What Was Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh? Well…Not A Sickness To Keep Him Humble!

Hey. I thought it was about time to share on Paul’s thorn.

Prickly subject, I know.

Pauls thorn in the flesh

Nevertheless, I love to share my findings with you because I’m confident it will help you in your gracewalk as you’ll see how good God is!

You find the passage about Pauls’ thorn in 2 Cor. 12:7-10. Many who read this passage often hastily conclude that Paul’s thorn is a “physical sickness.” As such, they conclude that sometimes God’s will is not to heal.

The truth is that it is always God’s will to heal anyone, 100%, all the time. I already covered that in a video, called “How To Heal The Sick: God’s Will About Healing.”

One of the purposes of this post is to debunk the false idea that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a sickness given to him by God to keep him humble.

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The law of first mention and the context

The Bible study term, “The Law of First Mention” teaches us that the first time that a word or phrase is used in the Bible, it sets a precedent for how that word is to be interpreted or used throughout the Bible.

The first time that we see the phrase “thorn in the flesh” or “thorn in something” is in Numbers 33:55. God told the Israelites that if they do not drive out the inhabitants of Canaan, then the remaining Canaanites will become “thorns in their sides.”

What does the “thorn” mean? It means “they will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”

Other times “thorn in something” is found is in Joshua 23:13 and Judges 2:2-3 where God was saying that it is the “people” who will be their “thorns,” not physical sicknesses.

All three times that the phrase “torn in flesh” is mentioned in the Old Testament, it can be seen a figure of speech, not a physical sickness given to them.

It simply means that the “people” of Canaan will bring trouble to the Israelites – it is the negative influence ungodly people had on righteous people.

Does this pattern line up with the context of what Paul was saying in 2 Cor. 12:7-10?

We must understand that Paul was writing a letter without chapter divisions. That means that we must find out what Paul was saying from the very beginning of the letter.

We find that Paul said much about his persecutions, trials and sufferings for the Gospel, but never once did he mention a physical sickness.

In speaking of his troubles and persecutions, he said he was:

  • Burdened beyond measure (1:8)
  • Above his strength (1:8)
  • Despaired even of life (1:9)
  • Given a sentence of death (1:9)
  • Hard pressed on every angle (4:8)
  • Perplexed, persecuted and destroyed (4:9)
  • Always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus (4:10)
  • Delivered to death for Jesus’ sake (4:11)
  • In stripes above measure (11:23)
  • In prisons more frequently (11:23)
  • In deaths often (11:23)
  • Striped 39 times from the Jews (11:24)
  • Beaten 3 times with rods (11:25)
  • Stoned once (11:25)
  • Shipwrecked 3 times (11:25)
  • In the deep a day and a night (11:25)
  • In journeys often (11:26)
  • In perils of waters (11:26)
  • In perils of robbers (11:26)
  • In perils of his own countrymen (11:26)
  • In perils of the Gentiles (11:26)
  • In perils in the city (11:26)
  • In perils in the wilderness (11:26)
  • In perils in the sea (11:26)
  • In perils among false brethren (11:26)
  • In weariness and toil (11:26)
  • In sleeplessness often (11:26)
  • In hunger and thirst (11:26)
  • In fastings often (11:26)
  • In cold and nakedness (11:26)

Notice how Paul described he was persecuted and suffering from every angle possible, yet never once did he mentioned that these persecutions was in any form of a physical sickness.

Granted that he was beaten, striped and stoned multiple times, it surely would have caused him much physical injuries. Yet this is not the same as him having a physical sickness that he cannot get rid of.

Thus, by looking at the context of many chapters before 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, we know that Paul was not talking about a physical sickness. Rather, Paul was describing the outward persecutions and trials he was enduring for the faith.

Pauls thorn in the flesh is persecution

Thorn in the flesh = a messenger of Satan

With the context settled, let’s consider the actual scripture of Pauls “thorn in the flesh.”

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 (2 Cor. 7-10).

First, note that Paul said his thorn in the flesh was given to him by a messenger of Satan, not God (verse 7).

So next time when we hear people say things like “Oh brother, I guess that’s just a thorn God gave you to teach you something,” then we know exactly what to do: ignore them. It is also a good idea to tell them the truth 🙂

As I’ve explained here, God will not use sicknesses to “teach us something” as New Covenant believers because it violates scripture.

Also, notice how Paul said that his thorn in the flesh is: “A messenger of Satan.” So once find out what this “messenger of Satan” is, then we will know exactly what Paul’s thorn is!

