Posted by on Apr 9, 2012 in Bible Study
One Comment

The apostle Paul revealed an issue in his life to the Corinthians. He called it a “thorn in the flesh”. It has since been a mystery of a sorts because he was so vague in his description of this “thorn”. It has baffled Bible students for years and has created any number of theories and speculations. We recently had a study on this topic and I wanted to share my findings on it.


First let’s look at the passage in question:

And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
– 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

Common Theories

Let’s begin by looking at some common ideas about what this thorn is:

  • Physical Condition – Blindness or poor eyesight.
  • Physical Condition – Speech impediment
  • Spiritual Weakness – Lust, Pride, or other temptation

Blindness / Bad eyes

  • Pros: Support for this idea begins where Paul is converted on the road to Damascus. He is struck blind (Acts 9:8-9), then was healed (Acts 9:18). The speculation is that this had an affect on his quality of sight. Galatians 4:15 has Paul telling the Galatians, “for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.“, possibly indicating he needed new eyes. Sometimes Galatians 6:11 is thrown in as well because Paul says, “Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.“, which could imply he had to use large letters because of poor eyesight.
  • Cons: Although Paul was struck blind in Acts 9, Acts 9:18 does says, “he received sight forthwith“. The text does not indicate a partial healing and gives us no reason to assume God would not fully restore Paul. The text in Galatians 4 is also not definitive. Plucking out one’s eye was a figure of speech often used in the Jewish culture. Because one’s eyesight was so dear to them, it would be a great sacrifice to remove it for some reason. Today we say, “It cost me an arm and a leg” in much the same way a Jew of this time would say, “It cost me my eyes”. The statement is just an expression of their willingness to do anything for Paul. The Galatians 6:11 reference is just a profound misunderstanding of the text. Paul is talking about the length of the writing, not the font-size (this is easily confirmed by looking at the original Greek text).
  • Speech Impediment

  • Pros: In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul describes himself, “For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.” Then a little bit later in 2 Corinthians 11:6 he says, “But though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge; but we have been throughly made manifest among you in all things.
  • Cons: These passages are just not conclusive enough to infer Paul had an actual physical impairment. It is just as viable and probable to infer Paul was referring to a lack of training as a public speaker.
  • Any Other Physical Impairment

  • Pros: Much is made about Paul’s phrase of this being a thorn “in the flesh“, meaning it must’ve been something about his actual body.
  • Cons: We cannot limit the term “in the flesh” to the body because it refers often to anything carnal or in human nature including sinful conduct (Romans 8 repeatedly talks of “walking after the flesh” which is not referring to our actual feet, but where our heart goes). Additional evidence against a physical impairment is in Paul’s spiritual gifts. Paul was given the gift of healing and apparent control over bodily afflictions. He blinded Elymas the false prophet in Acts 13:6-11. In Acts 14:8-10 he heals a lame man in Lystra. In Acts 28:8-9 he healed diseases and in Acts 20:9-12 he even raised Eutychus from the dead. It would appear that Paul would’ve had power over any bodily condition like blindness, lameness, or speech impediments.
  • A Spiritual Weakness

  • Pros: As much as we like to prop him up, Paul was still just a man subject to all the lust, pride, and other temptations we fall to everyday. In Romans 7:14-25, Paul declares how sin still operates in his life even going as far to refer to himself as a “wretched man“. Paul was unmarried and subject to lusts of the flesh. He was very knowledgable and thus subject to pride. The answer to his prayer was “my grace is sufficient“. If this is referring to our saving grace, what does that do? It justifies our sins.
  • Cons: It was given to him so he would not be “exalted above measure“. So being given pride to prevent pride makes little sense. The word “grace” can refer to any undeserved blessing and not just to the saving grace of the cross.

  • So… what is this thorn in the flesh? Like many topics in the Bible, we may be over-thinking this. One thing we have grown accustom to doing is using verses of scripture like they were written as numbered lists of wise instructions. Remember that 2 Corinthians is a letter written to a congregation… a letter with a narrative. So forgetting the chapters and verses for a minute, what was Paul even talking about in this letter. Well at this point of the letter, Paul is largely trying to convince the Corinthians of his credibility. In fact, this thorn in the flesh passage is right in the middle of his arguments against those who would discredit him as an apostle. Why would he take time out of this narrative and defense of his credit to start talking about his poor eyesight or a speech impediment? So with this context in mind, let’s examine the text a bit further.

    Where did the thorn come from?

