The Apostle Paul, with his protégé Timothy, wrote the second letter (2 Corinthians) to the Christian church in and around Corinth (modern day Greece). Although only two such texts are incorporated into the New Testament, there is evidence of Paul writing at least four (see: 1 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Corinthians 2:3-4; 2 Corinthians 7:8).
The letter has an abrupt change in tone in 2 Corinthians 10–13 that has led some scholars to speculate those chapters were later inserted,1 so it could have been cobbled together from two or more of Paul’s letters.2 This section (chapters 10-13) is sometimes referred to as the ‘letter of tears’. Paul felt that the situation in Corinth was complicated and they felt attacked, so the letter may seem a little confusing to the reader that is unaware of the social, religious, and economic circumstances of the community there.3
The specific scripture we will study is in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, but please read, if possible, chapters 10 through 13 (or at the very least, read chapter 12). Keep in mind that when Paul speaks of ‘boasting’, the Greek word (καυχάομαι) means ‘glory’ or ‘glorifying’.4 And the word ‘fool’ (ἄφρων) means ‘without reason’ or ‘an inconsiderate habit’.5 Although these two words are not in the specific verses we will study, they do add proper context to the overall message being given. Here is the scripture we will study.
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, ESV).6
Speaking of the great revelations received, Paul mentioned them in the first few verses of 2 Corinthians 12. They were of a vision whereby he was whisked into the upper heaven of God. He speaks of this event in the third person, rather than the first person (saying ‘he’, rather than ‘I’). While there, he was shown paradise and he heard unspeakable or secret words. After briefly mentioning this event, he proceeds to mention the thorn.
We all get a thorn7 in the flesh (or a thorn in our side), once in a while. Today, we say something or someone is a ‘pain-in-the-neck’, or a ‘pain-in-the- . . .‘ (insert some other body part). This idiom8 means an especially irritating or aggravating or obnoxious person, thing, or situation.9
This thorn that troubles Paul is not stated outright, so we don’t know what it was, but it was likely known by the recipients of the letter. God gave this to him, or allowed it to happen, as a constant reminder of his weakness; that is all the Bible says. Countless explanations have been given as to its nature, including temptations, oppositions, physical maladies, even a speech impediment. One Roman Catholic writer thought that it denotes suggestions of personal sinfulness,10 and maybe it does. It was definitely a hindrance to his ministry and he repeatedly petitioned God for its removal. Rather than removing the problem, God gave him sufficient grace for his acceptance of it.11
Hence, “Paul’s experience itself then illustrates his message to the church. The true boast of an apostle, of one sent out by the Lord on a mission . . . is that in the course of such a mission, the Lord has faithfully provided power in moments of necessity so that the apostle may claim ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’.”12
Most academics’ ideas suggest the thorn to be one of five, because of certain scripture references: (1) emotional turmoil about the churches (2 Corinthians 2:4), (2) his false opponents (2 Corinthians 11:3-5), (3) physical problems, either of the eye (Galatians 4:15) or of a speaking disability (2 Corinthians 10:10), (5) demonic opposition (1 Thessalonians 2:18).13
“Since he referred to his thorn as a harassing ‘messenger of Satan’, he could have been vulnerable to significant spiritual-psychological struggles. This is plausible given the cumulative trauma of violently persecuting Christians, then suffering violent persecution, living in constant danger as a Christian, and then living with daily ‘anxiety for all the churches’ (2 Corinthians 11:28).”14
There are other biblical references to a thorn in the flesh. “It is synonymous with the phrase ‘thorn in the side’, which is also of biblical origin, based on the description in Numbers 33:55.”15 Another example of a biblical passage where ‘thorn’ is used as a metaphor is Ezekiel 28:24.
