By Glenn A. Jobe
In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 the apostle Paul makes reference to “a thorn in the flesh” that had been given to him:
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. [NKJV]
In the past any investigation as to the identity of this “thorn” has come to be synonymous to those “secret things that belong to the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). Thus, many conclude that no one can know what the “thorn” was that plagued Paul. Can the same be said about the original recipients of Paul’s letter, the Corinthian church? Did they not know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was? If they could not know what it was, why would Paul include a discussion of it here in Second Corinthians? If they did know, are there any clues from the epistle itself that might identify what Paul’s thorn was?
So what is this “thorn?” Unfortunately, various attempts at identifying Paul’s thorn often remove the study away from the immediate context. Halley’s Bible Handbook offers a typical approach at the question: [from Halley’s Bible Handbook; 23rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), p. 607].
. . .Paul suffered from Chronic Ophthalmia, a disease of the eyes which was not extremely Painful, but, at times, made Paul Repulsive in Appearance.
This seems to be borne out by the language of the Epistles. It came upon Paul 14 years before he wrote this Epistle (12:2, 7), which was about the time of his entrance into Galatia, on the First Missionary Journey.
His entrance into Galatia was occasioned by some sort of Physical Infirmity, Galatians 4:13, so offensive in appearance that it constituted a sore trial to anyone in his presence, Galatians 4:14.
They would have given their own eyes, Galatians 4:15. Why eyes, unless that was his particular need?
Paul’s customary “large” handwriting, Galatians 6:11, may have been due to poor eye-sight. This may have been the reason Paul Dictated his epistles to some of his helpers.
Does this not approach the question through the back door? Instead of beginning with the text and from there identify the thorn, the suggestion is to begin with some known ailment and try to make it fit the passage.
Suppose one grants that Paul suffered from poor eyesight. Undoubtedly he did. How do we know that this was his “thorn in flesh?” How do we know that he did not have other “physical” infirmities? Several years ago I had the sad duty of preaching the funeral of a close fellow preacher. Jim suffered for years with many maladies. He had hepatitis C, epilepsy, kidney failure, heart disease, diabetes, and did I mention to you that he was also blind? What would you say was Jim’s thorn in the flesh?
The purpose of this study is to suggest that the identity of Paul’s thorn can be ascertained from the immediate context of 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Thus, this article hopes to stimulate the reader to look at the question from the immediate context.
Paul’s Defense of His Apostolic Authority
A. Paul replies to those who reject his apostolic authority. He stresses that he is not a coward, that his warfare is not fleshly (carnal), but mighty before God to the casting down of every stronghold (of the devil) that might stand against the knowledge of God (10:1-16).
B. Paul desires to use his apostolic authority for building up and not for tearing down–but to those who might think his letters “weighty” and his presence “weak”, let them know that what was said in his letters will be followed in deed (10:7-11).
C. Paul is not of the group that compares themselves by themselves: “For not he that commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends” (10:12-18).
D. Paul is concerned that the Corinthians might be beguiled by those that parade themselves as “super apostles” (11:1-6).
- Paul calls upon them to bear with him in a little foolishness.
- He wants them to know that he is not at all behind any that might claim to be apostles.
E. Paul’s sacrificial preaching and the absence of physical sustenance from others demonstrates the genuineness of his apostleship so that the slander of “false apostles” might be cut off (11:7-15).
F. Paul says if they want to get into a contest of foolish boasting he stands ready to meet them on their own ground (11:16—12:13). He cites his (1) “pedigree” in the Jewish religion (11:22), (2) his sufferings for the cause of Christ (11:23-33), (3) his visions and revelations, and states that lest he be puffed up in pride due to such, God left “a thorn in the flesh,” identified as “a messenger of Satan,” to buffet him (12:1-10).
- Finally, he states that the signs of a genuine apostle were wrought among them by him.
- The only privilege they had missed was that they had not financially sustained him as he worked among them.
- In this regard, if the apostle has conducted himself inappropriately, the apostle begs from the Corinthians, “Forgive me this wrong!” (12:11-13).
[Adapted from outlines by Jackie M. Stearsman]
Brief Observations of the Context
Some of the things Paul states in the above outline will surely assist in identifying what his thorn was, that causes him grief. Note carefully that the apostle has already stated that (1) his conflict is not a carnal one (10:3-6); (2) he is confronting those who present themselves as “super apostles” (11:13); and, (3) he is behind no one in his development in the religion of the Jews (11:22).
