2 Corinthians 12:7–10 – A Thorn in the Flesh

A thornThe “thorn in the flesh” is directly related to Paul’s “great revelations.” This is not something Christians need to fear, Paul is unique in salvation history as the apostle to the Gentiles, and his visionary experience is unique as well. The “thorn” is a metaphor emphasizing the ongoing, painful nature of the oppression.

The noun Paul uses (σκόλοψ) refers to any kind of splinter or thorn that works its way into the body, but the thorn is also called a “messenger of Satan” of “angel of Satan.” By describing the thorn this way, Paul may be referring to a person who was harassing him, continually causing him to suffer.

This messenger “harasses” Paul. This verb (κολαφίζω) is a violent physical beating, the same word is used for Jesus’ beatings in Matt 26:67 and Mark 14:65.  Since it is not clear what Paul means by this thorn, Christians have suggested the beatings are not physical. Suggestions include: hysteria, depression, headaches, severe eye trouble, malaria, leprosy, and even a speech impediment (See BDAG for scholars associated with each suggestion). If this is a physical illness, it could be a sign of God’s judgment; the opponent could use something like this to call into question everything Paul teaches!

God allowed Paul to endure this suffering in order to keep him humble. This is an ongoing torment of some kind, since Paul prayed three times to have the thorn taken from him. The purpose of the thorn is to keep Paul from being exalted because of his visionary experience. The verb (ὑπεραίρω) refers to developing an “an undue sense of one’s self-importance” (BDAG). The thorn therefore was given to keep Paul from getting a big head about how important he is!

The only response to this prayer given by the Lord is “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  This is one of the most memorable verses in the New Testament and has helped many people through extremely difficult times. Like Paul, people who suffer physical or emotional torment consider this verse a great comfort since God’s grace is all they need. But notice it God’s grace does not guarantee Paul will be rescued from his thorn in the flesh! In fact, the comfort of this verse is that despite intense suffering, God’s grace is all Paul wants or needs!

It is when Paul is weak the power of God is most clearly seen. If Paul were an elite orator or a well-trained sophist, or a prophet who has the most glorious of visions, then the success he had in Corinth would be all his; he would easily slip into the error the opponents are making and glorify himself.

It is not that we ought to forego any preparation for ministry and only appoint the most unprepared people to serve; but when that preparation becomes a platform for boasting then the Lord is no longer glorified. Paul therefore concludes this chapter the same way he started in 2 Cor 13, boasting in his suffering all the more!

What is Paul’s point by boasting in his suffering in 12:10? As he concluded after his catalog of suffering in chapter 11, Paul claims his suffering proves he is a true apostle (and the “super apostles are not). As Barrett concludes, “The real point is that the requirement of self-sacrifice … marks out the true apostle from the false” (284-5). The pastor who works two jobs to serve a small country church is nearer to Paul’s model, his imitation of Christ, than a pastor who asks for 65 million for a private jet.

Would a Mega-Church pastor give up his wealth to care for a small inner city congregations for little or no money at all? Jesus gave up everything, as did Paul;  but Paul’s opponents would not. What makes them spiritual leaders is their wealth and prestige, the exact opposite of Paul’s point here in 2 Corinithians.

28 thoughts on “2 Corinthians 12:7–10 – A Thorn in the Flesh

  1. I don’t recall if we’ve “gone around” about this on your blog or not, Phillip. But I sure can’t see any way around the fact that the “super apostles” and/or the “supposed pillars” are either James, probably Peter (unless he’d left for Antioch or elsewhere perhaps) and other Jerusalem leaders… or at the least, designated representatives from the Jerusalem group. I won’t try to give the evidence here and it’s mostly an aside but something you raise in the article, and overall it IS an important point, as related to other matters.

    • I have never spent much blog-time (if that is a thing) on 2 Corinthians. The ID of the super apostles is difficult since all we know about them is from Paul’s polemic against them. I *assume* they had visions, based on Paul’s comments here in chapter 12, but I really do not know anything about the opponent’s boasting in Corinth about such visions. All this mirror-reading is tentative, even if it is necessary.

