What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?

A Daily Little Lesson

Read the transcript of this video below.

Today’s question is about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. What was it? Paul wrote about his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. Christians have debated over what that thorn in the flesh was for a long time. Some think that it was some kind of a disease.

Picture of thorn - symbolizing Paul's Thorn in the Flesh

Some even pinpoint it as an eye disease because of a couple of things that Paul said in his letter to the Galatians. Why is it important that we figure this out? Well, I can think of one reason: if you are seeking the Lord for a physical, emotional or mental healing and you hear that Paul prayed three times to be healed of his thorn in the flesh and God said “No, I’m not going to heal you”, well, that’s not going to encourage your faith to be healed! Because you’ll think to yourself, “Well, Paul, the great Apostle Paul, wanted to be healed and he asked the Lord three times and the Lord said ‘no’ to him, so who am I? I’m nothing close to the Apostle Paul. Why would I ever expect that God would hear my prayer and heal me?”

I’m going to submit to you that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not a disease. He tells us specifically what it was. Once you’re at the end of this Little Lesson, you’ll know what it was, because it’s very, very plain.

The Third Heaven

Let’s look at 2 Corinthians 12. Paul is kind of defending himself here, trying not to boast before the Corinthians and to appear humble, as he was a humble man. He doesn’t like talking about his credentials, but he’s trying to persuade them that they ought to be listening to him and not these other guys they’re listening to. He says,

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).

Now, most commentators believe that Paul was humbly speaking of himself here, that he himself doesn’t know whether he was still in his body or was taken right out of his body, taken up to the third heaven. What is the third heaven? I don’t know. Some people say there’s three heavens, the atmospheric heaven, the stellar heaven, where the stars are, and then heaven where God lives. Maybe that’s what Paul meant. Let’s keep reading.

“And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows—was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak” (vv. 3-4).

This was an outstanding spiritual experience, and Paul couldn’t even reveal things that he heard when he was caught up into the third heaven. He says in verse 5, “On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.”

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh Was Not a Sickness!

Now, jump down to verse number 7, here’s the part about the thorn in the flesh,

“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself [being lifted up in pride because of this experience he had and the revelations that he had], there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!”

Now, some commentators say, “Oh, you see! A thorn in the flesh, so it was a problem in his flesh. It had to be a sickness or a disease.”

Now wait a second! That’s a leap of logic that you shouldn’t be taking. I’ve known people in my lifetime who I would consider to be thorns in my side, thorns in my flesh, but they were not a disease, okay? This is a biblical expression. You can find it in the Old Testament, even. God said to Israel,

“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, emphasis added).

And that’s exactly what happened!

So this phrase doesn’t prove that Paul had a disease or an illness because he used the word flesh. All right. May I also add, Paul never said anything about a disease or a sickness here. The closest he came is “thorn in the flesh”.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh Revealed

Let’s keep reading. Here’s where he defines and reveals exactly what the thorn in the flesh was. He says “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan”. A messenger of Satan! Now that doesn’t sound like a disease, does it? A messenger of Satan, or an illness. It sounds like a person, an entity of some sort, a demon or something. Well, lo and behold, you just have to dive a little bit into the Greek here and find that the word translated messenger here in the New American Standard Bible, in the Greek is the word aggelos. It sounds a lot like angel, doesn’t it? City of Los Angeles, the city of the lost angels.

Sure enough, the word aggelos is found about 190 in the New Testament. Of those 190 some odd times, about 180 some, it’s translated angel. Aggelos is translated angel, angels or angelic, or angel’s, one of those was possessive, 163, no 169 times. It’s translated messenger or messengers 7 times. That’s it. Obviously the word can be rightly translated angel or angels. That’s how it is most often translated.

Power Perfected in Weakness

Paul said “Here’s what my thorn in the flesh was, a messenger, an angel of Satan, to torment me” or to ‘buffet’ me, one translation says. “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'” (vv. 7-9).

Obviously God did not deliver Paul from this angel of Satan that was buffeting him. There are various theories as to what that angel of Satan was actually doing. Some folks believe that this was the angel that was stirring up problems wherever Paul went to preach the gospel. I don’t know. Paul doesn’t say. We can only speculate.

My simple point is that Paul never says that his thorn in the flesh was a sickness or a disease. Paul never says he prayed to be healed and Paul never says that God said, “No, I’m not going to heal you.” The thorn in the flesh was an angel of Satan. Paul did pray three times that the Lord would deliver him from this, and God essentially did say no, but he didn’t exactly say no. He said “My grace is sufficient for you” (v. 9). Good is going to come out of this. Power is perfected in weakness.

Okay? This is a fascinating passage. It is worthy of study on another level, regarding the ‘power in weakness’ application, but that’s all for today’s Little Lesson. Thanks for joining me!