Paul’s Thorn, Part I

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More Than Just a Splinter!

For the first five years of my life, I lived in a town surrounded by a desert.   And even in my young adult years, I lived with desert environments nearby.  I will never forget viewing the cactus varieties at the Botanical Gardens just a mile or two from my house, and I especially recall the many cactus plants growing in the yards of neighbors, mainly because I was painfully stuck a few times by thorns on the way to see a friend.

The thorn is an especially vivid image in people’s minds, mainly because of the danger and pain it may bring.  It’s not surprising that the Apostle Paul would choose such an image to describe his condition in his letter to the Corinthians:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  (II Corinthians 12:7-10)

Our understanding of Paul’s meaning in this passage, especially as it concerns the metaphor of the thorn, has been much debated in the Church, one indicator that the meaning is a “mystery.”  A perfect topic for this Blog!

God wants to reveal His secrets to us if we are spiritually discerning.  However, we must use exegesis (i.e. out of), not isogesis (i.e. into).  We must take the meaning from the passage of Scripture, as well as its context in the whole of Scripture (out of), not impose our own meaning on the text (into).  In this Blog, we are seeking God’s wisdom, not imposing our own thoughts and beliefs on God’s message.  

Here are some of the more obvious examples of interpretations that are the opposite, merely attempts to promote a particular agenda (which we will explore in Part II):

  • Paul suffered from some acute form of bodily disease. Those who argue this position suggest such diseases as  malaria, Malta fever, epilepsy, convulsive attacks, and chronic ophthalmia. 
  • The most common disease mentioned is acute ophthalmia, said to originate when the light which flashed round him at Damascus.    (See http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/2_corinthians/12.htm)
  • Some other theories of the thorn’s meaning include temptation, migraines, epilepsy, and a speech disability.
  • Some even say that the thorn refers to a person inspired by Satan who sought to discredit Paul and his ministry.  One such man was Alexander the coppersmith, who did Paul “a great deal of harm” (2 Timothy 4:14).   
  • Others theorize that the exact nature of Paul’s thorn is deliberately vague because Paul wanted it to apply to any difficulty Christians may face.    (http://www.gotquestions.org/Paul-thorn-flesh.html)
  • Finally, those arguing that Paul refers to his conflict with sensual passion, citing Romans 7:8, Romans 7:23,  and I Corinthians 9:27. 

Eye Disease

One of the most troubling of these interpretations of the thorn is the idea that the thorn is the “acute opthalmia” Paul supposedly had as a result of his blindness on the Road to Damascus.  

Reading the account in Acts Chapter 9, read that as Paul  was struck blind by the light of Christ as he was traveling to Damascus to persecute the Jewish Christians,

Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him;  and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  (Act 9:3-9)

This passage is used not only to attempt to explain what Paul’s thorn was, but also how it came to plague him later in life. Additional evidence for this view is provided from Galatians 4:15, where Paul says, “Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.”  Advocates of this view believe that Paul’s condition was so serious and apparent that the Galatians would gladly have given him their own eyes in gratitude for giving them the Gospel.

As further evidence for this eye disease theory, it is submitted that Paul appeared to use his helpers to take Paul’s dictation of at least some of his epistles (an amanuensis). One person mentioned is Tertius, who copied the book of Romans, most likely from Paul’s dictations.  Tertius even added his own greeting to the church in Rome (see 16:22).  In addition, Paul added salutations with his own hands (see I Corinthians 16:21 and II Thessalonians 3:17), and he wrote his own words with large print, as he writes in Galatians 6:11: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”

In opposition to these theories are two arguments.  

First, the bolt of light was not a “messenger of Satan” but a message from Jesus Christ:

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Act 9:3-6)

Second, we see clear proof in the Book of Acts that Paul is healed of his blindness after his stunning experience on the Damascus road. Jesus commands a very fearful, reluctant Ananias to go to Saul, the enemy of the believers in Damascus. Ananias is instructed to administer the Holy Spirit to Saul, to heal Saul’s blindness, and give him instructions for the future, saying, “for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake:  

So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.  (Acts 9:17-19)

In further opposition to this theory, therefore, surely those whom the Lord heals are healed indeed!   Therefore, diagnosing Paul with chronic eye disease seems incorrect.  Even supposing an aging apostle who may be experiencing far-sightedness seems a more likely explanation for his large letters, just as some people need large-print Bibles!  

Another possibility for Paul’s use of an amanuensis is the fact that Paul was not writing in his native language, especially in his letter to the Galatian people who were Celtic in origin.  Perhaps Paul was not as familiar with their script as he was with other cities forms of writing, and he wanted his letter to be legible to them.

Finally, the results of Paul’s thorn were intended to diminish Paul’s pride, to help him realize that the many revelations given to him were a result of God’s grace in his life, not a consequence of his own abilities or insights.

When Paul writes to the Galatian Churches, reminding them of their gratitude to him for sharing the Gospel with them, he says, “For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me”  (Galatians 4:15). He indeed may be referring to a physical infirmity he had, but it would not be the one he obtained on the Road to Damascus. Instead, he only recently had been stoned and left for dead:

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city. (Acts 14:19)

This story continues to describe Paul’s journey with Barnabus to the other cities in Galatia, leaving them with a message that is quite significant:

The next day he went away with Barnabas to Derbe. After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:18-23)

Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra, a city of Galatia. The next day Paul walked to Derbe, another city of Galatia, and began preaching the good news of Christ to them.   Most likely, Paul may have 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.

 

Part II

In the next article in this series, some reasons why these dubious interpretations are taught will be explained, and a more convincing understanding of Paul’s thorn will be provided.

Cactus

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