Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians and Paul's Letter to the Ephesians

January 19, 2015

Tom Lowe


The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians


            IV.    Authority of Paul’s Ministry. (10:1–13:10).                         

                       B.    The Boast of the Apostle. (11:1–12:10).

                                   3.     The Consequences of His Boast. (12:1–10).

Lesson IV.B.3.b:The Thorn in the Flesh. (12:7-10).


2nd Corinthians 12:7-10 (NKJV)

7 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.

8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.

9 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.

10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.




Introduction (12:7-10)


The Lord knows how to balance our lives.  If we have only blessings, we may become proud; so He permits us to have burdens as well.  Paul’s great experience in heaven could have ruined his ministry on earth; so God, in His goodness, permitted Satan to buffet Paul in order to keep him from becoming proud.


The mystery of human suffering will not be solved completely in this life.  Sometimes we suffer simply because we are human.  Our bodies change as we grow older, and we are susceptible to the normal problems of life.  The same body that can bring us pleasures can also bring us pains.  The same family members and friends that delight us can also break our hearts.  This is a part of the “human comedy,” and the only way to escape it is to be less than human.  But nobody wants to take that route.


Sometimes we suffer because we are foolish and disobedient to the Lord.  Our own rebellion may affect us, or the Lord may see fit to chasten us in His love (Hebrews 12:3).  King David suffered greatly because of his son; the consequences were painful and so was the discipline of God (see the 2 Samuel 12:1-22; Songs 51).  In His grace, God forgives our sins; but in His government, he must permit us to reap what we sow.


Suffering also is a tool God uses for building godly character (Romans 5:1-5).  Certainly Paul was a man of rich Christian character because he permitted God to mold and make him in the painful experiences of his life.  When you walk along the shore of the ocean, you notice that the rocks are sharp in the quiet coves, but polished in those places where the waves beat against them.  God uses the “waves and billows” of life to polish us, if we will let Him.






7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.NIV


Paul’s thorn in the flesh is not known, because he never reveals it.  Because the Greek word for “flesh” can refer either to one’s physical body or one’s carnal[1] self, there have been numerous conjectures concerning what the “thorn in the flesh” was.


The Greek word for “thorn” can also mean “stake” (a sharpened wooden shaft).  Sometimes criminals were impaled upon a sharp stake.  The picture then that Paul draws is that of something sharp stuck painfully deep in the flesh which cannot be pulled out but continues to cause aggravating difficulty.  The word “thorn” is used in the Greek Old Testament for Israel’s neighbors who had become a temptation and a snare to the Israelites; God predicted it would happen—"But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live” (Numbers 33:55).  Some interpret Paul’s use of the word here as a veiled reference to people who opposed the Gospel—whether the false teachers who were deceiving the Corinthians or the Jews who were actively opposing his preaching.


Others argue that this type of external opposition wouldn’t have humbled Paul, as he clearly stated the thorn did.  According to these commentators, the thorn had to be some type of temptation of the flesh.  The Roman Catholics of today agree and have taken the “thorn in the flesh” to mean carnal temptations.  When the monks and the hermits set themselves up in their monasteries and their cells they found that the last instinct that could be tamed was that of sex.  They wished to eliminate it but it haunted them.  They claim that Paul was like that. Medieval commentators usually suggested a sexual temptation, while commentators of the Reformation suggested spiritual temptations of all kinds, including the temptation to doubt and to shirk the duties of the apostolic life, designed to pop the bubble of any arrogance that may have survived in the life of the converted Pharisee.  In any case, this sort of explanation suggests that Paul would have viewed this temptation as a hindrance to the Gospel and would have been humble by his weakness.


None of these solutions can be right, for three reasons.

(a)  The very word “stake” (or, thorn) indicates an almost savage pain.

(b)The whole picture before us is one of physical suffering.

(c)  Whatever the thorn was, it was intermittent, for, although it sometimes drained Paul of his strength and zeal, it never kept him wholly from his work.  So then let us look at the other suggestions.


It has been suggested that the thorn was Paul’s physical appearance.  “His bodily presence is weak” (2 Corinthians 10:10).  It has been suggested that he suffered from some disfigurement which made him ugly and hindered his work.  But that does not account for the sheer pain that must have been there. 


One of the commonest opinions around is that the thorn was epilepsy.  It is painful and recurrent, and between attacks the sufferer can go about his business.  It produced visions and trances such as Paul experienced.  It can be repellent; in the ancient world it was attributed to demons.  In the ancient world when people saw an epileptic they spat to ward off the evil demons.  In Galatians 4:14 Paul says that when the Galatians saw his infirmities they did not reject him.  The Greek word literally means you did not spit at me.  But this theory has consequences which are hard to accept. It would mean that Paul’s visions were epileptic trances, and it is hard to believe that the visions which changed the world were due to epileptic attacks. 


