What was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

FAQ: What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? I have heard Christians say all kinds of things about it, like Paul had an eye problem, or another illness, or even sinful lusts. Furthermore, many say that God gave him this affliction to test him or to keep him humble. What is the truth about it?

Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” has been just that for many Christian theologians and ministers through the years. It is unfortunate that so many erroneous theories about it have been postulated by sincere believers. When we handle the Word of God, we must be diligent not to inject our own opinions as to its meaning. As we will see, applying sound principles of biblical interpretation will yield a clear, concise, and correct answer to this question, one that will help shed great light on some key biblical truths.

Let us first take a look at the verse in which this phrase is found, and the subsequent verses that help frame its context.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (NKJ)
(7) And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
(8) Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
(9) And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
(10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

What can we see in those verses? First, it is clear that the “thorn in the flesh” was not a literal thorn, but a figurative way of describing whatever it actually was. Second, we see that it was “a messenger of Satan,” which means that it was certainly not God who “pricked” Paul with it. Had it come from God, why would Paul have asked the Lord Jesus to take this “thorn” out of his life?

In response, the Lord told Paul that he would give him the grace and strength to deal with this problem. So whatever it was, the Lord could not just “delete” it from Paul’s life. That would indicate that the “thorn” was not a physical ailment, because the Lord Jesus did, and still does, heal “all manner of sicknesses.” Paul then said that for Christ’s sake he would “boast” in infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecutions, and distresses, counting on the Lord’s strength to make up for his weakness.

In his excellent book, Christ The Healer, written in the early 1900s, F. F. Bosworth does a superb job of showing what Paul’s “thorn” really was. He points out that the word “messenger” (v. 7) is the Greek word angelos, which is used 188 times, and is translated “angel” 181 times and “messenger” seven times. In each case, the angelos was a being, either spirit or human (p. 194).

Bosworth notes that the word “buffet” (v. 7) means to strike “blow after blow.” He cites Rotherham’s translation: “…that he might be buffeting me,” and notes that Weymouth’s translation reads: “Satan’s angel dealing blow after blow.” He then rightly concludes that if Paul’s “thorn” had been sickness, it would have to have been many sicknesses, or the same sickness over and over. And he points out that Rotherham uses the personal pronoun “he” rather than “it” (v. 8) to agree with the word “messenger.” And he quotes Weymouth: “As for this, three times I besought the Lord to rid me of him.” Again we see reference to a being or person rather than a disease (p. 194).

Before we look at other biblical uses of the key word, “thorn,” let us get a “running start” toward 2 Corinthians 12:7, beginning in Chapter 10. In verse 2, Paul speaks of “some [people]” who he expected to take to task about their opposition to him. A study of Chapters 10-13 shows that there were many “false apostles” in Corinth who spoke against Paul and boasted of their own spirituality as they tried to win the allegiance (and the financial support) of the Corinthian Church.

In fact, the word “boast,” which we saw above in 2 Corinthians 12:9, helps us follow the contextual trail through these chapters. Those whom Paul twice sarcastically called “super-apostles” were telling the Corinthian believers Paul had ministered to that he was leading them astray, and boasting that they were the ones with true knowledge and spiritual insight.

Paul thus spends most of Chapters 10-13 making his case as to how the Lord had worked in him and given him the authority to build up the Corinthian Church. He calls this “boasting,” and contrasts it to the boasting of his opponents.

Consider the following verses, and note the references to people who opposed Paul:

2 Corinthians 10:11 and 12
(11) Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.
(12) We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.

2 Corinthians 11:4 and 5
(4) For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.
(5) But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”

2 Corinthians 11:12-15
(12) And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about.
(13) For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ.
(14) And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.
(15) It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

Do you think that those people opposing Paul could be called “messengers of Satan”? It sure looks that way, doesn’t it? Let us point out that God never promises that He will take away all of the “buffeting” that comes from satanically-inspired human opposition. Rather, as the Lord Jesus told Paul, he (and God) will stand with us and help us bear up to such persecution, which, in fact, He guarantees will come our way (2 Tim. 3:12).

In that vein, we should point out that in 12:7 where the NKJ reads, “lest I should be exalted above measure,” the NIV curiously reads, “To keep me from becoming conceited.…” Huh? Given the definition of that word, wouldn’t Satan be the one who would want Paul to become “conceited”? Yes, so why would he send a “messenger” to stop that from happening?

Wasn’t it God who had given Paul the “abundance of the revelations”? Yes, and why did He do so? To lift Paul up amidst the spiritual battle raging around him, to encourage him to stay in the fight and not be discouraged, to “exalt” him big time. Chapter 12 says that God even showed Paul some of the glories of Paradise. Wow!