At the end of 2 Corinthians 11 Paul declares, “I will boast in the things that concern my infirmity” (verse 30). He thus mentions his infirmity in chapter 11 before he begins his discussion of “a thorn in the flesh” in chapter 12. Then in the remaining three verses that end chapter 11 Paul cites an occasion in which he suffered from his infirmity:
31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
Acts 9:19-25 supplies additional information to the aforementioned “infirmity.” The Jews plotted to kill Paul and apparently they had persuaded the governor of Damascus to arrest him. Paul escaped by the help of disciples who “took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:25). What is the “infirmity” the apostle mentions? Surely the “infirmity” is identical to “a thorn in the flesh.” By now its identity should be obvious to us, but let’s continue.
After adding to his apostolic credentials in 2 Corinthians 12:1-6, Paul returns to the discussion of his “infirmity,” only this time he adds another descriptive phrase: “a thorn in the flesh.” We can know that 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 continues the discussion of the infirmity in chapter 11 because after Paul describes his thorn in the flesh he concludes:
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” (12:10).
Indeed this is a further description of the “infirmity” that is introduced in the previous chapter.
Paul has received not only every advantage under the law (for he was a “doctor” of the law), but he has also received the advantage of “visions and revelations of the Lord” (12:1). Applebury correctly observes,
It was not foolish to boast in the thing which the Lord had done. Paul spoke the truth about what the Lord had done with him and limited his remarks to this lest anyone should exalt him above what they saw in him and heard from him [Corinthians, Vol. 2, p. 214].
Now, in the midst of his defense, the same apostle refers to a thorn that God had given him. Further he explains why such a thorn was given him: to keep him from being “puffed up.” Thus in light of this, note that in verse 22 he proudly cites his own “pedigree” in the Jewish religion. This acknowledgment is followed by his own affirmation of his sufferings for the cause of Christ (11:23-33). Is there any connection between his “pedigree” as a Jew and the sufferings that he is called upon to endure? Surely there is! Already we are learning the source of his infirmity, “the thorn in the flesh.”
It is within this setting that Paul states,
a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
Paul then continues his defense of his apostleship in verses 11-13. The apostle issues a strong rebuke to the church at Corinth:
I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.
Applebury’s summary on this is interesting: “It is difficult to understand how they could have forgotten all this and gladly listen to the claims of false teachers in the absence of Paul” [Ibid].
Has Paul wandered away from his subject to speak about the thorn in the flesh or is his thorn in the flesh directly related to his boasting as an apostle? Surely the latter is true. As to the identity of those who questioned Paul’s apostleship, several possibilities exist: (1) unconverted Gentiles and Jews outside the church, (2) unconverted Gentiles only, (3) unconverted Jews only, (4) converted Gentiles and Jews in the Corinthian church, (4) converted Gentiles only, (5) converted Jews only, or (6) converted and unconverted Jews. The descriptions in both epistles seem to indicate the last possibility—converted and unconverted Jews.
The Words “Thorn” and “Flesh”
How are the words “thorn” and “flesh” used in scripture? If “flesh” means literally “flesh”, should we not say that Paul’s “thorn” is a literal thorn that impales his body? And if his ailment is poor eyesight, should one not conclude that that the “thorn” is in his eyes and cannot be removed? However, if the “thorn” is not literal, should we not suspect that “flesh” isn’t either? To so conclude is consistent with the immediate context for the apostle had already stated, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh” (10:3).
What does the word “thorn” signify in scripture? The usual word for thorn, akantha (Matt. 7:16; 13:7, 22; 27:29; Mark 4:7, 18; Luke 6:44; 8:7; 8:14; John 19:2; Heb. 6:8), designates a wood sliver of a plant or tree. But the word in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is skolops and means literally, “what is pointed,” and it is also related to skallō which means “to hack” [Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, VII, p. 409].
Interestingly, Paul does not employ akantha, but skolops, a word that occurs nowhere else in the New Testament! Fortunately skolops does occur three times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX). A consideration of these three occurrences is very helpful.
First Occurrence. As the Israelites prepared to enter the promised land, Moses charged the people that they drive the inhabitants out of the land, for if they fail in this, these non-Israelites will oppress the people (Numbers 33:55-56):
NKJV reads: 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell. 56 Moreover it shall be that I will do to you as I thought to do to them.'”
The RSV reads: 55But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”
What proved to be “thorns” in the sides of the Israelites? It was the inhabitants of the land whom Israel had failed to remove from the land.