The word “messenger” in Greek is “agello” which was translated in the bible 179 times as “angel” and 7 times as “messenger.”

Not once was it translated as a physical sickness. Thus, to be faithful to the original text, Paul was saying: my thorn in the flesh = messenger of Satan. Period.

However the false belief that the devil can only do what God allows him to do has led many people to change Paul’s clear statement and place the responsibility on God for Paul’s thorn in the flesh. That is not the case.

God is not the author of our problems!

And what was this messenger of Satan sent to do? To “buffet” Paul (12:7). The word “buffet” means “to strike repeatedly” as waves would buffet the shore.

Since Paul had received such an abundance of revelation, Satan decided to strike him repeatedly. With what? All the things he described earlier in his listing of sufferings and persecutions.

Exalted above measure by an abundance of revelation

The reason Paul suffered from a “thorn in the flesh” (persecution and trials) was because he received an “abundance of revelations.” In fact, Paul wrote 2/3 of the New Testament.

So the next time when someone is trying to claim Paul’s thorn or tell another person that they need to bear their thorn in sicknesses, then that person in question better have received at least as much revelations as Paul did to make up 2/3 of the New Testament.

And if that person does not measure up, then they should simply stop hiding behind Paul’s thorn (not to mention that Paul’s thorn was not even a physical sickness).

Verse 7 says the thorn in the flesh came lest Paul be exalted above measure. Traditionally, that has been interpreted to say the thorn was to keep Paul humble. Therefore, God had to be the author of it, because only God would want Paul to be humble.

(There is only one person who can humble you, and that is you. Nobody else, not even God, can humble you. When we try to humble somebody else, it is called humiliation, not humbleness. Big difference).

Anyway, there is a godly way of being exalted.

1 Peter 5:6 says, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.”

Those who submit (humble) themselves to God will be exalted in Gods sight.

Paul was not speaking of exalting himself above measure through pride, but rather, the thorn came from Satan to keep Paul from being so respected and honoured (exalted) in the sight of the people.

Many more people would have received what Paul preached if everything was always “rosy” for him.

But there was this messenger of Satan who always buffeted Paul and scared away the faint-hearted from committing themselves to Jesus, whom Paul preached.

In Joshua 3:7 we read that Joshua was exalted in the sight of his people.

In Acts 5:13 we read that people in the new covenant were highly exalted.

So, we see that the exalting spoken of is not a negative kind but a godly kind. That just further strengthens the fact that the thorn was not God’s doing.

My grace is sufficient - pauls thorn in the flesh

Paul took pleasure in his “infirmities”

Some will say that Paul took pleasure in his “infirmities” (vs. 9 and 10) and so he is referring to his thorn in the flesh as a physical sickness.

The word “infirmity” in the original Greek is “astheneia,” which stems from the root word “asthenes,” which translates to a “lack of strength” or “weakness.”

“Infirmity” can mean sickness and is used that way in 1 Tim. 5:23, though this word asthenes or weakness has been used many times in letters written by Paul which indicated trials and persecutions, but not physical sickness.

For example, “The Spirit also helps us in our weaknesses [asthenes] (Rom. 8:26). Lacking the wisdom or knowledge to know how or what to pray for is called an infirmity.

In Heb. 4:15 it is written, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses [asthenes].

This word “weakness” is the same word used in 2 Cor. 12:9 when God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness [asthenes].”

Thus, this thorn in the flesh and infirmity (weakness) that Paul was describing was not one of physical sickness, but rather persecutions he was enduring which made him feel weak.

But God told him that it was through his weakness that God’s strength was made perfect in him.

In 2 Cor. 11:30, Paul uses the exact terminology of “boasting in infirmities” that is used just a few verses later in speaking about this thorn.

In short

So, in context and by looking at the Old and New Testament, Paul’s thorn was a demonic angel or messenger sent by Satan which continually stirred up persecution against him.

Paul asked the Lord three times to remove persecution from him, not sickness, because it is much easier to spread the Gospel without opposition and resistance.

The Lord told him His grace was sufficient because God cannot deliver us from persecution since we’re not redeemed from persecution.

Christ has redeemed us from things such as sin, sickness, poverty, depression. (That is not to say that Christians never sin, get sick or have financial problems. But the Lord’s power is always available to bring us victory over all these things).

However, concerning persecution and the many problems we encounter, the Lord hasn’t provided deliverance from these, but rather the strength to endure, thereby bringing glory to Himself and conviction to our persecutors.