As usual, we see here the battle of good vs. evil, that is, God vs. the Devil. God was trying to bless and exalt Paul, and Satan was trying to destroy him via the “thorn in the flesh.” 1 Thessalonians 2:18 comes to mind: “Therefore we wanted to come to you—even I, Paul, time and again—but Satan hindered us.” It is sad that some Christians teach that God uses Satan to further His own ends, because the Word of God says just the opposite—God does not do evil so that good may come (Rom. 3:8).

OK, so what is the “thorn”? When we are searching for the meaning of a biblical word or phrase, one principle that is key to finding the answer is to see how the word or phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible. God, the Author of both language and Scripture, has a purpose for everything He says, when He says it, where He says it, how He says it, and to whom He says it. As truth seekers, it is our duty to adhere to the linguistic principles that the Author of language set in His Word. We dare not engage in groundless speculation about Paul’s “thorn” or anything else.

The word “thorn” appears twice, and “thorns” 43 times. Not all are pertinent to our study, but here are those that are (all scriptures NKJ):

Numbers 33:55
‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell [Judges 2:3—same usage].

Joshua 23:13
“Know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations from before you. But they shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land which the LORD your God has given you.

Ezekiel 2:6
And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among scorpions: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house.

Ezekiel 28:24
“And there shall no longer be a pricking brier or a painful thorn for the house of Israel from among all who are around them, who despise them. Then they shall know that I am the Lord GOD.”

After reading all the above verses, it is clear that God uses “thorn” to refer to people. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was the many human “messengers” that Satan sent against him to stop him from making known the Gospel of Christ. There is no verse of Scripture giving any indication that the “thorn” was anything other than people, and certainly no verse saying it was a sickness. Let’s allow Paul to describe that opposition in his own words:

2 Corinthians 11:24-26
(24) From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one.
(25) Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep;
(26) in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.

In the battle between God and Satan, each employs human beings to do their bidding. The difference is that the true God acts only in conjunction with our freedom of will, that is, He must wait on us to obey Him before He can work with us. On the other hand, Satan, the false “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) demonizes those who open their minds to him and controls them to do the kinds of things that people did to Paul. At the same time, he works to arrange the circumstances in our lives so as to tempt us to respond according to our “flesh” (sin nature) rather than leaning on the spirit of God within us and allowing the Lord’s strength to be manifest in our lives.

And therein lies the great truth that Paul sets forth in the three verses following his reference to the “thorn,” which we will repeat here:

2 Corinthians 12:8-10
(8) Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
(9) And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
(10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

As frail human beings, living in an evil world and beset with the sin nature we inherited from Adam, it is imperative that we face both the “sin that dwells in us” and the spiritual opposition around us, recognize our complete inadequacy to deal with these in our own strength, and draw upon the power of God. It is recognizing and embracing our weakness that drives us to our Savior, who will then sustain and energize us. It is in and of Christ that we boast. Truly, his grace is sufficient for us, just as it was for Paul. Amen.

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  1. I agree fully. There is no doubt the hindrance (that was buffeted over and over again) was Paul’s adversaries who put him down to discredit him. However I have one question. When a believer is physically afflicted, to the point it hinders that believers good witness, can it also be called a thorn in the flesh?

    1. Sure, A thorn in the flesh is really just idiomatic speech indicating their is a physical sickness that is a hinderance.

      1. Though the “thorn in the flesh” has become a modern day idiomatic expression referring to physical ailments, (due to erroneous interpretation of this passage), the article above clearly states that Paul’s thorn was not a physical ailment. A “messenger of Satan to buffet” him is more to do with a spiritual battle than with actual people (though the enemy will use people). “For we battle not against flesh and blood… ” Ephesians 6.

        1. You are reading “not physical” into it. Satan certainly could have afflicted Paul just like he did Job. I personally don’t think we actually know what the “thorn in the flesh ” was since the scriptures don’t say.

  2. I have greatly enjoyed this study. Thank you for taking the time to search the scriptures to throw light on this .

  3. Thorns help us to humble in our life thus we can be effective in our mission

    1. Whether we want to call them thorns, being forged, or being in a crucible, all adversity can be used to shape and refine our character. They develop perseverance if we stay faithful and continue through them.

  4. I have to say that reading the word ‘infirmities’ in verse 9 also leads me to think it was a physical condition and especially since Paul also begins by calling it a thorn in the ‘flesh’. What exactly it may have been, I’m not sure, but I believe that God used it for His glory so that He would be exalted through Paul and not because of him. Thank you for the thought provoking study though.

  5. Most interesting study…let me add it could also be some kind of bad habit he had ?

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