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  • Pastor Jim French

Paul's Thorn In The Flesh

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

Healing 105

One of the primary arguments against God's will to heal is that of Paul's "Thorn in the Flesh" found in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Many claim that Paul's thorn was an illness that God refused to remove. Was Paul's thorn an illness? Let's take a close look at the text and find out what the Bible says about this.

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. 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.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV)

Paul has had an extraordinary experience - he was taken to Heaven and saw things too wonderful to express. The argument goes that God placed a sickness upon him to keep him from being puffed up with himself. But if we look closely at the text, we see that is not what it says (when in doubt, read the text) and that to reach that conclusion we have to make some pretty fair leaps to get there.

Was Paul's Thorn Sickness?

Paul tells us that this "thorn" was a "messenger from satan". The word translated as "messenger" is the Greek word "aggelos" which, as you guessed, is usually translated as "angel". Strong's Concordance (G32) defines this as: "(probably derived from G71; compare G34; to bring tidings); a messenger; especially an “angel”; by implication a pastor: - angel, messenger." Note that this word is never translated as "sickness". So the messenger Paul refers to is not a sickness, but a satanic angel (aka - a demon) sent from satan, not from God. God does not send demons or use them to accomplish his will. One simple reason is that he does not have to; another is that God does not use or send evil to accomplish his purposes. There is no evil in him - he only sends good.

It is more likely that the "thorn" sent against Paul was someone who was being influenced by a demon to harass Paul. That is why God said that he had given Paul grace, not to endure the attacks of the enemy, but to use his authority against the demon coming at him.

The question is, why would God give Paul this amazing revelation and then punish him for it by placing an illness upon him? Why would God give Paul this wonderful experience, giving him a glimpse of eternity, and then curse him with an illness? Beloved, God does not work that way. He is love (1 John 4:8) and love does not give someone a gift and then punish them for receiving it. Doesn't it make more sense that satan would want to afflict Paul to keep him from using the revelation that God had given him?

Why A Revelation?

Why would God give Paul a revelation in the first place? What was his purpose in showing Paul "this greatness of revelations?"

If we look at the word "revelation" we see it's basic meaning - something is being revealed to someone by someone else. God gives us revelation primarily to reveal himself to us or to give us an understanding of what he is about to do, or to warn us about something, etc. God does not give us revelation and then punish us for what he has given us. Why would he reveal himself to Paul and then punish Paul him for it? It simply makes no sense.

Paul (through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) wrote approximately 2/3 of the New Testament and that certainly qualifies for a great revelation. But nowhere do we read that God gave Paul the divine revelation of Scripture itself and then punished him for having it. Was the revelation of Heaven we read about in 2 Corinthians greater than the revelation of Holy Scripture?

Who Stands to Gain?

Who would gain from Paul having a thorn? God or satan? This "thorn" given to Paul would certainly be a hinderance to his ministry. Why would God give Paul a hinderance to something he had commissioned him to do? However, it's easy to see that satan would have much to gain by interferences and road-blocks (such as someone coming against Paul and his teachings as did Alexander the Coppersmith, (2 Timothy 4:14-15)). Did God want to interfere with Paul's ministry by giving him a disease or positioning an opponent to his message? No. That would only work against people accepting the Gospel message. The only one who would benefit by hindering Paul delivering the Gospel would be satan.

If we examine the text closely we can clearly see that Paul's thorn was not a sickness sent by God, but rather a demonic force sent by the enemy to harass him. It would be in satan's interest to afflict Paul, not God's.

Why Boast in Weakness?

In verse 10 Paul continues:

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, per-secutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV)

Why would Paul boast in his own inability to deal with a situation? Some would say that this means that Paul was simply saying that God would give him the strength to deal with the illness that God placed upon him. However, if you will note from the text, he lists "weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities," none of which include illness. Paul is saying that he relies on God's strength to do all things, not his own strength. He knows that in his own strength he cannot withstand all the difficulties his ministry brings, but God gives him the strength to "turn the other cheek" and to pray for those who were persecuting him.

What is this Thorn?

In the Bible, thorns generally represent the curse. In Genesis after the fall, we read that God laments what Adam and Eve have brought upon the earth,

"And to Adam he [God] said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field." (Genesis 3:17-18)

Jesus took that curse (our curse) upon himself (see Galatians 3:13) and is symbolized by the crown of thorns placed upon his head (John 19:2). In Jesus' Parable of the Soil (Matthew 13:1-9) the thorns represent the distractions of the earth which was cursed by Adam and Eve's sin. The thorn in the flesh Paul describes is symbolic. It is an image that is used through the Old Testament to describe a harassing person or people.

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. (Numbers 33:55)

...know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you. (Joshua 23:13)

So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (Judges 2:3)

Biblically, thorns are never representative of an illness. We can clearly see that Paul is making a reference to these Old Testament verses and saying that his "thorn in the flesh" was a person or persons sent by satan (satan's messengers, not God's) to harass him.

Large Letters

​ There are some who contend that Paul was suffering from a severe eye condition based on a couple of verses in his other letters. In Galatians 6:11 Paul writes,

"See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand."

Some say that this is an indicator that Paul suffered from poor eyesight as a result of an eye disease and that he had to write in large letters so that he could read the letter for himself. One thing of import to note is that often in Biblical times letters were dictated to a scribe. This may have been the case with Paul's letter to the Galatians. We don't know for sure.

In addition, a further look into the Greek word translated as large (“pelikos” (Strong's G4080)) shows us that it can not only mean large in size but also large in volume. I believe Paul was trying to communicate how important this letter was which is why he wrote such a “large/long” letter or wrote in "large" letters. From the tone of Paul's letter we can see, at the very least, that he was not happy with the Galatians straying from the true Gospel of grace to a Gospel of works. It is more likely that Paul was writing in large letters to make a point.

​ In using the term “large letters” Paul may have also been using an ancient eastern idiom to emphasize a point. Some have suggested that this verse might be translated: “Note how heavily I have pressed upon the pen in writing this.” The original Greek text did not include punctuation. There were no exclamation points that Paul might have used for emphasis.

​ Paul is clearly frustrated with the Galatian church for abandoning the Gospel of grace and falling back on salvation by works. The entire tone of the letter is one of heavy correction, even to the point of rebuke at times. It is more likely that Paul is stressing the importance of what he is saying and emphasizing his apostolic authority.

The King James Version of the Bible translates Galatians 6:11 this way:

“Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand."

I believe that the King James Version got it right. Paul's sight was not impaired, he was writing a "long" letter or a letter with large print to make a point.

The whole idea that Paul's thorn was a sickness given to him by God is wrought with problems. As I said before if is important that we "read the text" for ourselves. Study the Word and never take anyone's word for anything (including mine)! We must pursue the truth for ourselves. God wants you well my friend. He truly does!


Pastor Jim


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