2 Corinthians 12:7-10 The Apostle’s Thorn WC McCarter
Paul leaves his discussion of the revelation in the third heaven, and he turns to a discussion that is very earthly. We use a lot of terms for what he is about to discuss: hardships, trials, sorrows, worries, difficulties, problems, grief, obstacles, hindrances, dilemmas, troubles, sufferings, tribulations, afflictions. We all have faced our fair share in this life. We face them every day. As one of my favorite authors has put it, “For the unavoidable reality is that if we live long enough, we will suffer. . . .” Now, I do not like to hear something like that anymore than you do, but it is the sobering, truthful reality of our situation. Some problems are easier to get through than others. Some pains fade in the rear-view mirror as we continue through life, while others linger on and on. Some afflictions last a lifetime. Paul knew this feeling that we describe with so many words. He called it a thorn in his flesh. And because he knew this feeling, we have an amazing text that resounds in our hearts. After learning about the apostle’s visions, we learn about The Apostle’s Thorn. I think we will find some very helpful and practical lessons in these next few verses.
READ Scripture- This is the Word of God
As we transition into the next part of this passage, we come to the famous verse about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Notice how verse seven is clear that the apostle’s thorn is directly connected with the apostle’s visions. Twice he says, “Lest I be exalted above measure.” The thorn had a purpose. It was to teach him something. It would have been very easy for Paul to be puffed up with pride and arrogance. He could have gloried in his experiences. He could have thought much about himself and caused others to do the same. Yet, he was given a thorn in his flesh. He even tells us that the thorn was a messenger, a messenger from Satan. We will talk about that more in a minute.
The “thorn in the flesh” is not to be taken literally as if Paul had a wood splinter in some part of his body. The nature of the passage tells us that he means this symbolically. Just as in the Old Testament Israel’s enemies were called “thorns in your sides” (Num 33:55; Josh 23:13; Judg 2:3; Ezek 28:24), so, too, Paul had his own enemy that would not leave him. For this reason some commentators have thought that Paul must be referring to his opponents, the false teachers or “super-apostles.” Of course, the opponents would have been an ongoing “pain,” and their challenges would have constantly kept the apostle Paul humble. There is good reason to interpret the “thorn in the flesh” this way with the Old Testament background. Yet, there are other good interpretive options. One commentator says, “Explanations are legion,” and he lists several options including, “malaria, a serious eye condition, feelings of guilt and depression owing to Paul’s failure to convert his fellow Jews, Jewish persecution, epilepsy, a marked speech defect, [and] some sort of continued temptation (taking “flesh” to refer to unregenerate nature).”
What was the Thorn?
I would like to show you what I believe to be convincing biblical evidence for the interpretation that the “thorn in the flesh” was some sort of disease that gave Paul an eye condition. After showing you that evidence, I will give a summary of what we can learn from this “thorn.” I believe that Paul’s condition was a chronic one that affected him in a few different ways. I think it made his eyesight bad, and it made his appearance unsightly. It surely was also humiliating and painful. I think this for several reasons.
First, by using the term “flesh” it appears that Paul is referring to a physical condition. Gal 4:13-14 also refers to an infirmity of Paul’s that was “in the flesh.” Second, another point from Gal 4:14 is that, from a worldly perspective, the Galatians could have easily despised and rejected Paul because of his obvious weakness. Third, in Gal 4:15 Paul says specifically, “For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.” Now, that seems a bit too particular as an illustration if it were not literal. A fourth supporting point that the “thorn in the flesh” was an eye problem is the fact that Paul used scribes on several occasions. That is not a strong point on its own since it was common practice for teachers to use scribes, but it may be another indicator that it would not have been practical for Paul to sit and write because of bad eyesight. In Gal 6:11 Paul says, “See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!” He had been dictating the epistle but wrote with his own hand at the end. Maybe he simply had poor penmanship, or maybe he had poor eyesight that was a hindrance to his writing. A fifth and final point that I will supply as evidence that Paul had bad eyesight which was very likely the “thorn in the flesh” comes from Acts 23. In that chapter we are given a narrative concerning Paul on trial before the Jewish ruling council. There he speaks disrespectfully to the high priest and is rebuked for doing so. Paul replies in verse five, “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest. . . .” How could a good, Jewish man who was at one time a very prominent Pharisee not know who the high priest was? I think it is very reasonable to believe that Paul had poor eyesight which prevented him from accurately recognizing to whom he was speaking.