      Probably I would use Pillars for the situation in Galatia and Super-Apostles for the situation in Corinth, keeping the two groups at least formally separate. I doubt the “super apostles” were James and Peter although that is possible. I agree with you they seem to be associated with the Pillars, whether officially or not. In the early church there seems to be trouble with people turning up in churches and claiming to have some authority, (for example, 2 Thess or the instructions in Didache about traveling teachers).

      Nice to see you comment again, by the way. It seems like a long time since you have contributed to the conversation!

      • Thanks, Phillip. As to my “absence”, it’s a number of factors, largely about time available. But I hadn’t seen many email notices for new posts for quite a while. Not sure if they were accidentally off, I was just overlooking or what. Also I’ve put time/attention toward the “Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization” conf. early June in Pomona. Was fantastic (tho disturbing on the environmental problems side… no environmentalist “wackos” but some of the most studied, careful and committed scientists, thinkers and activists. The “head, heart and hands” combo was strong and an encouragement that we MAY yet have enough time to avert massive problems. Some of the presentations and ongoing discussions are getting posted on http://www.PandoPopulus.com.

        Also NPR recorded an incredible interview of their sharp Warren Olney with both Herman Daly and John Cobb on needed changes in national and global economy/growth attitudes and practices relative to the ecological and other earth crises. All “biblical” issues in profound ways most Christians either never think about or are seriously misguided on. (The conf. itself had theological tracks, such as the Process theology I did, but was largely “secular”.)

  2. Great article brother!!!! I’m wrting from Argentina, being one of your followers. Great truth!! i’m working in a bank, (in a social department, distributing social cards for poor people) Today, an old women came here seeking her card. She is 74 years old. She was a baptist missionary; now she is living from her limited retirement. In South American churches we see the american missionaries living in another level. They look like managers, not servants.

    • Jose,
      Historically speaking, I believe your point about “american missionaries living in another level” has tended to be true. While I don’t know much about South American churches, I have heard about this, and seen evidence of this in other parts of the world.

      I believe the primary root cause is that Evangelical American Missionaries are trained to “be like Paul” rather than being more like Jesus was. They carefully study the life of Paul, and use Paul’s ministry as their model for how to be a missionary.

      For example, Paul was primarily responsible for starting the church in Corinth. But, Paul abandoned the church after a year and a half, for no obvious reason, and went off doing his own thing, accountable to no one. Paul never appointed anyone locally to lead the church in Corinth, as far as we can see. Instead, Paul travelled around, then set up his own school in Ephesus.

      Then 2 or 3 years later, Paul is writing to the Church in Corinth, controlling all aspects of the church from a distance as an abusive absentee leader, and exploiting them for money, so he can travel around doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Paul wants all the credit, power, financial benefits, and rights of being “the leader” of the church in Corinth, but none of the responsibilities.

      In other words, Paul was acting as “manager” of the church in Corinth, but not “servant”, as you put it.

      • Great point. Roland Allen said something like this. Missionaries don´t trust in the Holy Spirit to lead the church. What you say about Paul and his leadership, someone will burn your house with your family inside. Did you write and article about it?? I’d like to read it…jajaj!!! I’ll read more your articles. Thank you…I will chew your thoughts…

  3. Phillip,
    You wrote:
    “Paul is unique in salvation history as the apostle to the Gentiles, and his visionary experience is unique as well.”

    This is the recipe for a new false religion, based on one “unique” man’s feelings and experience – just replace “Paul” with “Muhammad”, “Joseph Smith” (LDS Mormons) Sun Myung Moon (Unification Church / Moonies) etc. etc. One special unique man comes along after Jesus with no other witnesses to back him up, reinterprets Jesus and the teachings of Jesus, and says follow me, listen to me, do as I say. my words are the words of God, and I don’t need another witness.

    Besides Pau’s testimony about himself,
    Who said Paul as appointed an apostle?
    Who said the Paul was “the apostle to the Gentiles?”

    • The problem is you and I do agree on an authoritative canon. You reject the Pauline books as canon, therefore Paul’s witness is invalid. You also reject Acts as valid for discussions on Paul, so there is no appealing to the three Damascus Road reports there, nor Paul’s claim in Acts to have seen a vision in the temple (Acts 22:17). If I recall correctly, you dismiss 2 Peter as a testimony concerning Paul, so I am really not sure why you want to argue about all this still. You have eviscerated the canon to the point Paul is a non-factor.

