Paul’s Thorn, Part II


Why Wasn’t Paul Healed?

Many Bible teachers have taught that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a physical disease, in spite of the inconsistencies and false logic of this conclusion.  I believe these teachers have perpetuated this false teaching only to buttress another false teaching:  The gifts of healing passed away when the disciples and early apostles passed away.  

If Paul was sick and God refused to heal him even after three requests, why should we believe that God wants to heal us?  Why encourage people to believe for healing when it isn’t God’s will to heal today?  Isn’t that why we have doctors and physicians?

Clearly not everyone is healed every time there is sickness or disease, even though prayers are offered, though here is the promise the Apostle James gives the Church in his letter:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. (James 5:14-15)

In spite of this promise, many churches no longer even anoint the sick or pray for healing, having decided that this verse is no longer relevant today in a post-apostolic “dispensation.” It is significant, however, that no denial of the forgiveness of sins promise is mentioned.  Why, when both are stated in the same passage, is forgiveness still a valid promise when healing is not?

Experience tells us, however, that not everyone is healed or appears to be healed, at least not in the ways we desire.  Is it because God wants us to be sick, indeed even causes us to be sick in order to keep us humble?  Isn’t that why Paul’s eye disease wasn’t healed?  

However, you will recall that the thorn Paul refers to was a “messenger of Satan,” not a messenger of God Himself.

I’m amazed at how many Bible teachers preach that the Bible is the “inerrant” Word of God, without error or fault in all its teaching, yet they delete or omit some of the verses in the Bible because they believe they no longer apply to today. 

If this passage in James is part of the infallable and inerrant Word of God, therefore, why are some believers not healed according to the affirmative promise in James and other passages in the Bible?   

One reason is that we don’t believe in the first place, or we just give up, especially when our prayers aren’t answered right away.  We forget that though miracles may be instantaneous, healing takes time and we need patience.  Even Jesus the Son of God could do few mighty works in His own home town because of the unbelief of the people who lived there.

All too often, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is used to confirm this kind of unbelief.  How many times have we heard people say,”My back pain is just a thorn in the flesh God has given me to teach me something,” or something similar?  

In the World You Shall Have Tribulation

Sufficient evidence exists to oppose the meaning of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as referring to an eye disease, or “opthalmia.” 

First, Paul describes the thorn as a “messenger of Satan,” a description that seems to reveal cogniznce and intent.  Paul says he implored the Lord three times to be delivered of this messenger, but the Lord responded with, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9).  What is weakness but a condition that demands help and assistance in its worst forms?  

Paul then describes the weaknesses that, taken together, comprise the essence of what the thorn is:

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 12:9)

We might summarize all of these conditions under the terms “tribulations,” and even more specifically, “persecutions.” These are condition we have not been redeemed from.  In fact, Jesus declared that we would all suffer similar kinds of persecutions:

Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:31-33)

The word “tribulations” in Paul’s message to the churches in Galatia, quoted in Acts 14, however, is significant, for it further affirms what is the true meaning of this metaphor:

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 [emphasis mine] 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)


The Thorn in Context

Consider the following passages, all of which contain references to thorns.  See if you can find similarities in meanings:

  • But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live. (Numbers 33:55)
  • Know with certainty that the Lord your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you; but they will be a snare and a trap to you, and a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which the Lord your God has given you. (Joshua 23:13)
  • Now the angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land which I have sworn to your fathers; and I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you, and as for you, you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me; what is this you have done?  Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they will become as thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you.’” When the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the sons of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. So they named that place Bochim; and there they sacrificed to the Lord.  (Judges 2:1-5)
  • And the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Son of man, set your face toward Sidon, prophesy against her and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God,

    “Behold, I am against you, O Sidon,
    And I will be glorified in your midst.
    Then they will know that I am the Lord when I execute judgments in her,
    And I will manifest My holiness in her.
    “For I will send pestilence to her
    And blood to her streets,
    And the wounded will fall in her midst
    By the sword upon her on every side;
    Then they will know that I am the Lord.

    And there will be no more for the house of Israel a prickling brier or a painful thorn from any round about them who scorned them; then they will know that I am the Lord God.”   Ezekiel 28:20-24)

A careful and thoughtful analysis of these passages shows that they all relate the “thorn” to adversaries and instruments of persecution.  The connection is clear, therefore:  The thorn in the flesh Paul is writing about represents the constant and unrelenting persecution Paul endured in his ministry.

Readers of the stories on the life of the Apostle Paul are usually astounded at the many instances of persecution in his life. He experiences constant opposition to his ministry and teachings, both physical and mental.  Instead of being an instrument of persecution against the Church himself, as he was in the early chapters in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul became the one who was persecuted, receiving the most severe and painful forms of physical torture imaginable, including being stoned and left for dead, beatings, and public ridicule.  


Why Did God Allow the Persecution of Paul?

Paul relates in his defense to the Jews in Jerusalem that he was the one who persecuted those who followed Christ (the “Way”):

I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished.    (Acts 22:4-5)

After his conversion, however, he became the object of persecution.  He relates to the Corinthian Church, for example, the following list:

To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless; and we toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become as the scum of the world, the dregs of all things, even until now.  (I Corinthians 4:11-13)

He continues to list the persecutions he has endured in his Second Letter to the Corinthians:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.  For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.  (II Corinthians 4:7-12)

While the source of these persecutions appears to be nonbelievers, those people who opposed the teachings and worship of the Lord, the primary source is demonic, a messenger of Satan sent to inflict persecution on the chosen people of God.

It is little wonder, then, that Paul asks the Lord to have this thorn of persecution removed from him.  The Lord’s response to him in contained in the following message:

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.

Paul was blessed with the manifold wisdom and revelations of God in order to communicate the full plan of salvation and sanctification of the Lord, much of which was in great contrast to the legalism and obligations of the Old Covenant.  Paul consequently became the focus of extreme persecution to keep this Good News of the Gospel from being shared, not only with his fellow Jews, but also the gentiles.  And through his letters to the churches, Paul’s imparted wisdom is still being used to share the love of Jesus Christ to the whole world. 


What About Me?  Will I Ever Have a Thorn in the Flesh?

Paul explains why the thorn in the flesh is present in his life:  “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!”  (II Corinthians 12:7).  

No one today who refrains from self-exaltation would make such a claim as having such a thorn in the flesh as the one Paul endured.  

However, Paul did explain to his disciple Timothy that persecution will follow all who desire to follow Christ and seek to proclaim His gospel:

Now you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance, persecutions, and sufferings, such as happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium and at Lystra; what persecutions I endured, and out of them all the Lord rescued me! Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  (2 Timothy 3:10-12)

Unless someone today can compare the manifest spiritual revelations or evangelical accomplishments with those of the Apostle Paul, there is no true basis for claiming to have a “thorn in the flesh” as so many people tend to do   People do so because although they have prayed, God has not apparently answered their prayers, particularly for healing from some sickness or disease.

As we have discovered, however, Paul’s thorn was not a physical infirmity in spite of the word “infirmities” in II Corinthians 11:30:  “If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”

We must take the words Paul uses in context to avoid misinterpretations.  The word “infirmities,” however, is better translated “weaknesses” or “persecutions,” all of which are listed in the previous verses in this same chapter:

Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments,beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.  have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?  (II Corinthians 11:23-29)

Indeed, an amplified context for this word is in the next chapter (none of which exist in the original text), for Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified because of “weakness”:

 For indeed He [Jesus] was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.  (II Corinthians 13:4)



Paul tells Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”  While we may not all have the kinds of persecution and weaknesses that Paul experienced, we all will be persecuted if we will only live a life of visible testimony.

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