What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

Have you ever had a problem that God didn’t seem to take away and wondered if you had Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Many people have been taught to believe that there are certain ailments, sicknesses, or problems God won’t remove because He wants them to endure for some mysterious reason. They say God will not remove the problem, but only give them grace to endure. This is one of the common reasons people give for why they don’t get healed or receive an answer to prayer.

In this article I want to examine what the scripture teaches about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  I’m specifically going to focus on the area of healing and why God doesn’t give people sickness as a thorn in the flesh, but this truth will also apply to other aspects of our redemption such as prosperity, joy, and peace. As we examine the scripture, I believe we’ll find that Paul’s thorn wasn’t a sickness God refused to take away as many have taught, but the thorn was persecution.  I will also explain why God refused to remove all persecution from Paul’s life. 

One of the major reasons we should question the teaching about Paul’s thorn being a sickness is Galatians 3:13.  It says:

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”).  

All throughout the Bible sickness is a curse.  According to 1 Peter 2:24 it is one of the curses Jesus redeemed us from when He hung on the cross.  Before I teach about Paul’s thorn being persecution, the two verses I just shared should cast a huge shadow of doubt about Paul’s thorn being a sickness God wouldn’t take away.  It seems inconsistent that God would redeem us from sickness and put the curse of sickness on Jesus only to refuse to take a sickness away from Paul.  

Below are the verses in 2 Corinthians 12 about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  I want to walk through them together to show you why I believe his thorn was persecution:

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. 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.

Verse 7 shows the thorn was a messenger of Satan sent to buffet or torment Paul.  In other words, it didn’t come from God.  The reason Satan sent the thorn was because of the abundance of revelations Paul was given.  According to the parable of the sower in Mark 4 Satan comes to steal the word.  This is what was happening here.

The reason I say the thorn in the flesh was persecution is due to several Old Testament passages.  These are Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13, and Judges 2:3In each of these verses the phrase “thorn in your side” is used to talk about the enemies of Israel who would terrorize the Jews if the Jews didn’t drive them out of their promised land.  The phrase was talking about people bringing persecution. Paul was using an Old Testament metaphor many of his readers would understand in order to communicate the fact that he was dealing with a lot of persecution.

In Verse 8 Paul asks for God to take away the messenger, but God refuses and says my grace is sufficient.  The reason God said this to Paul is because Paul’s assignment was to reach unsaved people with the gospel.  There would be many different reactions to Paul’s message.  Some people would receive, some wouldn’t, and some would persecute.  Since God gives people free will, it was always going to be possible for Paul to get persecuted. 

The only way for Paul not be be persecuted would be for God to remove people’s right to accept or reject the gospel.  When Paul asked God to remove the messenger of Satan, he was asking God to do something God couldn’t do and still give people the right to a free will.  As a matter of fact, Jesus even told the disciples that in this world they would suffer persecution.  It was promised.  He told them to rejoice, however because He overcame the world!

In verses 9 and 10, Paul speaks of infirmities.  Many have used these verses to say that Paul really was sick and God just wouldn’t heal him.  The word infirmity is defined as physical or mental weakness.  While this certainly could mean a disease, it is not limited to being a disease.  If we look at the context of the letter, Paul isn’t talking about infirmities as sickness, he was talking about them as weakness.  Look at 2 Corinthians 11:30:

30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.

So what was the infirmity, Paul was boasting about?  Look at the previous verses:

22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?

Nowhere in those verses is the word sickness used.  This is because Paul’s infirmity was tribulation and persecution; not a mysterious sickness that God wouldn’t take away.  

I hope this article has both enlightened you and encouraged to believe God big.  Let’s not cop out to the reason our prayers aren’t getting answered is because we have Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  God has promised to heal us, prosper us, and give us peace in the midst of storms.  We should believe in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross and receive our blessings.  If for some reason there is a hindrance we can rejoice in the truth that God isn’t holding back the blessing by giving us some mysterious thorn.  And even when we go through persecution for our faith in Jesus, we can rejoice in the fact that God’s grace is sufficient to bring us through!  

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