      Do you visit Mormon websites and argue with them about Joseph Smith’s claim for authority?

  4. The word “canon” does not appear in the pages of “the Bible.”
    Jesus spoke of The Law, or The Law and the Prophets frequently – meaning the first 2 of the 3 parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. He also referred to the Psalms and other Writings sometimes. Jesus never said or implied that it was all “one book” or all “equal” or all “the word of God” – and anyway, He was only referring to what we call the Old Testament.

    Do you have a “Biblical” basis for believing that Paul’s letters, and everything in “the canon” is “equal”?

    I am saying Paul’s witness ALONE is invalid when it contradicts Jesus and everyone else.
    Jesus reminded us from the Torah that “every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Jesus didn’t make any exceptions, not even for himself. But you say Paul is the unique exception, above everyone else, the rule applies to everyone in history except Paul.

    Jesus didn’t write any books or letters – he had 4 witnesses write about Him.
    Paul’s letters contain big sections of his autobiography, his testimony about himself, his feelings, experience, intentions, plans, opinions, ministry, etc. Paul wasn’t objective about his own ministry, so if Paul claims something and there is no backup, we should not take it too seriously.

    I do not
    “reject Acts as valid for discussions on Paul”
    Acts 9 is what happened. Acts 22 is Luke recording Paul’s boastful false exaggerated account of what happened in Acts 9.

    I do not
    “dismiss 2 Peter as a testimony concerning Paul”
    The Apostle Peter never recognized Paul as an apostle in any way, never said that “all Scripture” is equal or inspired by God or “God breathed”, and never said that his own words, or the words of Paul, were “the word of God” equal to the words of Jesus.

    • “so if Paul claims something and there is no backup, we should not take it too seriously.” It is this sort of agnosticism that makes it impossible to have a conversation. You are employing a kind of Jesus Seminar-style criteria of authenticity to Paul’s which results in nearly zero authentic sayings. I like it better when you just admit you hate Paul and dismiss him entirely.

      You are also missing the point about Canon (which does appear in the NT, but that is not really important for this discussion). Like most useful theological words, the idea is present (from the verses you cite) even if the English word does not appear. If you do not have a theology of Canon, you cannot really do any real theology, can you? If you privilege Jesus over Paul, that is fine but it is still a “canon of authoritative sayings.” There has to be a “center of gravity” for doing biblical theology. The theology will look different if you make Leviticus the center as opposed to the Sermon on the Mount, or Romans, or Revelation.

      …everything in “the canon” is “equal”? No! I privilege the New Testament, and the Pauline letters for understanding Christian theology. I thought you knew that by now.

  5. So we agree on “the canon” and we also agree it isn’t all “equal”, that there must be a “canon with in the canon” that has higher authority.

    Yes, I “privilege Jesus over Paul” and over everyone else. So I share the (Eastern) Orthodox position on the New Testament (for almost 2000 years) that the 4 Gospels are above everything else.

    Do you believe that Paul “couldn’t be wrong” in anything he said or did, recorded in his biography by Luke in Acts?

    Do you believe that everything Paul claimed about himself in his letters is a “trump card” that overrides everyone else, including Jesus, and Paul is unique in history as the only may whose testimony about himself is valid with no other witnesses?

    • Even though we “agree” the 66 Books of the Bible are “the canon”, we appear to differ on what exactly “canon” means. The “traditional Evangelical” view is that it’s all “The Word of God”, without error – so if you believe that too, then Paul can never be questioned.

      You wrote:
      “I privilege the New Testament, and the Pauline letters for understanding Christian theology.”

      With that view, you would be a good candidate for Marcion’s churches in the Second century. He coined the term “New Testament” and created his own new book containing nothing but 10 of Paul’s letters and an abbreviated Gospel of Luke. You don’t mention Jesus or the Gospels specifically, but rather “the Pauline letters.” So really, the voice of Paul is first for you, not the voice of Jesus.

      On a number of points Jesus taught one thing, and Paul taught something else. And right down the line, we have been trained as Evangelicals to ignore the voice of Jesus and listen to Paul instead.

