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What did Paul mean by a ‘thorn in the flesh’?

An illness? A weakness? A mother-in-law? Many theories have been developed to explain St Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”. Tim Heatley explains the most plausible interpretation

In 2 Corinthians 12:7 the Apostle Paul says: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  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”.

There have been many theories by theologians as to what this thorn was. Some have said it was an illness like malaria; others that because of Paul’s comment in his letter to the Galatians, that it could have been poor eyesight. Others still have said it was one of his colleagues or even his mother-in-law.

Perhaps he was under some restrictions by the Romans (house arrest) or being guarded or watched during his apostolic duties in Macedonia from where it is thought his letter was written. Could the person have been a guard or soldier making life difficult for him?

Using scripture to interpret scripture

How do we objectively interpret this? Well, one of the tools of modern Christian theology is to interpret scripture with scripture and that the first occurrence (chronologically) may determine subsequent occurrences.

Numbers 33:55 says: “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 this case, the remaining Canaanites would be thorns in the side (flesh) of the Israelites if they were not disposed of. So here we are definitely talking about people. See also Joshua 23:13 and Judges 2:3, where this term is used in the same context.

Let us look at the text more closely; the phrase “this thing” in the Greek is one word, “toutou” which can also be translated “him” and is so in a number of other instances.  With this in mind, the sentence could read: “I besought the Lord thrice about him”. Him, being the thorn in the flesh. 

1 Timothy 1:20 and 2 Timothy 4:14 (Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works) refers to someone who was a source of hindrance to Paul. Could this have been the person to which he refers?

Could Paul have been referring to illness?

“I rather glory in my infirmities”. The word translated here as “infirmities” is the Greek word “astheneia”, which has a number of meanings, two of which are feebleness of mind or weakness. Persecution, for instance, could have made Paul stressed or mentally drained or weak. In the same verse, 2 Corinthians 12:7, where he says his strength is made perfect in weakness, the word astheneia was also used, so why change the translation to sickness later in the verse?

In Romans 8:26 it says: “…the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities.”  In this case, the context of the word “asthenia” makes it clear that it is not speaking of sickness but rather, not knowing what to pray for. Our finite minds are an asthenia or inadequacy. 

In the eleventh chapter of 2 Corinthians Paul had just finished listing what some of his infirmities (astheneias) were. In verses 23-29 he lists such things as imprisonments, stripes, shipwrecks etc.

Other phrases to consider

Messenger of Satan to buffet me”.  The Greek word for messenger is “angelos”, meaning angel. What is an angel of Satan? Literally, it is a demon or evil spirit. So could Paul have been attacked by a demon? If so, as he grew in his authority in Jesus perhaps he was eventually able to thwart these attacks and to go on the offensive. A less literal translation of this verse could of course mean an evil person.

There was given to me”. This does not say who sent the thorn but if a messenger of Satan was involved then it is unlikely that it was from God.

My grace is sufficient for thee”. Sufficient for what? To cope with the situation or to overcome it. Ephesians 6 is probably a clue (the scripture about spiritual warfare was written about five years after this letter). It could be that he did overcome the problem.

Abundance of the revelations”. It may be that Paul talked about his experiences in more detail than was advisable and perhaps attracted criticism as a result.  We have an Old Testament precedent in this as Joseph said too much to his family about his dream revelations and suffered persecution as a result. Perhaps a brief word of advice from the Lord is also relevant here: Matthew 7:6 “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you”.

In summary then, the usage of the term “thorn in the flesh” seems to suggest that its derivation from the New Testament meaning person or persons. There is no direct evidence that sickness was involved. We may not always know why a prayer appears unanswered but it would be wise to be cautious about speculative rationalisations.

Tim Heatley is a member of the healing prayer team at Holy Trinity Church Leicester

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