Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

thorns The conjectures as to what Paul’s "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7) was are legion. Many, if not most, commentators believe that was a physical ailment.  However, I think that the context in which this verse appears suggests quite a different answer, one that can provide tremendous encouragement to persecuted Christians.

The most extensive of all of Paul’s description of his afflictions for Christ’s sake is found in 2 Corinthians 11:23-12:10. It is at this point that Paul directly challenges those in Corinth who deny his credentials as a true apostle of God.

In 1 Corinthians, he has shown how God’s weakness in the cross of His Son, a weakness of suffering and self-sacrifice turned out to be God’s strength and power. He has maintained that his sufferings are linked with Christ (1 Cor. 1:3-11) and it is the world that rejects the method by which God has chosen to reconcile the world to Himself and sees only the shame and apparent defeat. In contrast, those who are being saved see it as fragrant offering to God (2:14-17). Paul contended that his sufferings are necessary to manifest the life of Christ (4:5-15) and argued that the messengers of the gospel must live lives in accordance to the gospel (6:1-13). Christ died on the cross for man’s salvation and cross-bearing messengers are those who will bear this message to mankind. God’s methods are consistent with His message.

Yet, the Corinthians persist in listening to teachers whose message and methods are at odds with the cross of Christ. In verse 23 Paul asks, "Are they servants of Christ?" The Greek wording used here does not concede that he believes that the "super-apostles" really are servants of God. The wording is more: "Servants of God are they? Well, if they are such (and it would be absurd to say such), I am more!"

The term "servant of Christ" is reminiscent of Isaiah's reference to the suffering Servant and the servants of the suffering Servant. One cannot call himself a servant of God if he denies the need to sacrifice and suffer for Christ’s sake. Suffering defines the servant of God.

In verse 23-30, Paul spells out the credentials he points to that prove that he is a servant of God:

…with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.[1]

Then in verse 31-32, Paul gives an example of the things that he will boast of

"The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands" (2 Cor. 11:23-33).

As we noted in our study of Acts, immediately following his conversion, Paul began to preach the gospel. As a result, a plot to kill him was hatched and he was forced to flee Damascus through a hole in the wall in a basket (Acts 9:25). This experience drove home to him an incredible truth that he never forgot.

Paul might have been tempted to feel proud of his revelation from Christ, his dramatic testimony of conversion, from persecutor to messenger of God. But then he remembers that his first attempt to share the gospel resulted in his being lowered out of a window in the wall in the middle of the night in a basket that was probably used to dump rubbish outside of the wall. Paul learned that this is what the messenger of God can expect!

What did you expect following Christ would be like when you first started following Him?

In chapter 12:1, Paul goes further. The super-apostles boast of the great visions that God has given them. "Well," says Paul, "let me break a 14 year silence and tell you about visions and revelations from God that I have received."

I suspect that at this point, the Corinthians would have leaned forward in eager anticipation of what Paul was about to write. This was the kind of message that they liked to listen to.

Paul refuses to go into too many details, however. He talks about having received a vision of heaven in verses 2-5, but Paul is clearly embarrassed at having to boast at all (verse1). He refers to himself as "a man in Christ" (in the third person) in order to emphasize that receiving this vision did not make him any special type of Christian.

All that Paul feels comfortable boasting about is his weaknesses (verse 5). And so he immediately discredits the wonderful vision that God had given him in verse 7: "So to keep me from being too elated by 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 being too elated" (2 Cor. 12:7)

The Thorn in the Flesh

Given what Paul has just discussed in the passages just prior to this verse and that which he will refer to again in verse 10; a context of opposition and persecution for the sake of Christ, I would suggest that in verse 7-10 that Paul has not changed topics.  He is still talking about persecution.

The early church theologian Chrysostom took the term "Satan" in its general Hebrew sense of "adversary", and understood this "messenger of Satan" by which he was buffeted to signify "Alexander the coppersmith, the party of Hymeneus and Philetas, and all the adversaries of the Word, those who contended with him and fought against him, those that cast him into prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death; for they did Satan's business".[2] Augustine, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, Photius, and Theophylact and other early church fathers also saw this in the same light.[3]

More recently, R.V.G. Tasker wrote in regards to this passage "As there is nothing which tends to elate a Christian evangelist so much as the enjoyment of spiritual experiences, and as there is nothing so calculated to deflate the spiritual pride which may follow them as the opposition he encounters while preaching the Word, it is not unlikely that Chyrsostom’s interpretation is nearer the truth than any other."[4]

However we understand it, the fact is that this "messenger of Satan" was sent by God; Satan has only a limited freedom of action. God is ultimately in control. Nothing comes into the life of the believer that does not first pass through the sovereign hands of God.

That is not to say that Paul did not want this suffering removed from his life:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.

But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (12:8-9a).

How exactly God said this to Paul, we are not told. The use of the perfect tense here, however, is illuminating, indicating that this was a past action with continuing results. In other words, what God told Paul regarding His grace being sufficient is still true for him at the time at which he is writing this letter. This was God's answer to Paul's prayer then and it still stands. And it is not a matter of accepting "second best." In Paul's mind, God’s grace in the midst of affliction is just as much an answer to prayer as deliverance because he declares, "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" (2 Cor. 12:9b-10).

The key word here is, of course, "for the sake of Christ." Paul did not purposely go seeking for persecution. His only preoccupation was the cause of Christ, the spreading of the gospel, and these sufferings came to him as consequences of his pursuit after the purposes of God. There is nothing special in suffering for the sake of suffering. Suffering and persecution are only the inevitable results of spreading the gospel in a world that is hostile to God, the gospel, and His messengers.

Persecution reminds us who we belong to and proves that we truly are messengers of God.


[1] Emphasis added.

[2] Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1962 : 443. cf. 1 Tim.1:20; 2 Tim. 4:14

[3] A. Plummer, The Second Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians. Cambridge University Press, 1903: 141

[4] Quoted by Hughes: 443-444


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