What was Paul's Thorn in the Flesh

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

by Tony Warren

I. What is the Biblical Definition of a Thorn?

    Many theologians have made a lot of careless and presumptuous assumption about what Paul's thorn in the flesh (2nd Corinthians) was. Some claim that it was likely some physical ailment like Arthritis. Others say it was bad eyesight, moral weakness, a speech impediment, pain in the ear or head, etc., etc. Many others postulate that we can't really know for sure from the scriptures exactly what the thorn in the flesh was. One is left to wonder if biblical hermeneutics has digressed so far that "comparing scripture with scripture" is now not even considered an option? Even an elementary use of the common concordance would reveal the biblical and grammatical idiom that is used here. One of the first principles of a sound system of Biblical understanding is that the scripture is its own interpreter. In other words, the Bible is not subject to our personal opinion or to any private interpretation. And 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 whole Bible, to see how the word or like phrases are used throughout God's divinely inspired word. We are careful to note if there are any other related verses or references. And in this way, we allow God, via His infallible and harmonic book, interpret His own word. We cannot arbitrarily assume a meaning of a difficult passage simply because it sounds good or seems to fit. We let scripture interpret scripture.

So what was Paul's thorn in the flesh? I believe that simply looking up the word thorn throughout scripture, exploring how "God" inspired it used, and examining the context in which it is found, reveals what this thorn represented. Because the scriptures (both the Old and the New Testament), are replete with examples that we can learn from. We find that the "thorn" in scripture is a common word that is frequently used figuratively. Paul was very familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, so I believe that he surely used this term in the same way that it is used throughout the Bible. Indeed, God is the true author of these scriptures, and so we would "expect" there to be harmony and consistency in the use of the word in similar situations. 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 some might assume today. Rather, God is using these terms to signify that these ungodly people of these other nations will be entanglements for the Lord's people, and will vex them or cause them spiritual affliction. They are typed as "pricks and thorns in the sides and eyes" to signify that they would trouble God's people and cause them spiritual blindness that they would not see clearly. In other words, they will be their nemesis to frustrate them in their path of serving the Lord. That's what these thorns in the eyes and pricks in the sides represented. Likewise we see in the book of Numbers, God uses this same type of symbolic language, but switches the use of the thorn to the side, and the scourge or pricks to the eyes.

Numbers 33:55

The thorn in the people's side that we read would vex the children of Israel are the same as the thorn in the Apostle Paul's flesh that vexed him. And of course this was not illustrating that these people would literally have thorns in their sides anymore than Paul would have them in his flesh. It was simply illustrating that these are people opposed to God's servants, whom if left among them, would be "as" thorns to vex or trouble them. The thorns in their flesh or sides are not physical ailments, not literal bad eyesight, not arthritis, but rather a spiritual ailment to them. Comparing scripture with scripture, the spiritual with the spiritual, this is what the thorn in the side signifies in God's word. Paul, being a man of great knowledge of the scriptures, would be very familiar with these idioms and God's use of them. He is indeed inspired by God to use this term to be in agreement and signify the people of his day who troubled him. These were the Judaizers, who were the thorns in the flesh of the Apostle Paul in his day. They vexed him because they hated that he was teaching Christianity, against the doctrines of the religious leaders of Israel. The thorn is illustrative of the people who were a snare to the Apostle Paul, who plagued and tormented him, causing anguish and frustrating (to a certain degree) him. The adversaries of Christ have always caused spiritual problems for the Children of God. Another example:

Judges 2:3

These were the ungodly people who fight against the law of God and are a snare unto the Lord's people. They have always been as a trap laying in wait to be a trouble and to prick God's Covenant people. In fact, we use very similar language to describe those who vex us even in our day. For example, have you ever heard anyone say a person was as, "a burr in his saddle?" Or have you ever heard someone say that a person was as, "a pain in the neck?" These colloquial phrases convey the exact same meanings as Paul's thorn in the flesh. Even as they don't mean we have the physical ailment of a literal pain in our neck or that we even have a saddle, likewise they don't mean Paul had a Physical thorn stuck in His flesh. Rather, he was using a common expression of those days denoting a nuisance, just as they are used in our day.

