A Thorn in the Flesh

Do you know what chapter we have been studying this year?  Do you remember which verses we have been considering this month?

Heb 11:35-3835 Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented —  38 of whom the world was not worthy.

These verses describe the fundamental presence of persecution and suffering in the life of the faithful. The most prevalent question that surfaces when we consider suffering is “why?” Especially when we consider the suffering of the righteous. The Bible gives us some answers. But some key passages are in 2 Cor. 12 in the account of what is commonly called Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”.   Let’s take a few moments and take a closer look………….

For an apostle, credibility was everything.  In today’s courtroom, those who oppose a witnesses’ testimony attempt to discredit the witness, and thus destroy the strength of what he has to say. Some of those who opposed the apostle Paul were at Corinth. He had come under a personal attack from some.

  • 2 Cor. 12 can be best understood as an apologia, or a defense, of his apostleship. Yet Paul’s primary purpose in these words is not to simply defend himself, but rather the truth that he had preached.  It is in this context that Paul speaks the familiar words, “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh”.
  • Read 2 Cor. 12:1-10
  • Most of what has been written about these passages focuses on the identity of this thorn. C. S. Lewis once said that “one cannot easily join at 11:00 a conversation that began at 8:00.” We have to look at the original circumstances in which these statements are set.
  • Paul was afraid that the church there might be deceived (as Satan deceived Eve – 11:3, and that false apostles would turn the church away from the truth that Paul had delivered.
  • Therefore Paul proclaimed that he was not behind even the most prominent apostles (11:5, 12:11) Those who rejected Paul’s credibility and undermined his influence were the enemies of God and messengers of Satan.
  • But how could Paul defend his apostleship without appearing be boastful and arrogant?   It is in this defense that Paul mentions his thorn. Whatever this thorn was it was an argument for Paul’s apostleship and a paradigm for Christian suffering.

I. The Context of His Thorn: “It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast.” (12:1)  Ken Chumbley breaks Paul’s defense of his apostleship in chapter 11 into 4 parts:

    1. A.    Pedigree (vs. 11:22) – He was a Hebrew, and of the seed of Abraham.
    2. B.    Persecution (vs. 23-25) – As a servant he had suffered persecution more than others
    3. C.    Perils (26-27) – In preaching the gospel, Paul had found himself in constant danger, and God delivered him from it all.
    4. D.    Pressure (28-33) – Paul exhibited true concern for the churches. He burned in indignation when he saw Christians stumble in weakness.
  • Though from the human standpoint these would seem to disprove his apostleship, Paul uses a great paradox to make his point – vs. 30 – “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmities (weaknesses).” But Paul is not yet finished. There is one more experience he will introduce as evidence. It is extraordinary and mentioned only here in scripture. He had not only been a servant in peril, but 14 years earlier, a stranger in paradise. God had allowed him to see things others had not. To avoid the spirit of boastfulness, Paul speaks about himself in the third person, (saying he will not boast about himself in this circumstance, v. 5)

II. The Cause of His Thorn“And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations” Read 2 Cor. 12:2-4 – In these verses Paul affirms 3 things:

  • That he was conveyed into paradise.
  • That the exact means of his conveyance was unknown to him.
  • He could not disclose what he had seen.
  1. A.    It is commonly thought that this experience took place near the start of his preaching tours, to strengthen him for what was ahead. This was a great privilege granted to Paul. Barclay, in his etymology of the word “paradise” mentions the Persian word which meant “walled garden”. “When a Persian king wished to confer a very special honor on someone who was specially dear to him he made him a companion of the garden, and gave him the right to walk in the royal gardens with him in close and intimate companionship”.
  2. B.    The exact nature of Paul’s experience must remain a mystery to us in this life. What he saw he says was unspeakable (inexpressible). This means either that Paul was not able to describe it, or that he was no allowed. The latter seems best to fit the context. In vs. 6 – He says he refrained, “lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.”
    1. 1.     The greatness of this revelation posed a threat to the church at Corinth – they had already been guilty of honoring men instead of Christ. It also posed a personal threat to Paul.  Vs. 7 – “Lest  I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of revelations there was given to me a thorn in the flesh.”

III. The Character of His Thorn: “A messenger of Satan to buffet me” . Much speculation as to the identity of Paul’s thorn: eye trouble, headaches, earaches, epilepsy, etc. But must the thorn be limited to only one aspect of suffering? Paul has been describing his “weaknesses”.

  • Three times he appealed for this thorn to be removed. When God said no, His attitude changed, and he determined to glory in his “weaknesses”. Based upon his request and the answer, it seems logical to conclude that his thorn was a compilation of all his sufferings & injuries – not one thing in particular.
  • Thorn (skolops) means Large stake, also translated as “cross”. Vincent argues against the translation of thorn and in favor of stake, an instrument for impaling.
  • It was used to describe the intensity of his sufferings (not just pricked, but impaled).
  1. A.    There is both an indictment & an implication in Paul’s thorn:
    1. 1.     Paul indicts Satan as the source of his suffering. The stake was his messenger. God was not to be blamed.
    2. 2.     The implication, though, was that looming over the devil’s work was the chastening hand of God“that I should not be exalted over much”  C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains” Both Satan and God had a “stake” in Paul’s suffering (and in ours). Satan wanted him to throw in the towel. God wanted to save Paul from a self-righteous attitude, which would have caused him to lose his salvation.

IV. The Consequences of His Thorn: “When I am weak, then am I strong.” James Hastings on 2 Cor. 12:9 in the Great Texts of the Bible, points out that there are two ways to lighten a burden. You can diminish the actual weight, or you can strengthen the one who bears it. Gods has overwhelmingly preferred the latter. God does not spare us from things, but, through grace, He makes us conquerors. (Rom. 8:37). Paul’s strength was God’s rival, but his weakness was God’s servant.

  1. A.    The answer completely satisfied Paul: (vs. 10) 2 reasons why:
    • He knew that God’s spiritual mercy was sufficient for every physical weakness. He could distinguish between the permanent and the perishable.  There is nothing that we have here that can’t be taken away by storm, disease, decay or death. The only indestructible things are laid up in heaven.
    • He knew that these weaknesses did not prevent the “power of Christ from resting upon him.”
      • Rest = tabernacle or pitch a tent over. He was not tormented because he was the worst of all men, but because he was the best (like Job). His suffering gave evidence of the highest favor – like the vision before. It was through the trials and the subsequent protection that Paul could know of the power of God in his life.

Conclusion: We need to recognize the nature of the cross God calls us to bear. It is not simply to be understood in a noble or heroic sense. The cross of Jesus’ day represented humiliation and hurt. But God used that hurt to exhibit His greatest power. It was a thorn, a weakness, which showed the sufficiency of God’s grace for all men. Will you become a part of that weakness?

(from a study by Kenneth Chumbley)