cannot righteously assume, speculate or guess at what the imagery might mean.

Ezekiel 2:6

The briers, thorns and scorpions are all "symbolic" of messengers or servants of Satan that come against the Lord's children to vex and ensnare them. Why does God say they should not to fear their words? It is Because they are messengers of Satan, and their words cannot harm the true believer. These wicked messengers are symbolized also as scorpions because they are enemies of God and come with the power of Satan (Luke 10:18-19) to sting, just like the thorns that prick and torment. This symbolism holds true consistently in the New Testament scriptures as well as the Old since it is all God's wholly divinely inspired harmonious Word. We see this even as Christ talks about those who call themselves of God, yet are revealed by their fruits to be false messengers. In other words, by their fruits ye shall know them.

Luke 6:44

Figs and grapes are symbolic of the fruits or works of the messengers of God, while thorns and bramble are symbolic of the works of the messengers of Satan who are sent to vex and trouble you. We see this consistently throughout scripture, for the symbolism of what thorns represent is not ambiguous, but very clear. They are those who are not of God, who come as the enemies of God's people, bearing no fruit. Their defining characteristic is that they are thorns and bramble (brier) bushes, not a tree from which you will find the fruit of figs or grapes. Again here we see the same consistent "signification" and contrast of thorns and scourges (pricks, bramble) against the Lord's people. Christ says they were messengers of Satan bearing no fruit, not messengers of God. Likewise, the thorn which was sent to buffet or beat Paul was not of God, but a messenger of Satan. Was not the apostle Paul buffeted or beaten by the enemies of God? This interpretation is consistent throughout the context and indeed the whole Bible. Again, in the book of Hebrews, God speaks of those fallen away from Him in this same way:

Hebrews 6:8-9

Here is that same contrast between the messengers of God, and the messengers of Satan. One planting signified as thorns and briers (thorn bush), and the other planting God declares brings forth better things that accompany salvation. The clear illustration of thorns as the wicked who come under God's judgment to be burned in the fire. And it's very important to note that although many noted theologians may claim that the thorn could represent an illness, not once does the holy Bible use this term "thorn" to represent any physical illness or sicknesses. And in Biblical hermeneutics where scriptural validation or biblically based interpretation is paramount, that is most certainly not an insignificant fact. What was Paul's thorn in the flesh? All Scripture points to it being a messenger of Satan, sent to beat Paul and constantly impede, harass and persecute him.

II. Other Defining Characteristics of Paul's Thorn

We have seen consistently what the symbolic thorn represents throughout scripture, now we can take what we've learned and see if it will fit consistently with both the content and context of 2nd Corinthians chapter twelve. The first thing that we notice is that God further defines the thorn in the flesh as, "The Messenger of Satan." This is totally consistent with what we have learned. The example in Ezekiel 2 of the false messengers of Satan among the Children of Israel that God calls thorns and scorpions is the same symbolism that we have here. The imagery God uses of thorns is totally consistent with a messenger of Satan berating the apostle Paul, and totally inconsistent with the thorn being understood as an illness or physical debilitation. A literal disease or malady is not a [aggelos], or messenger of Satan come to buffet people. Nowhere in scripture is the term messenger of Satan ever used to describe an illness upon man. That is also not an insignificant fact. By contrast, we all know that those who hate God's people (and particularly false teachers) are indeed messengers of Satan. Scripture itself informs us that Satan Himself comes appearing as a messenger (1st Corinthians 3:16-17) of light. The fact that we have no Biblical warrant or justification for calling a sickness or physical disability "a messenger of Satan," should rule out any legitimate basis for making this presumption. Unless for some extraneous reason we are simply predisposed to believe that, even though thorns in the bible never signify physical sickness or disability.

Moreover, Satan has no power within the body of the true believer that he could cause his eyes to go bad, his bones to creek or that he would stutter or not speak well. Satan can send evil men (messengers of his) against us, but we are a Temple of the living God that the Lord abides within us. Satan cannot live there with Christ, nor can he disease or make our body ill. The fact is, God Himself takes full responsibility for any disabilities, short comings or sicknesses that we might receive. Not a sparrow falls to the earth without His sovereign say so.

