Trials

Was Paul Sick When He Met the Galatians?

This question has been coming up again in the last few weeks, and I wonder if there are more people out there thinking about this.  If so, then here’s my answer.

Let’s begin with the passage:

Gal 4:13-14

You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first.  And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.  What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.

Some people use this verse to imply that Paul had some kind of eye disease or other sickness, and that God would not heal him.  Personally, I believe that is a little far fetched.  It requires you to make a lot of assumptions, and eventually you have to come to a conclusion that contradicts the life of Jesus on earth.  If you have to make assumptions, then I think you should make assumptions that agree with the life of Jesus.

For the record, Jesus always healed everyone that came to Him.  There is not a single exception to this in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  And He was doing God’s will all the time, so it was always God’s will to heal.  If it was God’s will for Paul to have an eye disease, then the Father’s will is very different than what Jesus was demonstrating on the earth.  But the Father and the Son and the Spirit all agree, all the time.  God is not divided against Himself.  And when Jesus ushered in the New Covenant, it included both forgiveness of sin, and healing.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s move on to something that will help us understand what is going on.  Read this passage from the book of Acts, where we are given some insight into the events that preceded Paul’s initial visit to the people he was writing to.

Acts 14:19-22 (NET Bible)

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and after winning the crowds over, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, presuming him to be dead.  But after the disciples had surrounded him, he got up and went back into the city. On the next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe.

After they had proclaimed the good news in that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch.  They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions.”

 

As far as I have been able to figure out the timeline, it looks like Paul was stoned in Lystra just before he went to other churches in the region of Galatia.  Galatia is a region, not a city, so the letter to the Galatians would have been sent to churches in cities like Derbe, Iconium, Antioch, etc.

Paul was visiting these places right after he was stoned.  Crowds of people had just thrown rocks at his head, face, and body until it looked like he was dead.  He may have even died and been raised from the dead when the other believers gathered around him to pray.  We aren’t told if he actually was dead, or if he just looked dead.  Either way, he was in bad shape.

I assume that he looked pretty beat up at the time that he went to Derbe, since he had just gone through this.  And since his body was all beat up at the time, it would fit the statement in Acts 14:22 “We must enter the kingdom of God through many persecutions.”  This also fits the statement Galatians 4 that we are studying now, except that most translations use the phrase “illness” instead of infirmity or weakness.   This is a form of the same word “infirmity” that I covered in my post on Paul’s Thorn.

So, Paul was recovering from a traumatic beating.  And although it was a miraculous recovery, apparently he still had some scars and bruising, and so he probably looked pretty rough.  Personally, I believe this is what he is talking about when he is talking about his infirmity or his weakness or his appearance.  In other words, he was beat up the first time he went there, so he is referencing that in the letter to the Galatians.

You would have to make many assumptions to go from the text in Galatians 4 to a conclusion that Paul had an incurable eye disease.   Even so, there are respectable Bible teachers and commentators that make this assumption and promote it to others.  I have even seen some people go as far as to give the name of the disease.  I would suggest that we use greater caution before making assumptions that contradict the life of Jesus, especially when it concerns something so clear as His willingness to heal sick people.

Acts 10:38 – God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.

Paul’s Thorn

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.

Divine Healing, Trials, and Persecution

Jesus warned his followers that there would be persecution and hard times for them (John 16:33).  He walked this earth as a living example of enduring persecution.  He suffered persecution, and so did those around him.  When he encountered persecution, he endured it.

He was slandered, shunned, and hated by his enemies, and he was eventually beaten and executed.  He warned his disciples that that they too would encounter many trials, and we know from the bible and from history that this is indeed what happened.  Many disciples were treated in the same way, including beatings, imprisonments, and executions.  Many of His disciples are still treated this way.

It is important to note, however, that the persecution and hard times were not physical ailments in His body.  Jesus did not endure sickness and disease as part of his ministry, nor did he instruct his followers to do so.  In fact, when Jesus encountered sickness and disease, he ministered healing to those that needed it.

Acts 10:38“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.”

During his earthly ministry, Jesus encountered many people with health problems.  When people came to him that were in need of healing, he healed them.  This is the case in every example that we have in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

There is not a single example of someone coming to him for healing and going away with their condition unchanged.  Rather, we see the exact opposite.  From the examples we have available for us to read, Jesus was always willing to minister healing.

We also see that every time he sent out anyone to represent him, he instructed them them to function in the same way.

He did this when he sent out the 12:

Luke 9:1 – “Then He called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases.”

He did this when we sent out the 70:

Luke 10:1,9 – “After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go……And heal the sick there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”

He did this when he sent out everyone else(including you and me) at what we call “the great commission”

Mark 16:15-18 “And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel…And these signs will follow those who believe…they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

I have heard people teach that sometimes God wants us to endure sickness and disease as part of the “many trials” that we face.  That contradicts the life, words, and actions of Jesus.  Jesus always did the Father’s will, and His days were filled with healing people and setting them free from ailments.  There are many scriptures that say things like “He healed all that came to Him” or “they brought all the sick people to Him and He healed them all.”

We have no account in the Gospels that He told anyone to remain in their sickness as part of His plan.  If sickness was His plan, then He was fighting against His own plan every day with multitudes of people.

His plan was to heal the people, and tell them that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Some people liked that message, and some people reacted violently.  They all had the right to choose, and people still have the right to choose.  Jesus did not override the choices of people, and He knew that there would be those that would react violently to the message of the Kingdom.  And He told His followers not to be surprised if and when they encounter reactions like that.

Those are the trials that Christians must endure, because they come as a result of the free-will choices of other people.  Sickness, disease, and physical problems are not included in this.  Jesus healed the sick people.  He “went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.” (Acts 10:38)  As His representatives, we should be doing the same thing.  We shouldn’t be telling people that God wants them to stay in their sickness.  We should be telling them that God wants to heal them.

Paul’s Thorn (Audio)

 

Title:  Paul’s Thorn

Subject Matter: What was Paul’s thorn?

Speaker:  Neal Leazer

Recorded April 2, 2014 at Spirit Filled LivingHope Chapel, Apex NC

You can download the audio by right-clicking on the following link:  Paul’s Thorn