DOCTRINE OF THE THORN IN THE
January 30, 1983
Introduction preliminary considerations.
- Scripture: 2Cor.12:1-10.
- Climaxes a section dealing with a catalogue of Paul's common human problems
(CHPs, or afflictions) beginning at 2Cor.11:23.
It was, by its very nature, the most sensational and painful of Paul's
Its presentation is contextually tied to the most sensational of his visionary
experiences (i.e. his rapture into the third heaven).
The expression "thorn in the flesh" is used as a metaphor (i.e.
not a literal thorn in the flesh) for a bodily affliction.
What was Paul's "thorn in the flesh"?
Representative examples of conjectures concerning the nature of Paul's
"thorn in the flesh".
Earache or headache (earliest explanation by Tertullian).
All of Paul's persecutions taken together (so Chrysostom of the allegorical
school of interpretation).
Temptation of carnal lust (Roman Catholic writers of the medieval era gave
rise to this ridiculous view).
Severe form of ophthalmia (i.e. eye disease. This view is based on Paul's
comments in Gal.4:15).
A form of epilepsy.
Recurrent malarial fever (Sir Wm. Ramsay this affliction is quite debilitating
and is accompanied by a peculiar headache which is 'like a red hot bar
thrust through the forehead'. Ramsay says Paul contacted this disease during
his first missionary journey while in Perga in Pamphylia [Act.13:13]. Another
author [W. M. Alexander] believes Paul's malady may be more specifically
identified as Malta fever, which is accompanied by severe pain, nocturnal
delirium, unsightly eruptions, and loss of hair).
In our own day is the novel hypothesis that it was not physical affliction
at all but, was "the great sorrow and unceasing pain" which he experienced
in the soul because of Jewish unbelief, Rom.9:13. This view (M. Menoud)
has Paul asking God to take away Jewish unbelief. Furthermore, this CHP
came as a result of exceptional revelations he was privy to, not Jewish
Other solutions are hysteria, hypochondria, gallstones, gout, rheumatism,
sciatica, gastritis, leprosy, lice on the head, deafness, dental infection,
neurasthenia, an impediment of speech, and remorse for the tortures he
inflicted upon Christians prior to his conversion.
This thorn or stake in the flesh is described as "an angel of Satan", (Greek
Satana/, aggelos satana), 2Cor.12:7.
A demon actually inflicted bodily pain upon the apostle.
The fact Paul asked God to remove it three times, coupled with the metaphorical
expression "thorn in the flesh", tells us how painful and debilitating
these encounters must have been.
That this affliction was periodic rather than continual is obvious, since
could not have functioned if it were a constant thing.
What this physical harassment consisted of we do not know, only that it
was extremely painful, more so than any other physical abuse Paul experienced.
The expression in 12:7 says "he might physically harass me", which
consists of the pres.a.subj.3rdp.s. kolafi,zw kolaphizo
plus the acc.m.s. evgw,, ego. The verb is relatively
rare in the New Testament (5X) and elsewhere occurs only in early Christian
writers. The noun ko,lafoj, kolophos, is fairly
frequent outside the New Testament and was used in common speech. It means
"box on the ears". The verb is used of a combination of physical and mental
abuse, Mt.26:67; Mk.14:65 of Jesus; 1Cor.4:11; 1Pet.2:20. The verb gives
us no clue as to the precise nature of Paul's affliction that is, what
form the physical abuse took.
Conclusion: Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was a disabling, periodic and extremely
painful ordeal inflicted by a demon directly.
When did "the thorn in the flesh" first begin to occur in Paul's ministry?
Its only mention is tied to Paul's private rapture into Paradise, 2Cor.12:14;
The most extraordinary of Paul's visions and revelations occurred in 42AD.
(2 Corinthians was written in 56AD; subtracting 14 years places the event
Paul was in Tarsus (the Syria-Cilicia region) from 37-43AD, based on Hoehner's
chronology of the apostolic age.
The thorn in the flesh was due to the revelations Paul received, and so
must have begun toward the beginning of his apostolic ministry.
We conclude that this affliction began shortly before his missionary journeys
and lasted until his death.
Its mention in connection with his most sensational vision and in association
with his personal revelations in general leads to its initiation around
The fact he asked the Lord to remove it three times and the Lord's refusal
leads us to conclude it was with him for the duration, or 26 years.
The "why" of the thorn in the flesh.