Exodus 4:10-11

God makes the blind, deaf, Dumb. It was He who cursed the earth. He gives one to have good physical eyesight, and another to have no sight at all. This is not the work of the devil. Satan had no power to put any physical disease or illness in Paul. So while it is true that God uses diseases and blindness as a portrait of sin, He also uses its healing it as a picture of recovery from that sinful condition. This has nothing to do with a believer having thorns in his flesh that buffet him. How some theologians can believe that Satan could send messengers to buffet Paul with a physical illness has never been made clear. Because the only way Satan buffets believers is by indwelling others, and then using them to persecute, revile, or kill us (which agrees perfectly with the thorn being the enemies of Christ, Satan's messengers). The real question is, why would bad eyesight, stammering speech, or any other physical disorder, even be called a messenger of Satan when God takes responsibility for it? There is no precedent or warrant for coming to such a conclusion. So when we ask, "what was Paul's thorn in the flesh," the answer is the vexing of the Judaizers. Those who indeed were by biblical definition, messengers of Satan at enmity with the gospel of Christ. They followed the Apostle Paul from town to town tormenting him, and are likened unto the continual pricking of thorns in the flesh. And these are those whom the Apostle Paul petitioned God three times to be taken away. But God's answer to his petition was no, His Grace was enough. ..which brings us to God's purpose in allowing these thorns to remain.

III. What was the Purpose of the Thorn?

Let's also carefully consider the characteristics of this thorn in order to rightly divide if it is some ailment or not. First, it is a thorn that all realize is not literal, and therefore it's symbolism must be prescribed by what is in scripture. And throughout scripture it is defined as men who trouble God's people. The second characteristic is that it is defined as the Messenger of Satan. And we know that those who troubled Paul were messengers of Satan. And the third characteristic is that the messenger was sent to buffet Paul. Is there any biblical instances where God says illness buffets [kolaphizo] anyone? No, never. This Greek word means to strike someone. So this is not an illness, this is a person that hated Paul and his gospel ministry, and did everything in their power (including beating him), to stop him. The same Judaizers that persecuted and buffeted Christ for His teachings.

Matthew 26:67

This is the very same Greek word [kolaphizo], as the messengers of Satan struck or struck Christ with their hands. And as Christ was buffeted, His messengers are likewise buffeted.

1st Corinthians 4:10-11

Again, this very same Greek word [kolaphizo], as they were struck or beaten by those who hated the spread of the Christian religion. As Christ was despised and buffeted, Paul was likewise reviled by the messengers of Satan. These cast him into prison, and they beat him, and followed him from city to city and made the apostle's life preaching the gospel very difficult.

2nd Corinthians 11:25

And in these beatings, vexing and persecution by these thorns in the flesh, we can ultimately see why God did not remove it (just as He wouldn't for many of the martyrs). For tribulation is normal for the Christian, and in it, His Grace is sufficient, or enough for us. In this persecution, Paul (as are all of us), is kept from exalting himself or becoming prideful. We know that Paul was one of the most faithful men of the early Church, he was still a sinner Saved by grace. And as we all would be, tempted to be exalted. And that is the reason God allows us to have trials and tribulations. Think that God couldn't very easily remove them all?

2nd Corinthians 12:7

Yes, these thorns in Paul's flesh, these pains in the side, these burrs in his saddle keep Paul (and the rest of us) grounded, humble and dependent upon God. God said (more than once) we "ALL" will have tribulation in this world, and that most certainly included the apostle Paul. Though He had seen glorious things and received many revelations (Acts 9:3-6;  16:8-10; 18:9-11;   22:17-21;  23:11;  27:22-25;  (2nd Corinthians 12:1-6) and was used mightily of God, and yet God rejected his petition in not removing this thorn in the flesh from Him. Instead, God declared that His Grace (His unmerited favor upon Paul) was adequate for him.

