Today: [2 Corinthians 12:] What was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh? In 2 Cor. 12 we find Paul disclosing profound visions and visitations from God. He also discusses what we know as his “thorn in the flesh.” Much theology springs from this passage of scripture. Do you have a thorn in the flesh? Does God send such things upon people today? Is it a commentary on how spiritual you are if you go through something like this?
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[2Co 12:1-21 KJV] 1 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. 6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but [now] I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me [to be], or [that] he heareth of me. 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. 11 I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing. 12 Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds. 13 For what is it wherein ye were inferior to other churches, except [it be] that I myself was not burdensome to you? forgive me this wrong. 14 Behold, the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be burdensome to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. 15 And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved. 16 But be it so, I did not burden you: nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you with guile. 17 Did I make a gain of you by any of them whom I sent unto you? 18 I desired Titus, and with [him] I sent a brother. Did Titus make a gain of you? walked we not in the same spirit? [walked we] not in the same steps? 19 Again, think ye that we excuse ourselves unto you? we speak before God in Christ: but [we do] all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying. 20 For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and [that] I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest [there be] debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults: 21 [And] lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and [that] I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.
In 2 Cor. 12 Paul continues his mock boasting as a repudiation of the attacks against his character from his detractors in the Corinthian church. He sobers somewhat in v. 2 disclosing a vision he experienced where he is shown what he called the third heaven. The experience was so profound that he wasn’t sure whether it was something that really happened or not.
Regardless of the nature of the experience, he reports that he heard things that he describes as “unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter…”
Let us pause and consider what Paul does and does not reveal about this experience. He speaks of the third heaven as something that does not need to be explained. We can conclude that the Corinthian believers being made up primarily of converted Jews had some understanding or religious traditions about what the third heaven might be. The study of heaven, angels, etc., is called “religious cosmology.” The third heaven in Judaism from ancient times was generally considered to be the highest abode of God although some thought it to be a lower level of seven heavens believed to exist. The basic understanding of three levels of heaven we would described in modern language as three levels of existence:
- First Heaven: The natural realm being the first heaven.
Second Heaven: The transitory realm between the spiritual realm and the physical realm such as Jacob saw in his vision of the ladder and angels ascending and descending in Gen. 28:12.
Third Heaven: The spiritual dimension where God’s throne is found as described in Ezekiel 1:22-28; and Rev. 4:1.
Ancient beliefs in Judaism held that the heavens visible from the earth were actually part of a tent or “Hoopa” covering the earth beyond which was the abode of God or what we might reference here as Paul’s third heaven (remembering that the belief was at this time and for centuries after that the earth was flat). Regardless of how we might accurately describe this realm, Paul reports that he experienced it being caught up into paradise where he hears things that he doesn’t have permission to repeat. It is apparent that this was a profound experience because Paul didn’t speak of this for over fourteen years and even now gives very little information about it unlike many today who experiencing such a thing would have posted it on social media within hours.
Paul speaks of this testimony as “glorying” or boasting against those who marginalized his ministry because it wasn’t as fantastical as many who were received among the Corinthian church. He does speak of mystical and spiritual experiences, but he doesn’t leave out (v. 5) the infirmities and struggles he went through as a minister of the gospel. He does something very few will do today, and that is (v. 6) tell both sides of his story so people will not think of him more highly than they ought.
Paul also talks about what he calls a “thorn in the flesh.” This one verse (v. 7) is used to justify more unbelief than any other verse in the bible. If someone prays and doesn’t get an answer, particularly for healing, they are often told: “well, this is your thorn in the flesh…” My answer to people that think this would be “no, you aren’t that spiritual.” Until you have done in the earth what the apostle Paul has done in the earth then you suggesting you have a thorn in the flesh like Paul only reveals your colossal arrogance and opinion of yourself. Besides, there is no indication in the wording of this verse that Paul’s “thorn” was a physical infirmity. Many object to this saying that Paul was diseased in his eyes due to a reference in Gal. 4:15 and the fact that all of his letters were dictated by him to another suggesting that he was what we would term legally blind. This is straining the text to the point of completely twisting the scripture.