Second Occurrence. As we know, the Israelites did not drive out the inhabitants from the land. Rather they became like their heathen neighbors and adopted their gods. Consequently, Israel became an unfaithful wife to the Lord. Hosea prophesied to the Northern Kingdom from 750 – 725 B.C. and predicted the coming consequences to Israel:
“Therefore, behold, I will hedge up your way with thorns, And wall her in, So that she cannot find her paths” (Hos. 2:6).
The Northern Kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. What was the hedge of thorns here in Hosea 2? Assyria was. The Assyrian captivity was cruel and painful.
Third Occurrence. The Southern Kingdom also entered captivity. While in captivity, Ezekiel spoke of the time when God would release his people from their misery:
“And there shall no longer be a pricking brier or a painful thorn for the house of Israel from among all who are around them, who despise them. Then they shall know that I am the Lord GOD” (Ezek. 28:24).
What was the painful thorn that irritated Israel during the time of Ezekiel’s prophecy? It was Babylon for they were in Babylonian captivity.
What is common about all three of these occurrences of skolops in the Old Testament Septuagint? Each time “thorn” is figurative not literal and every time “thorn” designates an oppressing people who are set against God’s people. Any Jew acquainted with the history of his own people surely is familiar with this usage of “thorn” in the pages of the Old Testament scriptures.
Apparently Gerhard Kittel in his Theological Dictionary of the New Testament sees the connection of “thorn” referring to oppressing people. First, he begins by saying that in the LXX Old Testament skolops is never used for “stake” (i.e., in a literal sense of impaling a person on a stake (VII, p. 305). Kittel then comments,
“One may perhaps connect these two passages [i.e., Num. 33:55; Ezek. 28:24; G.A.J.] with the use of skolops in NT even the ref. here is hardly to oppression by men.”
One can only ask, “Why not?” Kittel acknowledges, “Some early expositors referred to the skolops of 2 C 12 to individuals, Plummer, ad loc., 350.” [This is A. Plumber’s A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (International Critical Commentary) (1925).] Plummer and other “early expositors” were right!
Thus the figure of “thorn” in the Old Testament refers to a wayward people who harass the people of God. Surely Paul had this picture in mind as he describes his own thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12. If this be true, the issue boils down to one question: Who are these people?
The identity of these oppressing people must be identified with the words “in the flesh.” What does this phrase mean in our present text and context? The word “flesh” occurs a number of times leading up to our present study. For example he wrote in 10:2-3,
But I beg you that when I am present I may not be bold with that confidence by which I intend to be bold against some, who think of us as if we walked according to the flesh. 3 For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.
A similar usage of “flesh” is found in the book of Romans. “Flesh” can refer to both the physical body and the unregenerate state. Consider the following readings from Romans.
(1) Paul speaks of the time when he and his hearers were “in the flesh” (7:5). Paul states,
Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another — to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death (7:4-5).
“In the flesh” is contrasted with “newness of the Spirit” (7:6). The Spirit in this section (7:1-12) refers to freedom in Christ through the Spirit; the “flesh” refers to the old law that said, “You shall not covet,” the Mosaic law (7:7), in which is death (7:9-10).
(2) Consequently, saints walk according to the Spirit (or “in the Spirit”) and not according to the flesh (8:1-4).
(3) We are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (literally “in flesh” and “in Spirit,” 8:9).
(4) Paul speaks of his kinsmen according to the flesh (9:3). His kinsmen according to the flesh were the Jews.
Thus “flesh” refers to the Jews who held to the Old Testament law with its regulations and, failing to realize that the law which once held them has now been done away, they constantly sought to impose that law upon the church. We know them as the judaizing teachers whom Paul constantly battles throughout his ministry. Surely unconverted Jews were in league with judaizers in the church for they were both defenders of the Law. This situation leaps out at us in the immediate context.
Note carefully how Paul concludes his discussion in 2 Corinthians 12:10—
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.
These miseries came from what source? From the Jews!
“Weak” is the same word that is translated “infirmity” in chapters 11, 12, 13. So Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is termed his infirmity. If we are to understand what he means by infirmity, we must study these three chapters.
Information in these chapters helps establish the immediate context and reveals the infirmities, the reproaches, the needs, the persecutions, the distresses, about which the apostle Paul speaks. Consider chapter 11, verses 22-33:
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness– 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity. 31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
What is Paul’s infirmity (astheneias) in 11:30? It is the things that he had suffered as a servant of Christ. What event does Paul reference in verses 30-33? It was the time when in Damascus certain Jews plotted to kill him and he escaped their murderous intentions by being lowered down a wall in a large basket (Acts 9:22-25). Clearly the “they” of verse 22 includes both converted and unconverted Jews and perhaps some converted Jews, too.
