Many have speculated about what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was so what do most believe it was?
Why the Thorn?
The Bible says that the Apostle Paul prayed three times to have his “thorn in the flesh,” and wrote, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me” (2nd Cor 12:8), but God did not remove it, so the first question that comes to mind is, why did God allow the Apostle Paul to suffer from a “thorn in the flesh?” The Apostle Paul tells us that God allowed this thorn in his flesh “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2nd Cor 12:7). We can only imagine everything that God revealed to Paul. Wouldn’t that increase the chances of a person becoming prideful or arrogant, even someone like the Apostle Paul? The “revelations given to” Paul (2nd Cor 12:1-4) must have been incredible, and some things he wasn’t even allowed share, so God, knowing human nature, kept Paul humble by allowing a thorn in his flesh so that he would be dependent upon God for strength but also remain humble. Paul prayed three times to have it removed, but God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2nd Cor 12:9), and so “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2nd Cor 12:10).
What Was the Thorn?
Was the thorn in the flesh an illness or was it someone in particular who was constantly antagonizing Paul? Maybe it was the Jews in general because they hounded him relentlessly wherever he went, and on occasions, they incited the crowds to riot against Paul and his associates. The Apostle Paul was a threat to the Jews because Christianity was growing, and so that threatened their own following and positions of power. Was Paul’s thorn the incessant spiritual battles he may have experienced? Maybe it was even a physical illness or disease that made it difficult to travel. If so, many would have undoubtedly looked down upon him for this affliction. They would have seen it as a sign that God was punishing him for his “blasphemous teachings” that Jesus was God and was raised from the dead. It’s likely the Jews made a big deal out of Paul’s thorn, whatever it was. In fact, they could have been that thorn Paul was writing about.
Another possibility is that Alexander the Coppersmith was Paul’s thorn in the flesh because Paul said he had done him much harm (2nd Tim 4:14), or even another Alexander who was involved in a public protest with Paul and a hostile crowd (Acts 19:33)? The problem with that is Paul’s comment about Alexander the Coppersmith came just prior to his execution, and he doesn’t mention him before this. It could have even been the “Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family,” because we know they opposed the gospel from the very beginning (Acts 4:5-7), however I find it interesting that Paul uses the word “flesh” in speaking of this thorn, so that could certainly refer to a physical problem in his flesh, because Paul tends to use the word flesh in describing our physical bodies. The Greek word he uses is “sarx,” which means the “flesh” or “substance of the body,” however that view doesn’t seem to fit the context because two verses later Paul writes that it was “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” so this seems to be more of a thorn of persecutions (2nd Cor 12:10) than anything else. Some believe it might be an issue with his eyes based upon his writing, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand,” (Gal 6:11), but that appears to be his way of highlighting or emphasizing a point in this chapter about the circumcised or the Jews who insisted the law was necessary to be saved, and Paul hated their boasting about their alleged superiority over the uncircumcised (Gentiles).
The question of why God allowed Paul’s thorn in the flesh was obvious. It was to keep him humble and reliant upon Christ and His strength, “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2nd Cor 12:9,) and “to keep me from becoming conceited” (2nd Cor 12:7). Paul didn’t have to guess about the reason for the thorn or ask, “Why God?” He was satisfied in the sovereignty of God, knowing all things were in His hands (Rom 8:28). If a thorn can do that for Paul, then it’s not really a bad thing is it? From a human perspective, it seems bad…but in the eternal scope of things, God brings good out of it, as He does from evil (Gen 50:20; John 3:16). Suffering is not a novel thing for the Christian…it is often the life they live. The Apostle Peter said “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1st Pet 3:14), because “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (1st Pet 2:19), and certainly suffering physically can feel unjust, however it’s not just for the few but “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1st Pet 2:21). Christians can do exceedingly more in their sufferings, so “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Rom 5:3). The way that Paul looked at suffering is as if there were a gigantic scale, and on one side there is a tiny speck of dust representing this life now, but on the other side is all the glory that’s coming, and so he could write “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Paul trusted in the sovereignty of God and knew that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose“ (Rom 8:28).
Perhaps God did not inspire Paul to reveal what this thorn was because it might have caused others to associate with Paul and make them think they too were linked with him by their illness and God wants us to focus on Christ, not Paul. If God had wanted us to know what that thorn was, He would have done it, so all we can do is to take educated, biblical guesses for now, but someday we can ask Paul to his face. What we do know is it was a reminder or “a messenger of Satan,” that he needed Christ and he couldn’t endure without Him or in his own strength, and that he would remain humble. Paul’s suffered so he would remain humble and dependent upon God, but it’s not just for Paul…it also is our calling to share in the sufferings of Christ, because we are supposed to “follow in his steps.” Those steps include suffering. Each of us have our own “thorn in the flesh,” don’t we?
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.