What was then Paul’s thorn in the flesh? Paul goes on to describe it not as a thing but as an entity or “messenger.” The original language word here is the same word translated dozens of times elsewhere as an angel or demon. What was the reason for this? Paul says it was given to him lest he should be exalted above measure. Do we conclude then that Paul had a pride problem? No, this isn’t about Paul’s pride because he mentions in the previous verse that it was to combat the tendency of the people to exalt Paul, not Paul promoting himself. If that is the case, then the lesson for us is to be careful of the company you keep and be on guard about what people think of you because their positive opinions of you can bring as much pressure against you as their criticisms. Paul had a thorn in the flesh that originated from the people exalting him more than they should. Very few if any of us today have such a powerful ministry as to need such an artifice to keep the people from blindly thinking of us as they thought of Paul. We need to grow up and stop using the thorn in the flesh concept as an excuse for unbelief.
In v. 8 Paul says that he asked the Lord three times to remove this hindrance to his life. Does this mean that it was a permanent condition? The text doesn’t plainly say this. We need to be conservative about making sweeping generalizations about what the scripture says and does not say. What we do see is that God’s response to Paul is “My grace is sufficient for thee: my strength is made perfect in weakness…” Does that mean that God is saying no? That is not the inference of the scripture.
I know in my own life I have experienced opposition, fierce opposition that I have prayed and asked God to deal with many times. In years past the Lord gave me to understand that He wasn’t going to answer in the way that I hoped, but that it wouldn’t matter – that he would (in His words) bless me “around” the problem. What I have learned that meant was that God has so blessed and highly favored me that this opposition from my past has been entirely eclipsed by God’s goodness and God’s grace. This didn’t constitute what I first desired in this matter, but it was a tremendous benefit and blessing to my life regardless. This is what God is saying to Paul in v. 9. God’s strength would be made manifest and made perfect in Paul’s weakness.
What about you? Do you have a long-standing challenge in your life that hasn’t yielded to prayer? Don’t make assumptions about what that might mean. Keep praying and keep believing. Don’t give up hope but also don’t presume to know how God will choose to deal with what you are facing. God limits his own sovereignty in promising you an outcome, but He retains His sovereignty in terms of how He answers your prayer. He may meet your need but not in the way that you hoped. What does it matter as long as He demonstrates that He is with you and will never leave nor forsake you?
Paul goes on speaking of the signs of an apostle that were present in his life. What were these evidences of Paul’s apostolic credentials? He lists them in v. 12:
- Patience: (having an enduring track record of ministry).
- Signs: unusual, uncommon miracles.
- Wonders: unique and extraordinary events.
- Mighty Deeds. dunamis (great miraculous power).
If these are the signs of an apostle should we not see these in people identifying themselves as apostles? Are they patient for instance? I’ve seen many who claim to be apostles whose dominant character is being pushy, dictatorial and impatient with all those around them that they, in fact, carry as an affectation of what they think makes them an apostle in the first place. This is not an apostle.
What about signs, wonders and mighty deeds? If someone claims to be an apostle, there are going to be in evidence unusual things such as this. You cannot be an apostle in word only. Where are the miracles? Remember 1 Cor. 12:28 “first apostles… after that miracles, helps, governments…” If the presence of an apostle is not attended with what we could only term as miraculous things happening, then we need to rethink our idea of an apostle. If the person connected to us as an apostle does not help us in fundamental ways, then that person is not an apostle. We need to learn to discern between those who call themselves apostles and those who actually are.
In v. 14 Paul declares his intention to come for a third visit to the Corinthians, and since they are contentious about financially supporting them, he says in effect “keep your money…” We have experienced this in our own ministry. I cannot tell you how many times we have received a childish complaint from someone whereupon we research how much they have donated to the ministry and promptly without being asked to refund them everything they ever gave. Have you ever heard of anyone else or any other ministry doing this? As Paul says elsewhere, we don’t just desire what is YOURS we desire YOU. As a mom and a dad in the faith, we want to see who Jesus is in your life enlarged and glorified above all else. For this reason, Paul says he will spend and be spent for the sake of those he ministers to. Does that mean it is wrong to receive offerings and support? No, the wrong is not in Paul’s dealings with the Corinthians but in their immature and tight-fisted habits where supporting the gospel was concerned.
Paul then recites his behavior among the Corinthians and the conduct of Titus when Paul sent him to minister among the people. They weren’t there to make a gain of them as many others, false apostles who came as well to Corinth. Why is Paul doing these things? To make a point of how much he loves them because he is deeply concerned that when he does come to see them, they will be found full of debates, envying, wrath, strife, backbiting, whisperings, pride, and upheaval. If this is the case, if Paul finds the Corinthian church in this state he will take it as a personal humbling against himself because he laid the foundation of the Corinthian church in the first place and will consider their failure as his own if they are found in such a sorry predicament.