What Was Paul’s Thorn In The Flesh?
Last week we saw why Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” had nothing to do with pride. The “being exalted” here was not a negative thing like pride, but was a positive thing! “Exalted” simply means “lifted up.” The gospel lifts us. The Holy Spirit lifts us. Heavenly revelations such as Paul had can lift us exceedingly high in the knowledge of Jesus and into a heavenly perspective. Scripture teaches in Ephesians 1 and 2 that by Christ’s resurrection we were raised with and seated with him in heavenly places, far above all power and authority. What would it look like if we actually believed this truth so much that we acted according to it?
The effect of the heavenly revelations that were given to Paul was that they would humble him and cause him to be lifted up in influence for the sake of the gospel, and also in exercising of authority over the powers of darkness in heavenly places. Since the passage goes on to talk about Paul’s beatings and persecutions, it is reasonable to assume that this demonic power was probably sent to stir up the crowds to riot against Paul, in order to hinder his effectiveness and influence for the gospel.
Was The “Thorn In The Flesh” A Sickness?
Some have assumed (as I once did) that this “thorn in the flesh” was a physical illness. However, there is nothing in the context to suggest that. It was sent to “buffet” him, which points in context to the beatings and persecutions that Paul endured. The word “buffet” speaks of repeated blows, not a chronic illness.
Some of the translations do seem, at first glance, to support the idea that it was a physical illness. Look, for example, at the KJV translation of verse 9:
2 Corinthians 12:9 (KJV) 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.
It should be noted that the same exact word, in the same context, is translated two different ways here! Why? The Greek word behind the translation “weakness” and the translation “infirmities” is the same. Many more modern translations do a better job here, translating it consistently as “weakness.”
This word, which means “weakness” or “feebleness,” can sometimes be used in referring to physical ailments, but it is certainly not always used in reference to physical sickness! In fact, a search in the dictionary will show that even the English word “infirmity” is not always used in reference to physical sickness. Immediately after talking about this “thorn in the flesh,” Paul goes on to describe his persecutions and the hardships of his ministry journeys, not sickness.
Why should we imagine that the thorn was anything other than what scripture says it was—an angel of Satan? Even more, how can we attempt to negate a clear promise of scripture by a speculative interpretation which the context doesn’t point to and which contradicts what we read in many other scriptures?
A “Thorn In The Flesh” Was An Old Testament Idiom
You may ask, “If being exalted was a positive thing for the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven, and Satan was trying to hinder this, why did God refuse to remove this ‘thorn in the flesh?”
When Paul talked about this “thorn in the flesh,” he was making a reference to a figure of speech in the Old Testament. When God commanded the Israelites to inhabit the Promised Land, he commanded them to utterly overthrow the inhabitants:
Exodus 23:23-24 (KJV) For mine Angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off. Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their works: but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and quite break down their images.
These pagan nations whom the Israelites were to drive out are often seen as symbolic of demonic powers that we may face today. Notice that God said he would cut them off, but in the next verse we read that the Israelites were commanded to overthrow them. Throughout scripture we see a partnership with God and man. God does his part, and we also have a responsibility. God promised to cut off these peoples, but the Israelites also had to go to war and drive them out.
Later we read that if Israel did not drive out these peoples, they would become thorns in the sides of the Israelites. When Paul spoke of this “angel of Satan” who was a “thorn in the flesh,” he was alluding to the pagan nations whom the Israelites were commanded to drive out.
Numbers 33:55 (KJV) But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.
In Judges chapter 3, we read that God did not drive out these nations who were “thorns in the side” from before the Israelites all at once. The reason for this gives us insight about why God refused to remove the “thorn in the flesh” which tormented Paul.
Judges 3:1-3 Now these are the nations that the Lord left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan (it was only that successive generations of Israelites might know war, to teach those who had no experience of it before): the five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath.
God had commanded the Israelites to utterly drive out these peoples! His refusal to drive them out all at once certainly did not imply that the Israelites were to tolerate or submit to these pagan peoples, which we can see as symbolic of demonic forces today. But God wanted them to learn war. God wanted them to drive out the inhabitants of the land. Let’s look at what The Living Bible says in verses one and two of this passage:
Judges 3:1-2 (TLB)Here is a list of the nations the Lord left in the land to test the new generation of Israel who had not experienced the wars of Canaan. For God wanted to give opportunity to the youth of Israel to exercise faith and obedience in conquering their enemies.
God promised the Israelites that he would drive out their enemies from before them, but he also commanded them to drive out their enemies. There was a part that was God’s responsibility and a part that was their responsibility. In the same way, the New Testament teaches that Jesus triumphed over the powers of evil at the cross. However, it also teaches us to fight the good fight and to stand against evil.
Sometimes we may want God to do everything and to pluck us out of whatever situation or trouble we are in. And sometimes he may. But scripture teaches that God desires us to overcome by the power of his Holy Spirit living in us! Colossians says that it is Christ in us who is our hope of glory-not God somewhere up there in the sky. In the same way that God wanted the Israelites to learn warfare, he also wants us to learn how to war in the Spirit! He wants us to learn to overcome evil by the power of his Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
God Always Leads Us In Victory And Empowers Us To Overcome!
God refused to remove the thorn in the flesh from Paul by externally intervening against this “angel of Satan,”, saying “my grace is sufficient for you”. Many people have read this as if it said “my grace is sufficient for you to lie down and suffer patiently as this angel of Satan beats you.” Nothing could be further from the truth, although Satan would like us to believe that! God’s grace was sufficient for what? To overcome! God always has victory in store for us. His grace is sufficient for us to overcome every power of evil that we may face.
1 Corinthians 15:57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Corinthians 2:14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
The “angel of Satan” was sent to “buffet” Paul, probably by stirring up the crowds to riot against him. This had nothing to do with keeping him from becoming arrogant, but was to keep him from being exalted by God with influence for the sake of the gospel and the Kingdom of heaven. Joe McIntyre noted that Daniel was given revelations because of his humility, and it was probably because of Paul’s humility that he was given these revelations by which the Lord would exalt him.
God refused to pluck Paul out of this battle or externally deliver him, but promised “My grace is sufficient for you to overcome everything that stands in the way of my Kingdom.” God was saying “This is your part, Paul. I want you to learn war. I want you to overcome this, and I have given you the grace to do so.”
Another Old Testament parallel to this is found in the story of Moses. The Israelites were trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea. Moses cried out to God for deliverance, but God replied:
Exodus 14:15-16 “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground.
God had promised to deliver the Israelites, but there was a part that was Moses’ responsibility. God gave Moses what he needed to overcome. In the same way, God gave Paul the grace which he needed to overcome this “angel of Satan.” God was saying “Why do you cry out to me to pull you out of this? My grace is enough for you to be victorious!”
If this “angel of Satan” was the demonic force causing the crowds to riot and beat Paul, it seems that Paul did eventually overcome it. The very end of the book of Acts says:
Acts 28:30+31 (AMPC) After this Paul lived there for two entire years [at his own expense] in his own rented lodging, and he welcomed all who came to him, Preaching to them the kingdom of God and teaching them about the Lord Jesus Christ with boldness and quite openly, and without being molested or hindered.
Paul finally got to preach the gospel peacefully, with nobody “buffeting” him! This victory wasn’t due to God’s external intervention, but because Paul continued to move forward and overcome by the grace of God working in him.
 Colossians 2:15
 Timothy 6:12
 Ephesians 6:11
 Colossians 1:27