Paul later stated that when he said in 2 Timothy 3:12, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”

That’s why we read in 2 Cor. 12:10 that most gladly, therefore, he boasted in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions and distresses that the power of Christ might rest upon him. He had learned to be weak in himself so that Christ could be strong in him.

Paul with runny, puffy eyes?

There are two other passages of Scripture that those who believe Paul’s thorn in the flesh was sickness have tried to use to verify that.

One is Galatians 4:13-15. Here Paul says that he preached the Gospel to these Galatians through an infirmity of the flesh, and in verse 15, he makes reference to these people being willing to pluck out their own eyes and give them to him.

From this, people have preached that Paul’s thorn was a rare, ancient disease which was characterized by runny, puffy eyes. But let us look at whom Paul was speaking to when he said this.

He was writing to the people who lived in the region known as Galatia, which had as its major cities, Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium.

In Acts 14:19, Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, a city of Galatia. The next day he walked at least twenty miles to Derbe, another city of Galatia, and began preaching unto them.

I’m sure he had runny, puffy eyes, along with multiple cuts and bruises, but they were not the result of some disease. They were the result of having just been stoned.

He also says in verse 13 that his infirmity was “at the first,” which leaves the impression it was only a temporary thing that he recovered from.

Can you imagine what those that stoned him must have thought? They could see Paul’s humanity in the cuts and bruises, but they could also see the supernatural strength of God flowing through him. “For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

The next scripture used to say Paul’s thorn was bad eyes is also in Galatians, chapter 6, verse 11. It says, “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand.”

People have said Paul’s eyes were so bad that he had to write in large letters, and this is what he was making reference to.

That is only a supposition and not a very good one at that. It is a lot more credible to believe that he was simply referring to the long letter he had written to the Galatians.

Alright, so far my findings on Paul’s thorn.

In His embrace,

Bas size 3 bold onder emails

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  1. Hi Bas,

    Well done! You have captured this topic beautifully. I’ve heard these silly arguments so many times. Even a good friend of mine stopped resisting the devil because he was convinced that a shoulder problem was a thorn in the flesh from God. Really, you’d think that our Father is sadistic and delights in our pain when, instead, He says time after time that He delight in our prosperity. He is a loving Father and being a father myself I can not imagine smiting one of my kids with illness just so that they stay humble. Unthinkable!

    Thanks Bas.

    u r blessed!

    • Bas Rijksen says

      Thank you Daniel. It’s my pleasure to share the Gospel in the most simple and clear way I can 🙂

      Yes, I know, just the silly idea that God would give us a “thorn” to teach us something or whatever, is just such a deadly idea, with horrible consequences.

      As you say, thank our Father He’s not that way.

      He’s really a good God, who’s in a good mood, giving good gifts…

      • Doreen Bellamy says

        Hello. I have had something revealed to me along these lines as well. I submit to you that Paul was being tormented in his mind with the memories of his past when he was known as Saul. A man who dragged Christians to be stoned to death for their faith in Christ. This messenger of satan would continually accuse Paul with the memories and condemnation of his past zealous and heinous deeds against Christians. He even watch as he was consenting to the stoning of Stephen. Later on, by the time Paul was in Corinth, he was able to state in 2 Cor. 7:2a “Receive us; we have wronged no man” I believe that through the grace of God, Paul was able to “forget those things that are behind, and press on toward the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” and Romans 8:1 There is therefore now, no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. Paul overcame through the Grace he was commissioned to preach to the Gentiles.

        • Bas Rijksen says

          Hi Doreen,

          Thank you for commenting.

          That’s so cool you share that…I’ve never seen or heard it like that before!

          Does make sense. Something to chew on 🙂

          Amen, zero condemnation for those in Christ.

  2. Bas,
    This is another amazing one. I’ve never quite understood it and I’ve listened to and believed the teaching that Paul had a sickness/disease. So I always struggled with understanding why Jesus would heal and God would send a diseases? Never quite understood it!! Thanks for explaining this. This makes a lot more sense. When I think about it I actually have to laugh at my former beliefs – how could I think that God would send a messenger of Satan? That’s really laughable. This is really good! Thank you so much for taking the time to clarify! May God bless the work you do!! And may this Gospel of Grace reach many more people.

    • Haha. Yeah I laugh with you about my former beliefs too 🙂

      There’s quite some unravelling of old thinking to do, isn’t it Eva.

      But God is so good in showing us the simplicity of the Gospel, and indeed there is nothing bad in Him (that He’s not sending nor allowing bad things to happen).

      Enjoy the ride Eva! You’ll only see that God is better and better then you ever dreamed or imagined!