How Does Satan Fit In?
Let us be clear that Satan does not cause all of our problems; sometimes we face suffering simply because we live in a fallen world, other times we struggle because we have brought things upon ourselves, another reason trials may come is because of divine discipline, and then there are times that Satan is given authorization by God to strike us with infirmities. Satan relishes the opportunity to hammer our weaknesses. He wants to see us doubt God’s goodness and providence. He wants to see us miserable and challenged. God, in His sovereignty, allows Satan to do this from time to time. The supreme biblical example of this is the story of Job in the OT. In much the same way, Satan struck Paul with a chronic issue, but God used it for His purposes.
God would bring good out of that evil. What was the good? God kept Paul humble, safe, and trusting in Christ for strength and salvation. As 2 Cor 1:9 says, “Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.” God works out all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
Now, what is the point of that exercise of considering the biblical data and making arguments for a certain interpretation? Well, we want to be as faithful to Scripture as possible. We also want to satisfy our curiosity as to what was Paul’s problem. I also think that this interpretation is very encouraging to many people who live with chronic pain and problems. If Paul could run the race that was set before him, even with ongoing pain and problems and be as fruitful as he was, then we can do the same. We can take great inspiration from his witness. We can also learn from his dealings with God about this issue and rest in God’s answer. That is what we turn to next.
We have all had seasons in our lives when we were really struggling with something that would not go away. During those times we threw ourselves at the mercy of God. We cried out to Him for help, for reassurance, for answers, and primarily for Him to take away whatever it was that was plaguing us. Most of those things we came out of on the other side. There was light at the end of the tunnel, and eventually we found it. As we look back we begin to understand that it was a learning experience. It was a growing experience. It was an opportunity to be a witness to the grace and love of God, that we could have joy even in the midst of trials.
There are other sufferings and sorrows in our lives that have not gone away. They have followed us for years, even until today. We have prayed and pleaded with the Lord to take these things away, but He never has. At that point we can listen for the voice of God, look for His purpose in the suffering, and trust Him with everything that we are or we can turn away and abandon our only hope and trust. Paul prayed and prayed and prayed, three times he says. Now, was this only three prayers or was it three seasons of prayer in his life? We cannot be sure, but either way he earnestly pleaded with the Lord. He did not want to live with this “thorn” for the rest of his life. We are not those who enjoy pain and suffering. On the contrary, we want those things to be taken away from us. Yet, most of us have lived long enough to know from experience that some things are not taken away. They are chronic. They are haunting. They are for a lifetime. The question is, how do we regard these things? How do we manage these things? How do we live with these things? Where is God in of our suffering? We want to view these things from a godly perspective.
God did not take away Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” but He did give Paul a response to his prayers. I don’t know about you, but this response is comforting to me. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” What do you make of that? Of course, the bottom-line of the message is that the thorn would not be taken away. That is not what Paul wanted to hear. He had asked that it would be taken away. Yet, he did at least hear from the Lord. The Lord is not silent in our pain and suffering. He is not absent from our sorrows. He cares for us. He loves us. He wants what’s best for us. He speaks into our situations. Notice that this is a quote from the Lord. Jesus spoke this to Paul. While Paul’s pleading was in the past and is not continually repeated, the answer that he received was at some point in the past but is continually applicable. In other words, what Christ told Paul was a once-for-all-time answer to the “thorn in the flesh.” The promise that Christ made, although it was only said once, would forever be valid. The prayer was answered, maybe not the way Paul imagined but with more than enough grace.