Consider also the full context. Paul is talking about His being blessed to know glorious things, which He heard of a man whether in or out of the body, he could not say. He's talking about the glory of God's Revelation and how he won't glory in himself knowing all these things. He will glory only that He can suffer for Christ. He wants no man to think of him as something special. That's the humbleness of true Christianity, as opposed to pomp, traditions and pious ceremony. It has nothing to do with him asking for a healing physically, it has to do with the trouble and tribulation he received from wicked men, which all believers will go through in this world. Of course we would like to go through life without these persecutors and revilers and messengers of Satan who trouble us. But God has determined that now it is needful for us suffer this, and His Grace is sufficient.

John 16:33

We are in Christ, who has overcome the world. Therefore (like Paul), we can be of good cheer in the midst of our trial and tribulations knowing we can depend upon the Lord. In the midst of a crooked and perverse world, when the messenger of Satan comes against us, we can not only prevail, but be of great cheer. In other words, in the world we won't have peace because the world is at enmity with us so that we will be troubled and reviled. But our Peace is with God. And this is what in fact puts us at enmity with the world. This is the position in which Paul found himself, and yet God would not by any means extract him from it. Because it may have been a cause of his exaltation to do so. We read that lest the apostle Paul should exalt himself, God allowed this, and declared that His Grace was enough.

IV. Paul's Reaction to this Thorn

Again, being a finite being just like the rest of us, Paul wanted to have this thorn, this messenger of Satan removed from hindering him. It was obviously an ongoing persecution because Paul petitioned the Lord three times. He wanted to preach the gospel without the constant trouble and vexing of those who hated him for doing so. ..sound familiar?

2nd Corinthians 12:8

I find it difficult to believe that a man as strong and as faithful as Paul, would be so distraught as to plead with the Lord three times to have mere stammering speech, poor eyesight or some other physical ailment removed from him. It seems even on the face of it (and in contrast to all that we can read about Paul), quite odd. The fact is, there is nothing whatsoever in scripture that clearly supports the theory that Paul had some lingering illness which is described as a thorn in the flesh. There is clear evidence of the persecution and troubling by the messengers of Satan who buffeted him. Letting the Bible be it's own guide, comparing scripture with scripture, it is consistently seen that the messengers of Satan, did these things. And the why it was allowed, and his reaction to this, is clearly detailed in scripture.

2nd Corinthians 12:9-10

In this affliction by Satan's servile subordinates he learned to surrender his own will to the will of God. The Greek word [astheneia] that is translated infirmities there means weakness. It is the exact same word that is translated weakness in the previous verse when Paul says God said unto Him, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." It is easy to see how someone might mistake this as declaring Paul had some physical disability when the word is sometimes translated "disease or sickness" because a illness can be physical weakness. But when Paul acknowledges that he glories in his weaknesses, he is declaring that he is very willing to be humbled and brought low by this circumstance that God allows. Because in Paul's affliction he learned to surrender his own will to the will of God. He would acquiesce and take this buffeting or beatings by the messenger of Satan. And he would take it patiently, because it forces him to acknowledge divine providence in the God glorifying sphere in which he operates. The very same principle put forth in 1st Peter:

1st Peter 2:20

Again, Paul speaks there of the buffeting or beatings that Christians suffer, and how they are unto glory when it is unjustly applied. And he would rather take it patiently knowing that the Lord is always with him. The Apostle Paul prayed three times asking God that the messenger of Satan that buffeted him might be removed, and God's answer came back, My Grace is enough for you. The number three in scripture signifies God's purpose and will. This is not unlike when the Savior in Gethsemane prayed three times, "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done -Luke 22:42." It's a demonstration of surrendering our will to the will of God. There is a basic and practical lesson here, related to our humility. It is a trait that should be evident in the Children of God, and that is usually absent from the children of men. God knows that His strength is made perfect in our weakness, as we learn to depend upon Him rather than ourselves. Outside influences and trials help to keep us humble. For it is in these times of weakness and hardship that the Lord's strength in us can be experienced most. It's in these times that we really come to recognize our infirmities (weaknesses), and to depend upon the Lord, rather than our own wisdom.