In 2 Corinthians 12:5 Paul employs the same word for infirmity, but this time it is plural and he makes a general statement of the benefit that he received from all of his infirmities: “Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.”
Verse 7 continues,
“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.”
Now read chapter 12:9-10:
“9 And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, no one shall stop me from this boasting in the regions of Achaia.”
Paul continues to talk about his weaknesses or infirmities (which includes more than only his “thorn in the flesh” as we saw in verse 7). (1) In chapter 13 Paul speaks of the “weakness” (or infirmity) of Christ that resulted in his crucifixion. Read verses 1-4. (2) The fact is that the word “infirmity,” appears both as a noun or verb some 13 times in chapters 11, 12 and 13 of 2 Corinthians. The noun is the word astheneia and the verb is astheneō, words that refer to weakness of any sort. It is certainly not limited to afflictions to the human body. If astheneia always refers to physical weakness, what was Christ’s affliction (weakness)?
For though He was crucified in weakness [noun], yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [verb] in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you (13:4).
It appears that Christ’s weakness was identical to that of Paul. Christ’s thorn crucified him, Paul’s thorn caused him aggravation but not death. In both instances the thorn is people of their own race who were zealous about the Mosaic Law—the Jews.
Let’s now return to these chapters and see if we can identify the infirmity (infirmities) about which Paul speaks. Let’s do a little more analysis of these chapters, especially as they relate to the word “infirmity” which is also rendered “weakness” in our text. Let us see if we are able to follow the continuity of Paul’s thoughts by reading these sections together.
2 Corinthians 11:16-21 Reluctant Boasting
16 I say again, let no one think me a fool. If otherwise, at least receive me as a fool, that I also may boast a little. 17 What I speak, I speak not according to the Lord, but as it were, foolishly, in this confidence of boasting. 18 Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage (i.e. they tolerate judaizers who seek to enslave them in the Law; G.A.J.), if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame, I say that we were too weak [verb] for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also.
2 Corinthians 11:22-33 Suffering for Christ
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. 24 From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; 26 in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; 27 in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness— 28 besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak [verb], and I am not weak [verb]? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? 30 If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity [noun]. 31 The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 In Damascus the governor, under Aretas the king, was guarding the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desiring to arrest me; 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
2 Corinthians 12:1-6 The Vision of Paradise
1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities [noun]. 6 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.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
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 [noun].” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities [noun], that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities [noun], in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak [verb], then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:11-13 Signs of an Apostle
11 I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing. 12 Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds. 13 For what is it in which you were inferior to other churches, except that I myself was not burdensome to you? Forgive me this wrong!
2 Corinthians 12:14-21 Love for the Church
14 Now for the third time I am ready to come to you. And I will not be burdensome to you; for I do not seek 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 your souls; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am loved. 16 But be that as it may, I did not burden you. Nevertheless, being crafty, I caught you by cunning! 17 Did I take advantage of you by any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus, and sent our brother with him. Did Titus take advantage of you? Did we not walk in the same spirit? Did we not walk in the same steps? 19 Again, do you think that we excuse ourselves to you? We speak before God in Christ. But we do all things, beloved, for your edification. 20 For I fear lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I wish, and that I shall be found by you such as you do not wish; lest there be contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, backbitings, whisperings, conceits, tumults; 21 lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.
Apparently the Corinthian church itself did not walk in Spirit but walked in flesh.
2 Corinthians 13:1-6 Coming with Authority
1 This will be the third time I am coming to you. “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established.” 2 I have told you before, and foretell as if I were present the second time, and now being absent I write to those who have sinned before, and to all the rest, that if I come again I will not spare— 3 since you seek a proof of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak [noun] toward you, but mighty in you. 4 For though He was crucified in weakness [noun], yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak [verb] in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God toward you. 5 Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified. 6 But I trust that you will know that we are not disqualified.
2 Corinthians 13:7-10 Paul Prefers Gentleness
7 Now I pray to God that you do no evil, not that we should appear approved, but that you should do what is honorable, though we may seem disqualified. 8 For we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. 9 For we are glad when we are weak [verb] and you are strong. And this also we pray, that you may be made complete. 10 Therefore I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the authority which the Lord has given me for edification and not for destruction.