Did Paul accept what the Lord said? He sure did. Was Christ’s promise true? Would His grace really be sufficient to sustain Paul? His life is a supreme example of Christ’s gracious power in the life of a person. Paul was often weak and struggling, but he turned the world upside-down. He proclaimed the foolishness of the cross all over the known world. He planted churches and ministered in places that we could not have imagined. He almost single-handedly spread the Good News through the world. To summarize why Paul was glad to accept the Lord’s response and, therefore, boast of weakness one commentator has said, “The permanent enabling and protection of the power of Christ more than compensated for the intermittent buffeting of ‘the messenger of Satan’ (v. 7). Paul could now very gladly boast of his weaknesses.” The apostle learned that when he was weak, then he was at his strongest. Why? That is when he depended most on the power of Christ graciously given to him.
Conclusion and Christian Application
There are profound truths to be found here that are readily applicable to us. Let me state a few that jump off of the page into my heart and hopefully yours.
First, listen closely, Satan is under God’s authority. There is no thing and no one not under God’s sovereignty. Satan may tempt and harass you, but if you put your faith in Christ, God will always use those things for your good and His ultimate purposes. So, do not view Satan as a being who is equal to God. Do not view him as all-knowing, all-powerful, and ever-present. He is a creature.
Second, did you notice that God deems humility to be more important than comfort? Let that sink in. We all want to experience rest and peace, but what Christ offers is not rest and peace in the sense that there is no turmoil or conflict. The world hates Christians, so we will always be counter-cultural and in tension with the things and people around us. We are to be holy, that is, separate, different, unique–light in a dark world, salt in an impure and savorless society. To accomplish that holiness, God has seen fit to consider humility more essential than relief from suffering.
Third, you can be fruitful in life and ministry even with chronic difficulties. Many Christians are facing disparaging and disabling difficulties. My heart goes out to you. For some of you who are not facing those things, if you live long enough you will possibly face those things. The odds are against us. We live in a fallen world. Things are not the way they are supposed to be. Things are broken. We are broken. The apostle Paul was broken, but that did not stop him from enduring through hardships and pushing forward in the cause of Christ. You can do the same. It is through weakness that God shows His strength. It is through suffering that God brings Good News to the world. Let Him use you–your weaknesses, problems, pains, and all!
Lastly, notice that in this passage Paul relays to us significant parts of his life that come from opposite ends of the spectrum, but they are both forms of grace. On the first side, he received marvelous revelations from Christ. That was a wonderful experience for him. I would also add the experience of hearing Christ speak in response to his prayers as a wonderful experience. On the second side, he was given a thorn in the flesh which was humiliating and painful. So, you see, there were many positives and negatives in Paul’s life and ministry, and the same is true of all of us. We can all tell of wonderful memories over the years, and we can tell of difficult and painful times. If I may pull in a verse from Romans to help tie this application together, let me quote 8:28 where Paul says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” I think Paul may have learned that lesson personally through his experience with the “thorn,” his pleadings, and the Lord’s response which is recorded here in 2 Corinthians. Through your years, you will go through many things (some of you older folks can attest to this best); if you put your confidence in the Lord, He will work out everything for good–the good, the bad, and the ugly–He will work it all out for good.
Christ’s message to Paul and to you is: “My grace is sufficient.” Ample, plenty, rewarding, enough, satisfying, endless, fulfilling, abundant, bountiful, limitless, gratifying, adequate, unlimited, sufficient.
To those who are hurting emotionally- His grace is sufficient for you
To those who have physical illnesses- His grace is sufficient for you
To those who have relationship problems- His grace is sufficient for you
To the old- His grace is sufficient for you
To the young- His grace is sufficient for you
To those who think they are perfect- His grace is sufficient for you!
To the tired- His grace is sufficient for you
To a smaller church- His grace is sufficient for you
To the doubters- His grace is sufficient for you
To the most rotten sinner- His grace is sufficient for you*For when you are weak, then you are strong.