Paul’s thorn in the flesh

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2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (NKJV)

7 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. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 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. 10 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.

This week’s devotional is quite long and involved. That is because the traditional understanding of this scripture is at best confusing and at worse will kill your faith and trust in God. Consequently, I have dealt with it in some detail, by no means fully, but enough I think to get the point across.

Whatever Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was, the passage has been taught to me and to countless others to mean that  Paul was given some kind of debilitating condition by God to keep him humble. Paul had started chapter 12 with a rather guarded account of his revelations and apparent visionary experiences in the heavenlies. This is the reason he gave when he spoke of his thorn in the flesh as a means to keep him humble. I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what Paul was getting at, but I will offer some suggestions. The most traditional idea is that God gave Paul some kind of an injury or sickness that was partially disabling to keep him humble. In my opinion, this does not allow for the next part, “a messenger of Satan to buffet me”. The Greek word for ‘messenger’ is ‘angelos’ and always refers to a person or persons.

Paul does not suggest for a minute that this was God instigating his issue. God neither allows, permits or inflicts sickness or injury on His people. He gave His only son’s life as a sacrifice to overcome these things. To sacrifice your only son to cover the consequences of your own actions would not be ethical, in fact, it would be downright evil so that cannot be the answer. Nevertheless, you can see serious Bible lecturers today still teaching that God gave Paul a demonic spirit to afflict him.[1] I honestly don’t get it, why would the God who sent His son to save the world, afflict one of His greatest apostles?

John 3:16–17 (NKJV)

16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

We read in Exodus 15: 26, one of the names of God by which He describes Himself is Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals. If Paul was of the opinion that God had sent the thorn to teach Him humility then he had no right to ask God to remove it. That would be praying against the will of God for him to learn some humility.

I would like to offer some sort of resolution to this conundrum, at least one that works for me. Firstly I would like to suggest that thorn in the flesh sounds an awful lot like ‘pain in the neck’, or ‘pain in the backside’, colloquial phrases describing persistent problem people in our lives. He may well have been describing an external group of people that were a persistent irritation that was hindering his ministry. Two groups of people spring to mind, firstly, the Judaising Believers who followed Paul everywhere he went. Much of  the context of Paul’s letters relate to repairing the damage that these people did, by teaching that gentile converts be circumcised, and obey other significant Jewish laws, a burden in addition to the gospel that Paul had taught. The second group of people were the Jewish leaders. Their golden boy had gone over to the enemy, and they were relentless in pursuing Paul everywhere he went and causing trouble with the authorities, the end result being Paul’s imprisonment and subsequent execution in Rome. There is nothing like persistent negative heckling and contrary teaching to keep one grounded, and no doubt Paul would have prayed long and hard for these two groups of people, messengers of Satan, to leave him and his churches alone but they plagued him to the end.

I have shared all this to try to offer an alternative read on this famous scripture, one that does not insult the character of our loving Heavenly Father, rather one that emphasises His provision to both his faithful servant and us, to overcome these circumstances, that we all face from time to time.

Having said all that let’s look at what God provided Paul to combat this situation.

2 Corinthians 12:9 (NKJV)

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.

Grace, the Christian’s secret weapon. A lot of people define grace as the unmerited favour of God upon one’s life. I think that grace is a lot more than that. We have just completed a series of sermons on the miracles in Mark’s gospel. In every instance, the miracle was an act of grace in response to the faith of a believer, or even of Jesus himself.  When we limit grace to being the unmerited favour of God then it is simply another word for mercy and whilst there is nothing wrong with that, grace is so much more. J. H. Stringer writes “‘Grace’ is preferred to ‘mercy’, because it includes the idea of the divine power which equips a man to live a moral life.”[2] Paul, in Ephesians, links faith to grace: –

Ephesians 2:8–9 (NKJV)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Again, Stringer notes “The dynamic sense of grace resulting in fearless courage and effective witness is seen in Acts 4:33; 11:23; 13:43 and is used in the context of the universal appeal of the gospel.[3]

Grace is a dynamic gift on the part of our Heavenly Father, in response to faith, to enable and equip us, to overcome any and every obstacle that is put in our path. So, when read verse 8 of our passage:

2 Corinthians 12:8 (NKJV)

Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.

Paul is asking God to remove these obstacles for him. God’s answer was simple and Paul’s response full of faith:

2 Corinthians 12:9 (NKJV)

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.

God is saying Paul, I promised to be with you in your difficulties, not to remove them for you. I have provided my grace to empower and strengthen you to overcome them, so get out there in my name and watch what happens.

The result was that Paul wrote more books, in our bible than anyone else. He developed all the major doctrines of the Christian faith and put them down in writing. He was responsible for the rapid spread of the gospel throughout almost the entire Graeco-Roman world. Friends our loving Heavenly Father is not out to get you, to inflict pain and disease on you to improve your character. He has given us everything we need to live:

2 Peter 1:3–4 (NKJV)

… His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

Reach for His enabling grace, and you’ll discover it’s sufficient for you today.[4]

[1] Dr. Steven R. Cook accessed 29/06/2020

[2] J. H. Stringer, “Grace, Favour,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 433.

[3] Ibid, 434.

[4] Bob Gass, A Fresh Word For Today : 365 Insights For Daily Living (Alachua, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), 33.

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