Unfortunately, it is a common practice of some Christians to neglect scripture and defer to assumptions. They take hold of the idea that the thorn in the flesh was disease or an ailment that Satan gave him, and they won't let it go. But what Satan sent to vex Paul with was not physical disease, but people to annoy and persecute him in his ministry. There is obviously divine 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 imagery. We cannot privately interpret it, make assumptions, or guess at what the symbolism might represent. We have to compare scripture with scripture to discern God's truth.

Ezekiel 2:6

The briers, thorns and scorpions are all "symbolic" of the representatives or messengers of Satan, who come against the Lord's people to cause distress and trouble. These are the adversaries of God's servants who are an obstacle to the truth. And this symbolism holds true consistently in the New Testament scriptures as well as the Old. And why not, since it is all God's wholly divinely inspired and consistent word. Remember when Christ talked about those who call themselves of God, and yet are revealed by their fruits to be false messengers. He said, by their fruits ye shall know them, and interjected that they appear with thorns.

Luke 6:44

Figs and grapes are symbolic of the works of the children of God, while thorns and bramble are symbolic of the works of the children of Satan. As they will prick you in your work of evangelism. And so we see that consistently throughout scripture, the symbolism of what the thorns represent is very clear. Here they are false teachers who are the enemies of God's people and come bearing no fruit. Their defining characteristic is that they are thorns and bramble (brier) bushes, not a tree from which to get the good fruit of figs or grapes. Here we see the same consistent "signification" and contrasts of thorns and scourges (pricks, bramble) as those contrasted with the Lord's people. Christ says they were those of Satan bearing no fruit. Not messengers of God, but of Satan. Likewise, these thorns which were sent to buffet Paul were not of God, but the same messengers of Satan. Again, in the book of Hebrews, God speaks of those fallen away from Him as thorns and Briers:

Hebrews 6:8-9

Here again we see the 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 says brings forth better things that accompany Salvation. The clear illustration of thorns as the fruit of the wicked who are under God's judgment. And it's very important to note that though many noted theologians have claimed that the thorn could represent an illness, not once does the Holy Canon 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. So then, what was Paul's thorn in the flesh? It seems clear that they were the unsaved, the messengers of Satan, who constantly impeded, harassed and persecuted Paul.

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 12. 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 being among the children of Israel, God calling them thorns and scorpions is the same signification. God's scriptural symbolism of thorns is totally consistent with messengers of Satan, and totally contradictory to it being understood as an illness. For literal diseases and sicknesses are not [aggelos], or messengers of Satan come to buffet or beat us. Nowhere in scripture is the term "Messenger of Satan" ever used to describe an illness upon us. That is also "not" an insignificant fact. But we all know that evil men (and particularly those who are snares or traps for us), are indeed messengers of Satan. Scripture informs us that Satan Himself comes appearing as a messenger of light (2nd Corinthians 11:14). The fact that we have no Biblical warrant or justification for calling the sickness or physical disability of a believer "a Messenger of Satan," should rule out any legitimate basis for making these claims. 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 more power within the body of the true believer that he could cause our eyes to go bad, our bones to creek or that we would suddenly not be able to speak well. Satan can send evil men (messengers or representatives of his) to persecute us, but we are a Temple of the living God, and the Lord abides within us. Satan cannot live there with Christ, nor can he put diseases or illness in our body. The fact is, God Himself takes full responsibility for any disabilities, short comings or sicknesses that we might get. Not a sparrow falls to the earth without His say so.

Exodus 4:10-11

God makes the blind, deaf, Dumb. He gives one to have sight, and another to have no sight. This is not the work of the devil. Satan had no power to put any disease or illness in Paul, the Temple of God. God uses disease as a portrait of sin, and His healing that disease as a picture of Him healing our sinful condition. Satan had no such power over Paul. How theologians can believe that Satan could send spiritual messengers to buffet Paul with a physical illness is not clear. Because the only way Satan buffets believers is by indwelling others, and then using them to persecute, revile, or kill us (which goes along perfectly with the thorn being unsaved men). The real question is, why would bad eyesight, stammering speech, or any other physical disorder, be called a messenger of Satan? it makes no sense. There is no precedent or warrant for coming to such a conclusion. So again, "what was Paul's thorn in the flesh" if not these things? How about we accept God's word that thorns represent those people who vex His servants, such as the Judaizers. They were by any definition, messengers of Satan at enmity with Christ. And they followed the Apostle Paul from town to town as the continual pricking of thorns in the flesh, vexing, persecuting and reviling him. These were the thorns in his flesh that the Apostle petitioned God to have taken away. But God didn't remove it, but told him, 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?

