Thorn in the Flesh
Robert Wurtz II
For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:6–9 NKJV)
Paul was caught between two extremes regarding the Corinthians’ opinion of him. One group challenged his authenticity as an apostle forcing him to list his qualifications and experiences (2 Corinthians 11:22-29). The other group tended to think of him more highly than they should. What follows is Paul’s explanation of how and why God kept Paul weak and consequently reliant on Him for a steady supply of grace.
Fourteen years before writing Second Corinthians, Paul was caught up to Paradise to hear unspeakable words. These words (along with other revelations that he received) amounted to an “abundance of revelations.” The impact on him and the people was of such import that God sent a messenger from Satan to “buffet” him, which he called “a thorn in the flesh.”
This measure aimed at preventing the hyper-exaltation of Paul personally and in the eyes of the people. In other words, he wouldn’t be lifted up (exalted) but would maintain humility so God could continue to pour grace upon him. The fundamental truth about God is that He resists the proud and gives grace to the humble, says Peter, James, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:9, 1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6). Humility is an attribute of God seldom emphasized today. Still, it is clearly and commonly understood in Heaven.
A Thorn in the Flesh
Humility was the master key to Paul’s ministry. Generally, God tells us to humble ourselves, but in Paul’s case, He took the extraordinary step of sending a thorn in the flesh to “buffet” him. A Satanic messenger (demon) kept him weak and constantly depending on God. Paul speaks of his weaknesses, which are plural (2 Corinthians 12:9), so it’s possible that this was a demon that manifested itself in many ways, including sickness, various hardships, terrifying situations, and influencing people to disrespect or harm him. Nevertheless, it was one thorn (messenger).
The impact of this constant weakness was humility and dependency. Rather than ministering from a position of human strength and pride, which always seeks retaliation when wronged or challenged, Paul’s lowliness of mind worked in harmony with God’s personality. It enabled him to represent God to the people rightly.
The Humility of God
God wouldn’t tolerate rejection or disrespect if he were a man with human pride. He would behave like the Sons of Thunder (James and John), who suggested fire be called from Heaven on the Samaritans. Longsuffering requires humility. Pride reacts in anger to bad behavior. We call it “temper” or “the wrath of man” (James 1:20), but God doesn’t explode with a temper as proud people do. His controlled anger is His settled attitude towards sin and rebellion.
Humility makes love possible. Pride militates against love. Paul wanted to know Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10), which is far beyond intellectual. He got to know Jesus through his sorrows in the way Job got to know God (Job 42:5). Paul lost all things and regarded those losses as worthless in order to gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).
Paul wanted to know Christ and become like Christ. You can’t do that from a life of comfort. Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
From Ox Goad to Thorn
God used a proverbial “goad” to get Saul (Paul) on track during the early years after the resurrection when he persecuted the church in Jerusalem (Acts 9:5 NKJV). The words of the wise are like goads, says Solomon (Ecclesiastes 12:7). So God used Stephen’s words to goad Paul, who later used Stephens’s words to goad others (Acts 7:48, 17:24).
Now God chose a “thorn” to keep Paul on track. Both of the methods involve some type of pricking pain to control movement or confront attitude. Before salvation, Paul kicked against the goads (pricks KJV); now, he’s dealing with this messenger from Satan. We know he suffered physical challenges with his eyes, relational challenges with the Judaizers, and Alexander the Metalworker (among many others).
When the thorn was relational, there was someone in his life that Satan’s messenger used to keep him on his knees and humble before God. Satan demonstrated through his attack on Job that he has a battery of ways to inflict punishment on a person and all at the same time. He used various kinds of loss and so-called friends whose dark counsel was more like thorns in his eyes (Numbers 3:55) than wise words that goad one to do good (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
The Gift of Suffering
We know Paul lost everything for the cause of Christ, a clear parallel to Job (Philippians 3:8-10). As I mentioned, Job and Paul wanted to see or know God. Their various troubles made that desire possible. Nevertheless, he asked God to take it away until he understood its purpose. So often, we ask God to remove that sickness or problematic person from our lives, but God says, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
When Paul saw that person causing him trouble or felt the disease raging in his body, he knew it was that messenger at work that God had given him. Our Greek word for “given” could be translated as “supplied.” God gave Paul what he needed to make him the man of God that He wanted him to be. You can only get to know Jesus or become like Jesus with hardships. We want the cup(s) to pass away from us, but God says, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
To Be Like Jesus
An old hymn says, “To be like Jesus, to be like Jesus, all I ask is to be like Him.” It has a wonderful message but doesn’t prepare us for what it takes to make a person “like Jesus.” The thorn in the flesh enabled Paul to know the Lord in the fellowship of his sufferings. What did Jesus suffer? A lot of abuse, but because He was meek and lowly of heart, He wept in the face of rejection rather than wiping people out (Luke 9:54). He cried, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how long I would have gathered you… but you refused” (Matthew 23:37). Paul spoke of bewailing the Corinthians on his next visit if they hadn’t repented (2 Corinthians 12:21).
Do we weep like Jesus and Paul? Do we react in temper when we feel mistreated? God wants His ministers to have His disposition toward His people. Therefore, he works tirelessly to remove every trace of pride from our lives. Understanding this truth will go a long way toward appreciating and even glorying in our weaknesses and sufferings. We may not have the revelations and visions that Paul had, but whatever is necessary and appropriate to our circumstances, God will “supply” to bring us to perfection.
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