      The Most Important Commandment
      What is an Apostle
      Do not call a religions leader “father”
      What is “The Lord’s Supper.”
      Jesus did not come to abolish the Law
      Jesus said on the cross “it is finished” nothing is lacking
      Saying “Jesus is Lord” doesn’t prove you really are saved and know Jesus
      Whom we should follow
      Whose example we should try to imitate
      Whose words are the Supreme Words of God

  6. I believe Paul boasts in his suffering because he is trying to bring glory to God. You see God use people that nobody would ever guess for his work such as Moses or Joseph. Those were both people who were in no position to do what they did, but God used them for His work. Paul’s point that he is a true apostle is a very good one because these super apostles were just doing what was good for them. I have no connection to a mega church or no one that goes to a mega church, but I believe that if there was a millionaire pastor who truly followed Jesus they would donate to help support small churches. It is not my place to say how much money they need to give up, but I believe that as brothers and sisters in Christ we need to support each other and each of our missions.

  7. It is quite admirable that Paul became humble through the thorn, even though I am curious as to what that the thorn may be? Usually when one gets hurt they either wallow in misery or grin and bear it. In this case, it can definitely teach one to be humble, especially with the importance of continuing teaching to other churches so that one does not risk boasting their efforts and end up glorifying themselves. It is the weakness that exhibits God’s strength and power, since God uses weakness to achieve his purpose (Longenecker and Still, 154). I do agree that the “My grace is sufficient for you” is quite an inspiring verse as it did help many in troubles (2 Cor. 12:9). It goes well with prayer even in the midst of a storm, or even being full of joy on a sunny day. Personally I do not think I have experienced those specific words but have experienced a similar comfort when I feel depressed or anxious. I also remember living with a thorn, that is an injury in my hand, in me when I try to work in the kitchen with hot and heavy stuff.

    I wonder with the timing of the thorn would be from Paul’s boasting about his sufferings in the past chapter even though he did call himself a fool?

  8. This should be one of the examples in which modern church pastors should follow. Oftentimes, so many of these pastors are caught up in themselves and their works that they instantaneously forget that God is the one who provided the work for their hands and position of influence among others. At the same time, during these times of work and influence, God has also allowed for moments of suffering, pain, loss, and hopelessness in order to humble many of these pastors when they have become confident in themselves or comfortable in the positions in which they are serving. Yet, just because the moments of suffering, pain, loss or hopeless occur does not necessarily mean that those events are to be viewed as negative. For if any believer truly trusts and commits all that they do for the Lord, then that believer will develop more of an appreciation for those moments of suffering, pain, loss , or hopelessness knowing that by the Lord’s sovereignty the Lord has allowed those moments to happen and has a purpose for each one that occurs.

  9. If the thorn in the flesh Paul describes is an actual person, it sounds to me like it could have been one of the super-apostles he referenced before. Perhaps the ring leader? This would make sense in the context of the letter. If those bringing Paul’s credibility into question causes him pain—possibly even contributing to his anguish of Paul over possibly losing his relationship with the church in Corinth—then describing them as a thorn from Satan makes sense. If they caused him to suffer, then they (ironically, considering what they were trying to do) exist as evidence of Paul’s credibility. It is in the weakness of Paul they reveal that Paul becomes more effective at showing God in his life.

  10. I have always been taught that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was something that was more physical than mental which resulted in his suffering. I was taught that it was something like his eyesight being very poor, or that it was some sort of injury to his legs that made it harder for him to move. I honestly do not know what scriptural evidence there is to back up these things, but if it was a physical ailment, eyesight and leg problems would make sense to me. I also think that it is perfectly reasonable to say that his ailment was something much more mental than physical. Depression and anxiety really feel like an actual thorn that you have to live with, so that also makes a lot of sense to me. I do not think that there are many pastors that are very well known that have the same mindset and heart for Jesus that Paul has. If you asked someone like Joel Osteen if he would step down to help those that are actually in need but would have to give up his wealth and his reputation, I do not think that he would. Many pastors in America are spiritual leaders because of all of the wealth and power that they hold instead of their actual spiritual influence that they have on their congregation. We in America are far more like the Corinthian church than we would like to admit.

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