Some object to my explanation of Paul’s thorn, saying, “But didn’t Paul himself say to the Galatians that he was sick the first time he preached the gospel to them? Wasn’t he speaking of his thorn in the flesh?”
Here is what Paul actually wrote in his letter to the Galatians:
But you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself (Gal. 4:13-14).
The Greek word translated illness here in Galatians 4:13 is asthenia , which literally means “weakness.” It can mean weakness because of sickness, but it doesn’t have to.
For example, Paul wrote, “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25, emphasis added). The word that is translated weakness in this instance is also the word asthenia . It would not make any sense if the translators had translated it “the illness of God is stronger than men.” (See also Matt. 26:41 and 1 Pet. 3:7, where the word asthenia is translated weakness and could not possibly be translated sickness ).
When Paul first visited Galatia, as recorded in the book of Acts, there is no mention of him being ill. There is mention, however, of him being stoned and left for dead, and he was either raised from the dead or miraculously revived (see Acts 14:5-7, 19-20). Surely Paul’s body, after he was stoned and left for dead, would have been in horrible condition with cuts and bruises all over it.
Paul did not have a sickness in Galatia that was a trial to his listeners. Rather, his body was weak from his recent stoning. Most likely, he still carried the reminders of his persecutions in Galatia when he wrote his letter to the Galatians, because he ended his epistle with these words:
From now on let no one cause trouble for me, for I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus (Gal. 6:17).