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:
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.