The earliest commentators on 2 Corinthians suggested that this ailment could have been severe headaches.  These interpreters viewed the thorn in the flesh as a description of symptoms.  Some doctors think Paul may have had recurrent malarial fever, a disease that includes migraine headaches.


When used as a figure of speech, “a thorn in the flesh” usually refers to “irritating or bothersome people.” This interpretation would fit well with Paul’s designation of “a messenger of Satan.” Paul pictures Satan in other places as the adversary who interferes with the spread of the Gospel.  The phrase, “messenger of Satan” refers to acts of violence, annoyances, and the apostle’s incessant persecutions by the Jews which permanently irritate him by humiliating him before the Gentile world.  It was Martin Luther’s feeling that this was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.”


Many commentators, however, continue to insist that the thorn in the flesh is simply a general metaphor for Paul’s physical weaknesses (especially in his eyes), and not a description of the symptoms.  Some see hints in Paul’s letter to the Galatians of a type of eye disease that impaired his vision.  Paul wrote—“Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me" (Galatians 4:14-15). The fact that the Galatians would have taken out their own eyes and given them to Paul is strong evidence for eye problems.  Moreover, the fact that Paul described his writing as so large also supports this theory (see Galatians 6:11). 


The most common conjecture as to the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, however, remains that of a bodily infirmity.  There are indications in his letters that his physical condition gave him difficulties at times.  To the Galatians he wrote: “you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself” (4:13-14; see also 1:8; 1 Corinthians 2:3).  The precise identification of such a physical infirmity has, as we have seen, ranged from an earache or headache to epilepsy (Galatians 4:14), eye trouble (Galatians 4:15; 5:11), and a recurrent malarial fever which has haunted the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. 


The last supposition is perhaps the most plausible, for it is accompanied by a peculiar headache which has been described as “a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead,” a description similar to Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  Another man speaks of “the grinding, boring pain in one temple, like the dentist’s drill in between the jaws,” and says that when the thing became acute it “reached the extreme point of human endurance.” That in truth deserves the description of a thorn in the flesh, and even of a stake in the flesh.  The man who endured so many other sufferings had this agony to contend with all the time. Such is the range of the best guesses.  We do not and cannot know precisely to what the apostle was referring by his thorn in the flesh.  Whatever the thorn was, it is clear that it was a chronic and debilitating problem, which at times kept Paul from working and attending to his ministerial responsibilities.


Yet this passage in 2 Corinthians does not focus on the exact problem Paul faced—he purposely didn’t explain the nature of the problem in detail.  The important point was why the thorn was given to him.  Jesus had given Paul surpassingly great revelations in order to invigorate him for his mission to the Gentiles.  But to keep Paul from becoming conceited about his unique vision, God had allowed Satan to torment him (“buffet him”KJV) with some hardship or temptation.  This thorn continually reminded Paul of his dependence on God and steered him away from pride, arrogance, and self-sufficiency.  In this way, God would use Satan’s evil designs for good, just as he had with Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 50:19-20).


When you stop to think that Paul had letters to write, trips to take, sermons to preach, churches to visit, and dangers to face as he ministered, you can understand that this was a serious matter.  No wonder he prayed three times (as his Lord had done in the garden (Mark 14:32-41) that the affliction might be removed from him.


The Bible describes God using Satan to test believers in several different places.  According to the book of Job, Satan harassed Job with all kinds of catastrophes, including illness.  But God limited Satan.  He placed restrictions on what Satan could do (see Job 1-2).  In 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18, Paul described how Satan hindered him from returning to Thessalonica (see Acts 17:1-10; see also Romans 17:17).  He hates us and would kill us if he could. God would need only to remove His hand and Paul would be completely in Satan’s power; the same could be said of you and me. We must always remember that Satan has no power over Jesus (John 14:30-31) and that even the demons must obey Christ’s will (Mark 1:21-28; 5:1-13).  Moreover, Jesus gave this authority over the demons to the disciples (Mark 6:7). Christ loves to work through weakness (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).  No matter what our sufferings may be, we are able to apply the lessons Paul learned and get encouragement.


While we do not fully understand the origin of evil in this universe, or all the purposes God had in mind when He permitted evil to come, we do know that God controls evil and can use it even for His own Glory.  Satan cannot work against a believer without the permission of God.  Everything that the enemy did to Job and Paul was permitted by the will of God.