Paul says He would "gladly glory in his infirmities (-2nd Cor. 12:9)". Yes, rather than bemoan his troubling circumstances, he will glory in them, for in them he has the opportunity to experience the power of Christ. He says "I take pleasure in infirmities, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (-2nd Cor. 12:10)".

Romans 8:26

This isn't talking about our physical sickness, but about our spiritual weaknesses. We should understand that the Greek word infirmity is [astheneia]. It is from the root word [asthenes] a negation of strength, meaning weakness. We can see in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 Paul speaks of perils and painfulness, suffering shipwrecks, hardships because of his preaching the gospel message, and in verse 30 calls it infirmities, saying He will glory in this. This is not physical sickness, but hardships under which he suffered and endured. Likewise, in speaking of persecution of God's people, we read in Hebrews:

Hebrews 11:34

That word translated "weakness" is the exact same word [asthenes] that is translated infirmities. In these times of weaknesses, Children of God are made strong, and it can be a time of rejoicing.

Romans 5:2-6

In weakness, that can be a time in which to experience the strength which only Christ can give. For he alone is without the weakness of sin that we have. And that infirmity or weakness is not physical, but a sin weakness.

Hebrews 4:15

Again here we see the word infirmity used in the sense of frailty or weakness. It's at these times of infirmity when we more perfectly develop character that is pleasing to God. It's when we throw our hands up and surrender to the will of God that we know true contentment. Not my will, but Thine be done. When we are tried and buffeted by the Messenger of Satan, it works patience in us that we learn to depend on Christ for Strength. And this was Paul's infirmity that He would glory in.

James 1:2-4

This is an example for all of us. God knows what is best for us, and the answer to our prayers may not be what we wish, but it will always be what we need. This is the valuable lesson we glean from the scriptures here. The Lord would not give Paul what he prayed for, what he wanted, but He would give Paul what he needed. What was sufficient for His walk in this life and salvation. And that wasn't deliverance out of times of tribulation. In the big picture, Paul has everything, and the Messenger of Satan had nothing, because Paul has the Grace of God which is sufficient. It indeed would be the answer to all his prayers, for in all things we pray, "Not my will, but Thine be done!"


It is not only possible to determine the nature of Paul's "thorn in the flesh," but it is incumbent upon us to compare scripture with scripture in order to do just that! Paul parallels the "thorn" with an infirmity or "weakness" in which he will glory for Christ's sake, and in 2nd Corinthians 10-13 he links his weakness with persecution. Paul says that this thorn is a Messenger from Satan, which is never identified with sickness or illness in scriptures. The word messenger always refers to a human being or angel or Christ. By contrast, Thorns are seen continually in scripture, a signification of those who are of Satan.

2nd Corinthians 11:29-33

These men persecuted and troubled Paul, and in this pleading with God for deliverance, Paul would learn patience and where his help is. In this would Paul glory, not in that He was used marvelously of God and received great revelations.

2nd Corinthians 12:10

Paul desired and prayed that this Messenger of Satan be removed from Him three times. The Number Three is the number of God's Purpose and will. It was not God's will that Paul have no persecution nor trouble from the Messenger of Satan. God tells us, We all shall have it. Indeed, through this trouble, Paul would be brought to a closer dependence upon Him, wherein his strength is made perfect in weakness. God's answer to Paul's prayer was that His Grace was sufficient for him. The Salvation of God was enough! The Lord didn't remove this Messenger of Satan, He instead gave him the strength to endure it. And in this, Paul could glory, and rejoice in the Power of Christ.

2nd Corinthians 13:3-4

Such is the end of the matter. Paul rejoiced in his weakness, that the power of Christ rested upon him. Paul came to understand Grace was all that is necessary. It wasn't necessary that Paul's work go un-fettered, or that He be allowed to preach un-persecuted by the Messengers of Satan, for it's not by works, but by Grace we are Saved. And these persecutions and troubles only made him strong in the Lord. They worked patience. We are not justified by anything we do, but by Grace. And it was sufficient!