We have to 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" recognize is not a literal thorn, therefore its 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, this Greek word means to strike someone. So this is not illness, this is people who hated Paul and his teachings, and did everything in their power, including beating him, to stop him from preaching Christ. The same Judaizers that persecuted and buffeted Christ.

Matthew 26:67

The very same Greek word [kolaphizo], signifying that they struck or beat him with their hands.

1st Corinthians 4:10-11

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

2nd Corinthians 11:25

And in these beatings, vexing and persecution by these messengers of Satan, who were as thorns in the flesh to torment him, we can ultimately see why God did not remove this (just as He wouldn't for many of the martyrs). For tribulation is normative for the Christian, and in it, we discover that His Grace is sufficient 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, but he was still a sinner saved by grace. And as we all would be, he was tempted to be exalted in his glorious ministry. And that is the reason God allows us to have trials and tribulations. Think that God couldn't very easily remove them all? Of course He could, but He wanted to demonstrate our dependence upon Him.

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) humble and dependent upon God for everything. God said (more than once) we "ALL" will have tribulation in this world. And that included Paul. Though He had seen Glorious things (2nd Corinthians 12:7) 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, yet God says this thorn in the flesh would not be taken away. God said that His Grace (His unmerited favor upon Paul) was enough for him. This lesson is not lost upon us. think not that you won''t be reviled and persecuted as well.

Consider also the full context. Paul is talking about His being blessed to know so many 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 in 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 (unlike theologians today). That's the humbleness of true Christianity, as opposed to pomp, being renowned, glorying in traditions and pious ceremony. It has nothing to do with him asking God for a physical healing, it had to do with the trouble and tribulation from wicked men, which believers will have in this world. We would all like to go through life without these persecutors and revilers and messengers of Satan who constantly trouble us. But now it is needful for us, and His Grace is sufficient.

John 16:33

We are in Christ who has overcome the World, therefore we can be of good cheer in the midst of trials and tribulations. In the midst of a crooked and perverse world, when the messengers of Satan come against us, we will prevail because Christ in us has prevailed. In other words, in the world we don't have peace (Matthew 10:34-25). We are troubled, ridiculed and reviled. But our Peace is with God, which will without question put us at enmity with that same world. And indeed with the messengers of Satan who seek to devour us. This is the position in which Paul found himself, and yet God would not extract him from it. Because this would be a cause of exaltation in the Apostle Paul to do so. God allows this, and declares His Grace was enough!

IV. Paul's Reaction to this Thorn

Again, being human with a body of flesh just like the rest of us, Paul wanted to have this thorn, this messenger of Satan removed. He wanted to preach the gospel without the constant trouble or vexing of those who hate him. ..sound familiar? And so he prayed for exactly that--three times.

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 a 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 our guide, comparing scripture with scripture, it is consistently seen that the messengers of Satan did indeed do these things. And the why, and his reaction to this, is also 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 in the previous verse weakness, 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, especially because the word is sometimes translated "disease or sickness" because these are instances of physical weaknesses. 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 these circumstances 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 in stride. And he would take it patiently, because it forces him to acknowledge divine providence and the God glorifying sphere in which he operates in is of the Lord, and not his own. 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 they take it patiently. 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 which is evident in the Children of God, and absent from the children of men. God knows that strength is made perfect in our weakness. Outside influences 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 and appreciated most. It's in these times that we really come to recognize our infirmities (weaknesses), and need to depend upon the Lord, rather than our own strength or wisdom!

Paul says He would "gladly glory in his infirmities (2nd Corinthians 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 Corinthians 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 2nd 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 knowledge of just where his help comes from. In this, Paul would 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 that in this world we shall all have it. Indeed, through this trouble, Paul would be brought to a closer dependence upon God, 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. Instead of removing this messenger of Satan, God instead gave him the strength to endure it.

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.

Tribulation in the world is 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. And so do we.

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 born 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 healing 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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