What was the thorn in the side of the Apostle Paul?

Although this question is asked from a theological perspective, a “thorn in the side” is also a common idiom used by many people to refer to someone or something that is causing them great pain, problems or discomfort. Historically speaking, this idiom, like many others, comes from the Bible. However, because it comes from the Bible it has a much wider application. A similar phrase can be found in 2 Corinthians 12:7 where the Apostle Paul makes mention of a “thorn in the flesh.”

(2 Corinthians 12:7 KJV)  “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” (Emphasis added)

As always, when looking at this verse, it is important to look at the context by which it was given. In 2 Corinthians 11, the Apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, explains how much he cares for the people in the church in Corinth. He fears that they will “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” by falling for “another Jesus” or “another gospel,” but wants them to bear with him in their resistance against false teaching (2 Corinthians 11:3-4).

Paul goes on to contrast how he, unlike the false teachers, did not seduce them with elegant speaking nor did he make himself to be some sort of big shot, nor did he ask for any support or money (2 Corinthians 11:6-9). He mentions how these false teachers will lie, claiming they are the apostles of Christ all the while they are deceiving the people. Likewise, they will convince people they are “ministers of righteousness” when in reality, they are nothing more than ministers of the angel of light, Satan (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).

Paul explains how these minsters of Satan will tell everyone about their work, but then points out specific experiences he has had that can match or surpass theirs in every respect (2 Corinthians 11:16-33). However, despite knowing of amazing things that have happened to believers, he makes it as point to not boast about the things he has experienced. This sets up the context of how a thorn in the flesh, further described as a “messenger of Satan,” causes him trouble to keep him humble (2 Corinthians 12:7).

To properly understand this verse, looking elsewhere in the Bible to see where the word thorn is related to messengers of Satan is key. The first such mention can be found in Genesis 3:17-19:

(Genesis 3:17-19 KJV)  “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; {18} Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; {19} In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Emphasis added)

In verse 18, thorns are mentioned as part of the curse that was the results of the sin that Adam committed with Eve while in the Garden of Eden. So then, we see that thorns (along with thistles), which cause pain when pricked, are a result of man’s encounter with Satan. This idea is more specifically described as relating to people in Numbers 33:55 and Judges 2:3 respectively as being in their sides:

(Numbers 33:55 KJV)  “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.”

(Judges 2:3 KJV)  “Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.”

Notice that the reference to thorns relates to those who worship false gods that will shall vex (torment) the Israelites and snare them through false teachings. This echos a similar passage found in Joshua which warns how how tolerance of these people will result in them perishing from the land, which God gave them:

(Joshua 23:13 KJV)  “Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.”

Notice the use of the phrase “scourges in your sides.” Scourges are a defined not only as a whip made out of a strap or cords, but also as “a punishment; vindictive affliction” according to Webster’s 1828 dictionary.

Based on Paul’s statement and the use of the word thorns in the sides and eyes, it appears that Paul was being vexed by some sort of false teachers. Given the context of 2 Corinthians 11, it would not be unreasonable to think there were people who was tormenting Paul and he sought the Lord’s help. Considering that this is the second letter to the Corinthians, it would make sense to see if Paul spoke of these sorts of things elsewhere.

In 1 Corinthians 4:9-16 Paul mentions being buffeted in the context of his experience as one of the Apostles:

(1 Corinthians 4:9-16 KJV)  “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. {10} We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. {11} Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; {12} And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: {13} Being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. {14} I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. {15} For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel. {16} Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me.”

As Paul explains, being an Apostle comes with its share of problems. He knows because he was in Corinth for 18 months, during which time he suffered persecution at the hands of the Jews. It was because of this that Paul stopped preaching to the Jews and said he would take his message to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6).

This too proved to be no easy task. In fact, God told him in a dream to speak about what was going on there and not to hold back. He went on to say that He would protect Paul and that there were many of His people in the city (Acts 18:7-11). Needless to say, Paul’s bold preaching enraged the Jews so seized Paul and took Him to Gallio, the local Deputy to file charges.

The Jews made their case to Gallio, but before Paul could even answer their charges, Gallio rejected the Jews argument as not of his concern, told them to deal with it themselves, and made them leave. Because of this insurrection by the Jews, the Greeks were enraged and seized the chief ruler of the synagogue, Sosthenes, and beat him in front of Gallio who ignored their actions (Acts 18:12-17).

Needless to say, settling this issue with fistfights was not the way to handle persecution. While the Corinthians may have had Paul’s best interests at heart, they demonstrated that they had a lot to learn about dealing with problems in a Scriptural manner and about living right for the Lord. In fact, this is why Paul wrote to them in 1 Corinthians, because they were out of control and living for the Devil despite being believers. He told them in 1 Corinthians 4:14 that he was not writing about his persecution during his time in Corinth to shame them, but to warn them that when doing God’s work, they too would suffer the same.

This brings us to the point of the passage in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul’s thorn was nothing more than the persecution from Satan that God allowed him to go through at the hands of wicked men. Despite Paul asking for God’s intervention in the matter three times, God assured him as he had in Acts 18:9-10 that He would be with Paul. Notice that God never said he would intervene to stop the persecution. Instead he reassured Paul by saying, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

With these words, God assured Paul that when he felt he could no longer endure, God’s grace would to give him the strength to persevere. Paul recognizes this fact when he said in the same verse that he would “rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” This thinking would continue as he wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10 about the pleasure he took in his troubles:

(2 Corinthians 12:10 KJV)  “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Paul understands that when he realizes that he is too weak to stand up to the troubles of the world, he has no other choice but to rely on the strength of the grace of God. He knows that he can not do it all through his own strength, but he can do all things through Christ, which strengthens him (Philippians 4:13). Paul also knows that through his example of how he dealt with a thorn in his flesh, a messenger of Satan sent to buffet him, not only would the church in Corinth be encouraged to seek the Lord for peace and strength in their times of buffeting, we too could do the same (Philippians 4:9).

So, what was the thorn in the flesh of the Apostle Paul? Nothing more than Satan’s attack on a faithful servant of the Lord, which lead us to an important final point. If we are not suffering from a thorn in our flesh, we need to ask ourselves why our perceived faithfulness is not causing Satan to take notice. When we can honestly answer that question, we have taken an important step toward being a good and faithful servant.

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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3 thoughts on “What was the thorn in the side of the Apostle Paul?

  • March 25, 2013 at 3:42 am

    pauls thorne in the side was his being a eunic, he was asking yahweh to take it away from him to show his followers that through the power of the holy spirit he could be able to control his sexual desires which some of the people were not able to control.

    thank you

    • April 7, 2013 at 9:02 am

      Sorry, but if what you are saying is true, then being a eunuch is a message of Satan, and Jesus is a liar when he said it was a gift of God? Paul was probably a widow per 1 Corinthians 6, as his position as a Pharisee would have required him to be married according to Jewish custom. He says in 1 Corinthians 6 that if you do not have that gift, it is better to marry than burn with lust.

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