Paul tells us specifically why he was permitted to suffer in this fashion
in 2Cor.12:7 "And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations
u`perbolh,, huperbole, gen.pl. avpokalu,ysij,
apokalupsis), for this reason (dio,,
dio conj.), lest (i[na mh,,
hina me) I should be inflated with pride (pres.pass.subj. 1p.s.
huperairo, verb occurs 3X: 2Cor.12:7 [2X]; 2Thess.2:4 [of Alex.]), there
was given to me (ao.pass.ind.
+ moi, moi; this was a grace CHP!) a thorn
in the flesh an angel of Satan in order (i[na,
hina) that he might physically harass me (see above) in order
that (i[na, hina) I should not be inflated
with pride (same verb construction).
From this verse we see two contributing factors to the necessity for this
The nature and magnitude of Paul's visionary experiences.
The strong effect this had on the pride complex of Paul's STA (sinful trend
of Adam) grid.
Due to Paul's assignment in the plan of God, he was privy to more special
revelations and visions than any other in the Church Age; cp. 1Cor.14:18;
2Cor.12:1,7; Gal.1:11,12; 2:2; Eph.3:3. The fact so few are mentioned explicitly
in the New Testament is consistent with Paul's policy to boast in his weaknesses,
The thorn in the flesh was not given to blunt the arrogance of his vision
in connection with his visit to the third heaven alone, but in regard to
all his revelations.
These revelations elicited a strong response from the pride complex of
Due to Paul's STA, God authorized Satan to afflict Paul's flesh.
Had Paul not suffered this particular affliction (among the many that were
a part of his niche, cf. Act.9:16; cp. 2Cor.11:23-28), he would have stumbled
over the stumbling block of his STA.
In his case, he might have taken his grace privileges and used them as
a springboard to engage in self-exaltation.
In effect, he would have become like "the many", cp. 2Cor.2:17,
and engaged in self commendation, exaltations and self aggrandizement.
Unlike them he would have had a basis in fact to boast where they did not,
He would have wound up like them and lost the prize, 1Cor.9:24-27; Col.2:18;
Further observations on Paul's thorn in the flesh and his STA.
This forms one more piece of evidence of the functional existence of the
indwelling STA in the great apostle (and so all believers).
The pride complex, along with the lust pattern in general, harried Paul
all his Christian life.
This is clearly set forth in Romans 7; cp. 7:8.
This explains his athletic metaphor in 1Cor.9:27.
Any attempts to explain away the inner conflict by denying the STA constitutes
apostasy and blasphemy, Gal.5:16-24; 1Pet.2:11; cp. 1Jn.1:8-10.
The thorn in the flesh did not guarantee Paul would not enter reversionism.
The severe physical affliction served to discourage arrogance in Paul.
The justice and grace of God provided a strong inducement not to enter
"super Pastor-Teacher" reversionism.
In no way were the basic principles which govern the Christian way of life
modified to assure Paul would consummate his Phase 2 honorably (i.e. volition,
the grace apparatus for perception, ISTA, etc.).
Paul's physical liability was a grace asset to discourage STA disorientation.
The fact God would not remove the thorn indicates the STA assault continued
to the very end, 2Cor.12:8,9.
Paul finally accepted the necessity for this test and boasted in his CHPs.
Theological implications and applications of this doctrine.
Satan does on occasion gain permission to afflict mankind directly.
Job (Job.2), Paul and unbelievers under Antichrist's rule (Rev.9) are examples
(also the incestuous Corinthian).
In each instance Satan is granted permission to inflict pain, but only
within closely defined limits.
Satan seeks to get believers to deny God, but God uses the suffering to
prove Satan wrong and to benefit the positive believers.
In Paul's case Satan actually had a part in Paul's ultimate blessing!
The necessity for the thorn in the flesh makes a strong statement about
the functional existence of the ISTA in Paul and therefore all believers
through the stages of spiritual growth.
Believers experience physical disabilities to help prevent positive volition
from tripping over the stumbling block of their STA.
We know that some unbelievers who are positive at God consciousness have
to lose some asset(s) before they will believe (example: Nebuchadnezzar),
The STA keeps tripping up faith in Christ.
This is also true of some believers.
So God is free to remove any human asset (wealth, health, etc.) when the
loss produces adjustment.
Those who are negative are not influenced by this
Perfect health, possessing the details of life, etc. (when exploited by
the STA) can lead to negative volition.
So learn to adjust to your chronic CHPs.
God's grace is sufficient to bring you to maturity.
Learn, like Paul, to associate your special CHPs with the maturity adjustment
to the justice of God, and so boast in them.
© Copyright 1999, Maranatha Church, Inc.