Titus 3:5-7

So why do so many theologians misinterpret Paul's thorn to mean sickness? In some instances, the reason is as simple as the word "motive." Some who are against the cessation of signs and healings do it in an attempt to prove that the Devil can place sicknesses in believers, and therefore they are given the gift of healing to combat it. Still others who are for the cessation of Signs and Healings do it in an attempt to prove that Paul couldn't heal himself, therefore they reason this gift of healing was not meant for the Church after the canon was completed. Ironically enough, in their zeal to prove the cessation of the signs gifts, many of the cessationist camp "choose" to do something they don't normally do, which is to ignore the "Sola Scriptura" principle and pay no heed to the pertinent scriptures, in order to claim that this thorn was an illness. But the end doesn't justify the means, and their agenda clouds their judgment. While on the other hand, many of the anti-cessationist camp rightly search the scriptures and present scriptures that prove that this thorn in the flesh messenger of Satan was not illness. In this, they have it right, even though in the big picture, they have it all wrong.

God made it clear that Jesus bore our sickness and infirmities, and that He did it by the cross. It was our "sin sickness" that He went to the cross to heal, not our physical sicknesses. The Signs and wonders which He did in healing physically, were "types" pointing to the power of His blood. But the Thorn in the flesh, which was the Messenger of Satan, was not physical illness. It was the persecutors of God's servants. It's normative for the believer, and they had to endure it. Grace was enough for them.

God instructs us that in this world we "shall" have tribulation. That's the nature of true Christianity. It always has been. People hate you, resent you and all that you testify of. When you come with the truth of the gospel, that enmity is a given. They therefore revile and persecute you because of it. These are the thorns in the flesh, the Messenger of Satan. The reproaches, the necessities of life, the persecutions and the infirmities, yes Paul had them. We all do.

Every Christian has some illness at sometime in their life. But Satan didn't give it them to them. Illness isn't a messengers of Satan that is placed in our body and sent to buffet us. That is a myth borne of unsound and unbiblical suppositions. Satan works from without the body, through other evil men, not from within our Body.

On the other hand, when the scriptures themselves say that this Thorn in the flesh was "A Messenger of Satan" I'd say we're on safe ground saying (testifying) that it was a messenger of Satan. Who would disagree? We know that no messenger of Satan is put within a Christian's body, it is impossible for Him to dwell there with Christ. And considering the myriad of scriptures (which I've only barely touched on) that illustrate that the thorns in believers are those Messengers of Satan are men who are false Prophets, fallen Congregationalists, evil men, etc., I'd say we're on solid ground. In other words, we have shown where a thorn in the flesh is used by God to symbolize those of Satan who come against, and buffet believers. God calls them "thorns in their sides." Can anyone show us one scripture that says a thorn in the flesh (or side, hand, toe, anywhere) is a disease, ailment, or sickness? What I'm saying is, interpretations must have some Biblical foundation. It's the most basic rule of biblical hermeneutics. If we start out with pre-suppositions like "it's a physical ailment", we end up with mind block where we won't even consider other possibilities.

All the Disciples had ailments, and they all "died from ailments" if they were not martyred. As you and I will probably die from an ailment (if Christ doesn't return before, or we're in an accident or killed). Ailments are a normal part of life, not a messenger from Satan. The miracles the disciples did of healings were "signs" for the completion of the scriptures. When the Holy canon was completed, the Signs pointing to salvation and Christ ceased. The only prophesies of end time or future signs and wonders now are references to Satanic activity (rev. 13, 2nd Thess. 2, matt. 24, etc.). Can I convince anyone of this? No, not in a hundred years of writings. But God can. Truth is discerned not by my feeble writings, but by the Holy Spirit working within each believer, through the searching and careful consideration of God's divine word.
   ..May the Lord who is Gracious above all, give us the Wisdom and understanding to discern His truth.



Copyright ©1999 Tony Warren
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