8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me.NRSV


Because this thorn was a hindrance to his ministry, Paul saw it as caused by Satan (12:7).  Appropriately, Paul responded to these demonic-inspired attacks with prayer, the chief weapon of the Christian against evil (Luke 22:40; Ephesians 6:12, 18).  Paul prayed for the thorn’s removal so he could be free to preach the Good News and build up others in the faith.  Paul was persistent in his prayers, twice earnestly asking Christ to remove the problem.  Even though Paul didn’t receive a response, he determined to ask the third time.  Believers should follow Paul’s example.  Three, however, is not a magic number for how many times to pray.  Paul didn’t say why he only prayed three times.  Jesus was tempted three times, and he also prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane.  Paul may have followed Jesus’s example in this situation (see Matthew 26:36-45).


But in the end, perseverance in prayer—much more than fervency—indicates a person’s concern over an issue and is an acknowledgment that only Jesus can help.  In His wisdom, however, the Lord does not always remove problems, as he didn’t do in this situation (see 12:9).  Sometimes He denies requests so that His people will depend on His abundant grace.  The Lord to whom Paul directed his prayer is Christ, indicating that Paul equated Christ with God as the recipient of prayer.


When God permits suffering to come to our lives, there are several ways we can deal with it.  Some people become bitter and blame God for robbing them of freedom and pleasure.  Others just “give up” and fail to get any blessing out of the experience because they will not put any courage into the experience.  Still others grit their teeth and put on a brave front determined to “endure to the very end.” While this is a courageous response, it usually drains them of the strength needed for daily living, and after a time, they may collapse.


There are those who want us to believe that an afflicted Christian is a disgrace to God.  “If you are obeying the Lord and claiming all that you have in Christ,” they say, “then you will never be sick.” I have never found that teaching in the Bible.  It is true that God promised the Jews special blessing and protection under the Old Covenant (Deuteronomy 7:12) but he never promised the New Testament believers freedom from sickness or suffering.  If Paul had access to “instant healing” because of his relationship to Christ, then why didn’t he make use of it for himself and for others such as Epaphroditus?  (Philippians 2:25).



9 And  He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”NKJV


Jesus’ answer to Paul’s prayer is the theme of 2 Corinthians: Christ’s grace is what empowers Paul’s ministry, despite his own inadequacies and failures (1:3-4; 3:4-6; 4:1, 5, 7-12, 16-17; 6:3-10; 7:5-6; 10:17; 11:23-30; 13:9; see also 1 Corinthians 15:9-10).  Christ’s grace gives all believers the strength also to bear temptations, trials, and difficulties.


The grace that is sufficient (3:5) for the apostle is not only the favor of God manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but also the power of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:10).  Thus Paul is not merely resigned to his infirmities; he accepts God’s will as his own.  He joyfully boasts in his weaknesses in order that the power of Christ may rest upon me (i.e., spread its tent; Luke 9:34).  The phrase “rest upon me,” may contain an allusion to the Shekinah of divine glory which rested on the ancient Tabernacle in the wilderness (John 1:14).


Two messages were involved in this painful experience.  The thorn in the flesh was Satan’s message to Paul, but God had another message for him, a message of grace.  The words Paul heard while in heaven, he was not permitted to share with us; but he did share the words God gave him on earth—and what an encouragement they are.  It was a message of grace.  What is grace?  It is God’s provision for our every need when we need it.  It has well been said that God in His grace gives us what we do not deserve, and in His mercy He does not give us what we do deserve.  Our God is “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10), and His throne is a “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16).  The Word of God is “the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32), and the promise is that “He giveth more grace” (James 4:6).  No matter how we look at it, God is adequate for every need that we have.  But our God does not give us His grace simply that we might “endure” our sufferings.  Even unconverted people can manifest great endurance.


It was a sufficient grace.  There is never a shortage of grace.  God is sufficient for our spiritual needs (2 Corinthians 3:4-6) and our material needs (2 Corinthians 9:8) as well as our physical needs (2 Corinthians 12:9).  If God’s grace is sufficient to save us, surely it is sufficient to keep us and strengthen us in our times of suffering.  God does not remove the affliction, but He gives us His grace so that the affliction works for us and not against us.  God wanted to keep Paul from being “exalted above measure,” and this was His way of accomplishing it.


Although Paul’s request wasn’t granted, Jesus assured him that He would continue to work through Paul in his weakness.  In fact, Christ’s strength was made perfect in Paul’s weakness.  [The Greek word for “weakness” means the frailty of human existence—the shortcomings we encounter in our bodies.] Thus Christ’s strength is brought to completion when it shows itself through human weakness.  Personal success and self-sufficiency obscures God’s work.  When there is no adversity, Jesus’ power can be overlooked or taken for granted.  Obvious weakness shows Jesus’ power in full relief.


Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.NIV


Paul restated Jesus’ answer to him as a principle for his own life.  Instead of continuing to ask God to take away his “thorn,” Paul wholeheartedly accepted Jesus’ answer to his prayer.  Paul accepted that Jesus, in his divine wisdom, knew what was best for him.