So, prior to 2 Corinthians 11:30 Paul had already introduced his “infirmity.” Most students want to begin discussing Paul’s infirmity (thorn in the flesh) beginning with chapter 12. Yet Paul had already introduced the discussion of his “infirmity” in chapter 11. What is that infirmity? Is it not the treatment that he received from his own kinsmen in the flesh? These were judaizing teachers who held that Gentile Christians were obliged to keep Old Testament ordinances of the Law. When Paul makes sharp distinctions between the two covenants, as he fully develops in chapter 3, judaizers attack his apostleship wherever he goes. Paul was also abused by unbelieving Jews nearly every time he entered a city and began preaching in their synagogues.
Consequently “flesh” does not mean literal “flesh” as in Paul’s physical body anymore than “thorn” means a literal irritant to one’s body. “Flesh” refers to his kinsmen according to the flesh who insist in keeping the Mosaic law, walk in flesh, and war against the law of the Spirit.
1 I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; 5 of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Rom. 9:1-5)
Indeed this is interesting in light of the fact that Paul had just contrasted the law of the flesh with that of the Spirit:
1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-5)
These judaizers reject the Law of the Spirit and their conduct demonstrates such (cf. Matt. 7:15-20). The Spirit’s fruit was conspicuously absent from their lives (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).
Paul had already written in Romans 5:8-10,
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
Paul explicitly states what he means by “flesh” in our present context (2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12):
18 Seeing that many boast according to the flesh, I also will boast. 19 For you put up with fools gladly, since you yourselves are wise! 20 For you put up with it if one brings you into bondage, if one devours you, if one takes from you, if one exalts himself, if one strikes you on the face. 21 To our shame, I say that we were too weak for that! But in whatever anyone is bold—I speak foolishly—I am bold also. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. (2 Cor. 11:18-23)
As has been pointed out in this analysis, Paul utilizes the word “thorn,” not the usual word for thorn (which we know as a wood sliver), but “thorn” (skolops) in the sense of a pointed thing that causes persistent irritation (2 Cor. 12:7).
“Flesh” is another way of referring to Jews who are diligent to keep the law of Moses which is weak according to the flesh when compared to the law of the Spirit (see Romans 8). Thus, judaizing teachers were Paul’s thorn in the flesh. They were people who persistently opposed God’s righteous economy. Paul felt that these judaizers were a persistent hindrance to his ministry and prayed that they be removed. Judaizing teachers in the Corinthian church went so far as to question Paul’s apostolic authority. Perhaps some of our readers can identify their own “thorn in the flesh” from brethren who oppose them who war against the Spirit and walk in the flesh and not in the Spirit.
In reading Paul’s words one can sense the strong political tension in the church between those who had honestly investigated Paul’s credentials as an apostle, his teaching, the abolishment of the requirements of the Law and Paul’s foes who refused to reason through the evidence, deceiving themselves due to the fact they stubbornly refused to lay aside the ordinances of the Mosaic Law which they had always observed. Unable to refute Paul’s arguments, judaizers attacked Paul personally (ad hominem) by impugning the apostle’s character and authority. These false teachers had not the courage to confront Paul in person, so they discredited and ostracized him in absentia.
Sadly, today’s brethren share in the same malady that irritated Paul. Other brethren are so tied to their former understandings of scripture, are so steeped in tradition, feel that they cannot possibly be mistaken, and bow to the approval and pressures of others that they refuse to rethink their assumptions even if a solution is present that could resolve a century of conflict. They use fleshly tactics in order to protect their positions. Paul resolved that, though his warfare is spiritual, he does not fight according to the flesh (2 Cor. 10:2, 3).
Paul never lived to see the results of his labors, but because he fought as one who walked in the Spirit, God saw to it that his efforts have blessed generations for 2,000 years. May we learn to handle whatever “thorn” is given to us in the same graceful manner as did the apostle Paul.
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.
REFERENCE WORKS CITED
Applebury, T.R. Studies in Second Corinthians, Volume II in One Volume: Studies in Corinthians Joplin, Mo.: College Press.
Friedrich, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1971.
Halley, Henry H. Halley’s Handbook. 23 ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959.
Kittle, Gerhard and Gerhard Friedrich, editors. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 10 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1971.
Stearsman, Jackie M. II Corinthians. Included in outlines of Bible books, presented to the Central Church of Christ, 1454 Belleair Road, Clearwater, Florida. March 1977.