    We often view the thorn as coming from God to keep Paul humble. However the text clearly states the source of the thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:7: “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me“. So this thorn is a messenger of Satan. The term messenger from the original greek is the same as an angel (angelos).

    What is the thorn going to do?

    Again looking at 2 Corinthians 12:7, notice what this messenger of Satan does. It was sent to “buffet” him. Buffet is from the term kolaphizō, meaning to strike repeatedly. Most of the physical assumptions for the thorn are conditions Paul would constantly be in, but this messenger was sent to beat him up over and over again.

    Why was the thorn sent?

    Again according to the same verse, “lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations“. So a messenger of Satan repeated strikes upon Paul to prevent him from being exalted by the revelations given to him by God. Does this mean to keep him humble? We usually assume so, but why would Satan send a messenger to keep Paul humble? Wouldn’t Satan want Paul to relish in sinful pride? Thinking about the context of the passage, Paul is actually trying to boast of his accolades by necessity (2 Corinthians 11:17-33). Why does he need to do this? Because Satan’s messenger has been beating Paul down and preventing him from being exalted above other men in the area.

    Who was this messenger?

    Let’s look to some text leading up to 2 Corinthians 12:7.

    For though I should boast somewhat more of our authority, which the Lord hath given us for edification, and not for your destruction, I should not be ashamed:
    – 2 Corinthians 10:8

    Note here, Paul considers it appropriate to boast in order to lend credibility to his claim as a true apostle.

    As the truth of Christ is in me, no man shall stop me of this boasting in the regions of Achaia. Wherefore? because I love you not? God knoweth. But what I do, that I will do, that I may cut off occasion from them which desire occasion; that wherein they glory, they may be found even as we. For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ.
    – 2 Corinthians 11:10-13

    Here Paul states the reason he needs to boast. To remove opportunities from false apostles wishing to discredit him and foster their own glory.

    Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. - Matthew 7:15

    And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
    – 2 Corinthians 11:14-15

    Notice here how he labels these men… Satan’s ministers. This is echoed later in our subject text when he called his thorn in the flesh a messenger of Satan.

    Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also. For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.
    – 2 Corinthians 11:18-19

    Notice what Paul says these ministers of Satan glory after… the flesh. The next few verses in 2 Corinthians 11 is a laundry list of sufferings Paul has seen. However we almost always miss the point. He is comparing his struggles to these false apostles, to exalt himself above the measure they had given to them. This continues into Chapter 12 where Paul moves from physical qualifications to the spiritual revelations he received:

    It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.
    – 2 Corinthians 12:1-2

    So he then explains how he received divine revelation to give him credibility from God, but even this is being robbed of him by the “thorn in the flesh”.

    Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
    – 2 Corinthians 12:5-7

    Paul makes it clear that if he was to glory in this it would only be in God. There was no danger of Paul becoming prideful. The thorn was not there to prevent Paul from becoming arrogant, it was there to tear down his testimony about the revelations and prevent the Corinthians from seeing him as a true messenger of God.

    Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
    – 2 Corinthians 12:10

    Take a close look at a couple of the things he is becoming content with… reproaches (these false apostles were reproaching him) and persecutions (again from these men). Paul then concludes this entire issue with these words:

    I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds.
    – 2 Corinthians 12:11-12

    He feels awkward that he had to boast to make them give him credit, he felt they should have commended him based on what they had seen and heard before. He seems truly hurt not to be considered a true apostle in their eyes. This pain is probably why Paul asked the thorn to be removed 3 times.

    Based on the context of the passage and the wording about who sent the thorn in the flesh, it would appear that this thorn is either a man or group of men posing as apostles but doing the work of Satan (messengers/ministers of Satan) by continuing to buffet (slander and discredit) Paul and thus preventing him from being exalted as an authentic apostle of Christ in the eyes of the Corinthians.

    # # # # # # #

    One thought

    1. I’ve been studying these same passages. I have come to roughly the same conclusion, not a physical malady, a spiritual oppression. However, I disagree with most about God “allowing” it. Instead, I have a somewhat off-beat hypothesis. I think Elymas the sorcerer “assigned” this spiritual oppression to Paul, to cause all of his trouble, in revenge for Paul temporarily blinding him. I think it is most clearly seen in the account of the woman with the divining spirit… However, it seems that this oppression was driven by some “human force” as you indicate. I agree with you. This question has ultimately led to the conclusion above. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this hypothesis. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, and your post is the closest I’ve seen to my own theory.



    Leave a Reply