Even if Jesus’ way involved suffering, humiliation, and weaknesses, Paul would submit.  In fact, he would gladly—that is, with great pleasure—boast in his weaknesses, for it was through his weaknesses that Christ could powerfully work through him.  Christ’s power could be fully displayed—not in Paul’s strength, not in Paul’s wisdom, and not in arrogant boasts—but in weakness.  It was only in Paul’s weakness that Christ’s power could fully rest on Paul—literally, in Greek, act as “a shelter over” Paul.  In other words, Paul didn’t want to wander away from the protection and support that was in Christ by relying on his own strength.  He wanted Christ’s power to overshadow everything he did; only then would his work be truly effective. 


Jesus had taught His disciples this principle years before: “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  It is only when believers remain in Christ and rely on Christ’s power that they become truly effective.



10 Since I know it is all for Christ's good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.NLT


Although Christ did not remove Paul’s affliction, He promised to demonstrate His power in Paul’s weaknesses.  Knowing this, Paul welcomed times when he appeared weak or even powerless.  He saw insults and hardships in a different light.  They gave him opportunities to grow closer to Jesus in prayer.  For when he was at his wits end—when he had no options left—he would be forced to run to Jesus—to rely on Christ’s help.  Paul’s utter dependence on Christ came in to clear light.  This was not the only benefit of the persecutions and calamities.  At those times, Paul would look for Christ’s working in a marvelous and mighty way.  Christ’s clear manifestation of His power in Paul’s weakness would become a source of inspiration and a reason to praise and glorify Jesus.


His infirmities, rather than hindering, actually make room for the strength of the risen Christ to be revealed in his ministry (4:7-10; 6:4-10).  He “took pleasure” in these trials and problems, not because he was psychologically unbalanced and enjoyed pain, but because he was suffering for the sake of Jesus Christ.  He was glorifying God by the way he accepted and handled the difficult experiences of life.  He describes his infirmities by the four “in” phrases which follow their mention: Paul has had to endure reproaches and mistreatments from his enemies; he has not been able to rise above necessities and hardships; he has had to flee from persecutions; and suffered in the distresses (tight places from which he could not escape).  All of this he bears gladly for Christ’s sake!  The direct opposite of the power of the world is the power of the kingdom. 


As the apostle concludes the boast that he has been forced to make, he reveals two essential principles which apply to Christian testimony, 12:1-10.  The first is that we must be extremely modest when we speak of our extraordinary spiritual experiences: (1) so as not to attract more attention to ourselves than to Christ, 1-5; and (2) so as not to speak beyond that which can be clearly corroborated by our conduct, 6.  The second is that, when we must call attention to ourselves in the course of our witness, (1) it should relate to  our condition of weakness in the world, 5, 7; in order that (2) it might be clearly evident that our weakness is really our strength “in Christ,” 8-10.


As an apostle, (1) Paul’s credentials consist in his often humiliating sufferings endured for others in the cause of Christ, 11:21b-33; and (2) any boast he has focuses in his weaknesses, so that his adequacy as a minister of the Gospel might reside in the power of Christ alone, 12:1-10.


The fact that Christ’s power is displayed in weak people should give believers courage.  Instead of relying on their own energy, effort, or talent, they should turn to Christ for wisdom and strength.  Weakness not only helps a person develop Christian character; it also deepens that person’s worship, because admitting weakness affirms Christ’s inexhaustible strength.


From Paul’s experience, we may learn several practical lessons.

  1. The spiritual is far more important to the dedicated believer than the physical.  This is not to suggest that we ignore the physical, because our bodies are the Temples of the Spirit of God.  But it does mean that we try not to make our bodies an end in themselves.  They are God’s tools for accomplishing His work in the world.  What God does in developing our Christian character is far more valuable than physical healing without character.
  2. God knows how to balance burdens and blessings, suffering and Glory.
  3. Not all sickness is caused by sin.  The argument of Job’s comforters was that Job had sinned, and that was why he was suffering.  But their argument was wrong in Job’s case, as well as in Paul’s case.  There are times when God permits Satan to inflict us so that God might accomplish a great purpose in our lives.
  4. There is something worse than sickness, and that is sin; and the worst sin of all is pride.  It is a paradox—and an evidence of the sovereignty of God—that God used Satan, the proudest of all beings, to help keep Paul humble.
  5. Physical affliction need not be a barrier to effective Christian service.  Paul did not permit his thorn in the flesh to become a stumbling block.  In fact, he let God turn that stone into a stepping-stone.
  6. We can always rest in God’s Word.  He always has a message of encouragement for us in times of trial and sufferings.




[1] relating to or given to crude bodily pleasures and appetites

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