“Paul implored God to take the ‘thorn’ away; but God refused. Instead, he promised to give Paul the grace to bear it. As a result, the ‘thorn’ keeps Paul humble and dependent on Christ — and he delights in it! He has found that, when he is weak, he has to rely completely on the strength of Christ, which is the only strength that matters.”16
This passage is a good example of how Christ’s power comes to ordinary, broken people. “The passage echoes Christ’s quiet power as he cried to his Father in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36–43). Here the exalted Lord gives that strength to those who call out to him (see Isaiah 57:15 — God dwells with the oppressed and lowly of spirit). Contrary to the health-and-wealth gospel, even the godly must expect to face physical [or mental] disabilities, sickness, and eventually, death.”17
Maybe not knowing what that ‘thorn’ was, is the whole point. Maybe God wants to deflect away from blaming Paul for something and make us reflect upon our own imperfections. “Uncertainty about the specific identity of the ‘thorn’ has allowed believers down through the ages to apply the concept to their own circumstances.” And, when God doesn’t give us what we ask of him, we must remember that no is an answer to prayer, just as surely as yes.18
“The fact that we really don’t know what Paul’s thorn was, turns out to be both merciful and instructive to us. It’s merciful because, given the various possibilities, we all can identify with Paul to some degree in our afflictions. It’s instructive because what Paul’s thorn was isn’t the point. The point is what God’s purpose was for the thorn.”19
I wasn’t able to find a good quality music video specific to a ‘thorn in the flesh’ as mentioned in 2 Corinthians. However here is one related to the various ‘thorns’ and pains we suffer in today’s world. Like in Paul’s case, sometimes God will only help us tolerate them, but most times he will show us a way to overcome them, too.
This reggae worship music is sung in English, but if you wish, closed-captioning (CC) in Portugese can be turned on. The title is “He is Greater Than I” and selected lyrics are below. See the music video link listed at the end of References & Notes.20
Well, God is greater than your trials
And greater than your fears
Just cast on Him your sorrows
He’ll wipe away your tears
Yes, God is greater than tomorrow
And He’ll see you through your pain
Because the one who kneels before the Lord
Can stand up against anything
Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
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Reference & Notes
- Oropeza, B. J., Exploring Second Corinthians: Death and Life, Hardship and Rivalry, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2016), pp. 2-15.
- Harris, Murray J., The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Eds.) Todd Still and Mark Goodacre, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982).
- “Second Epistle to the Corinthians”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc, 31 May 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Epistle_to_the_Corinthians
- Vine, W. E.; Unger, Merrill F.; and White, William Jr., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers,1996), vol. 2, p. 71.
- Ibid., p. 246.
- Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV), ©2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. The text has been used by permission. All rights reserved.
- thorn: Strong’s Greek #4647. σκόλοψ skŏlŏps, point or prickle (a bodily annoyance or disability).
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
- idiom: an expression whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meaning of the words that make it up.
Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 11th ed., (USA: Oxford University Press, 2008).
- “pain in the neck”, (Farlex English Dictionary, retrieved 9 July 2020), https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/pain+in+the+neck
- Easton, Matthew G., “Thorn in the flesh”, Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition, (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1897).
- Lowery, David K., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 583.
- Davis, James A., Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), vol. 3, p. 995.
- Barry, John D., et al., Faithlife Study Bible, (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), 2 Corinthians 12:7.
- Bloom, Jon, “Why You Have That Thorn”, (Desiring God, 13 April 2018), https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/why-you-have-that-thorn
- Cresswell, Julia, (Ed.), “Thorn”, Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 444.
- Knowles, Andrew, The Bible Guide, 1st Augsburg books edition, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), p. 601.
- Barnett, Paul W., CSB Apologetics Study Bible, (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 1461.
- Easley, Kendell H., CSB Study Bible: Notes, (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), p. 1852.
- Bloom, Jon, “Why You Have That Thorn”, (see above).
- “He is Greater Than I”, Artist: Christafari; (Producer: Mark Mohr; Director: Renato Braga; Album: Reggae Worship: A Roots Revival; 31 October 2013) – MUSIC VIDEO, https://youtu.be/RFR-bedgT54?list=RDRFR-bedgT54