I imagine that most people who spend time studying the subject of divine healing will eventually encounter the following question: ”What about Paul’s thorn?” There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about this thorn, and with this article, I hope to bring simple clarity to it.
Before you continue to read my post, I strongly encourage you to read the passage in context for yourself. It is a long passage, but reading the whole thing will provide context and bring understanding.
Here is a link to the passage at Bible Gateway: 2 Corinthians 11:16 – 12:10
Here is a brief overview and some background for this passage. Paul is writing to the believers in the city of Corinth. At the time, there were some people coming through the city that claimed to be apostles. These men were spreading false teachings, and they were also bragging on their own accomplishments in order to boost their influence.
As part of his effort to counter these men, Paul is listing some of his experiences as a Christian to show that his “resume” qualifies him to speak with authority when he comes against these erroneous doctrines. This is an oversimplification, but I provide it here as a brief background to give context.
In the passage we are looking at, he spends nearly all of his time talking about the persecution he has faced. Rather than brag on how awesome he is, he lists all the ways he has experienced trouble. He had been beaten, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, lost at sea, hungry, thirsty, cold, and naked (and the list goes on).
Then, in the middle of this list, he says the following:
2 Corinthians 11:30 – If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.
Notice two things here. Number one, the infirmity that he is boasting of is the collection of difficulties and persecutions that he has faced. Number two, physical disease is not mentioned anywhere as part of his list of trials. This is a VERY important point that should be kept in mind as you read the passage where he gives more detail regarding his “thorn.” When Paul is talking about his infirmity in this letter, he is talking about persecution that he has faced.
Next, he talks about “surpassingly great revelations” that he received. We know of no man that ever lived that received more revelation concerning the gospel of grace than Paul. God showed him things that he was not even allowed to talk about.
And then we come to the passage that contains the thorn.
2 Corinthians 12:7b-10
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.
Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
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.
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.
Notice the word that appears here again: infirmities. If you read this verse by itself, without the context of all the preceding verses, it would appear that he may be talking about some kind of physical ailment. However, he is using the exact same Greek word that he did back in chapter 11 when he was boasting about his many troubles. So he is not talking about being sick, he is talking about different forms of persecutions and troubles.
The Thorn, a Messenger?
Next I want to focus on a phrase he uses in verse 7. According to Paul, the thorn in his flesh is actually a messenger from Satan. Satan’s messengers are also called demons, evil spirits, or unclean spirits. Paul is saying that there was a demon that was causing problems for him.
So, Paul’s thorn was a demon,
That brings up another question, though. What was this demon doing?
There are many possibilities, but I believe the three choices below provide a general summary of the main explanations I have come across in my studies.
The demon was either…
- causing a physical sickness or disease in his body
- attacking Paul’s conscience by accusing him of his past persecutions of Christians
- stirring up severe persecution in the places Paul visited
If we limit our view to the immediate context of the passage, the option that appears to be the best fit is number 3. Paul has been talking at great length about the persecutions and troubles he has been facing, but he says nothing about having diseases or deformities, and he says nothing about having a guilty conscience.
The messenger from Satan was probably inciting resistance to Paul’s ministry, which often led to him being physically mistreated. This doesn’t mean that the other two options are not possible, just that they are much less likely, if we are to base our opinion on the immediate context.
If we are to look outside of the immediate context, we must remember the fact that Paul had authority over demons. He exercised this authority on several occasions in Acts, and he taught on this authority in his letters to the churches. He exercised his authority in such a way that his reputation became well known even among the demons themselves. (See Acts 19:13-16)
I find it very unlikely that Paul would permit a demon to operate continually in his body or in his conscience. However, the idea that a demon or a group of demons would go around stirring up trouble for him is not difficult to imagine.
If it is true that the demon was stirring up persecution, then Paul would have been praying for Jesus to remove the persecution he was facing. However, Jesus has warned all of His followers that persecution is part of the journey, and the fact that he said “no” to Paul’s request should not be surprising.
However, for Jesus to say no to a request for physical healing would go against the many examples he set forth when he walked the earth as detailed in the four gospels. Jesus always healed everyone that came to him. And Jesus always told everyone He sent to represent Him to do the same.
For these reasons, it seeems clear to me that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a form of spiritual warfare that was manifested in persecution. The idea that this thorn was a sickness that Jesus refused to heal is not represented in the passage when read in context, and this whole idea contradicts the life and example of Jesus.