What Was Paul’s “Thorn In The Flesh”? (2 Corin 12:7-10)

Paul had explained from vv. 1-6 how he had been granted special revelation from the Lord. Because of these revelations, he was persecuted, “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” (vs. 7).

Several suggestions have been made as to what exactly Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. Many Church fathers opined some physical disease. Chrysostom and Jerome, for example, believed he had a headache. Tertullian believed he had a earache. Rosenmuller opines that he had a periodic gout on the head.

The most predominant theory, however, is that held by those who suggest that Paul had an eye defect. This theory is based on Paul’s statement to the Galatians, in Galatians 4:15, “…you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.” Paul’s vision was so poor, they remark, that the Galatians felt tremendous sympathy for him. This was therefore his “thorn.” We submit that this theory cannot withstand the hermeneutical test of historical analysis. Juxtaposing the timestamp with Luke’s account in Acts bears out what Paul actually meant here. Paul is referring to his first encounter with the Galatians (see vv. 13-14).

Paul says this (“…you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me“) because he had been beaten BEFORE ministering at Galatia. He was stoned at Lystra (Acts 14:19), hence, he went to Galatia with a bruised eye (Acts 16:6). He refers to this as “physical infirmity” and “my trial which was in my flesh” (in Gal 4:13-14). This is why he says to the Galatians, “…you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me,” putting them in remembrance of what great love they showed him, when he first came to them; they cared for his wounds, if they could give him their own eyes, they would!

Galatians 4:15 should therefore not be distorted to imply that the Apostle had some eye problem (i.e. a medical condition). That would be reading into the text what is simply not there. It would be wise to let the BIBLE interpret itself here.

Now, a “thorn in the flesh” does not refer to bodily illness. It was an idiom used by the Jews to describe those who oppose or harass. In Numbers 33, for example, Moses warns the Jews about the inhabitants of Canaan. They were to “completely drive them out,” or else, those inhabitants would become “thorns in their sides.

Numbers 33:55 (NKJV)

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 (what does that mean?), and THEY SHALL HARASS you in the land where you dwell.

So, “thorn in the side” was a term used by the Hebrews for oppressors, opponents or harassers (contemporarily, we say “a pain in the neck“). Note that Paul further described his “thorn” as “a messenger of Satan to buffet me…” (2 Corin 12:7). The word “buffet” translates the Greek “kolaphizó” (κολαφίζω) which literally means “to strike one with the fist.” It carries the idea of mistreating someone violently.

These words suggest that a demon-spirit (“a messenger of Satan“) followed Paul around (as he carried out the work of the ministry) and continuously harassed him, using human agents. He caused people to be hostile towards him; to persecute him (see Acts 9:23, 29, 13:50, 14:19, 16:20-24, 17:5-9, 18:12-13, 19:23-41, cf. 2 Corin 11:23-26). It is no wonder, then, that Paul likens preaching the Gospel to a wrestle against the hosts of darkness (see 2 Corin 10:1-6, Eph 6:10-20 cf. 1 Tim 1:18, 6:12, 2 Tim 4:7).

This “thorn in Paul’s flesh” represented SEVERAL MEN who were incited by a demonic force to oppose him, as he preached the Gospel. Simply put, Paul’s “thorn” was persecution and opposition, for the sake of heralding Christ. And Paul prayed to God for this opposition to stop, “Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me” (vs. 8).

The Lord’s response is not to take away persecution, but to empower Paul to face persecution, “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” (vs. 9).

This is why the Apostle could speak BOLDLY about his sufferings for Christ. Those sufferings were a means for God to display His strength, through him. It is in earthen vessels (i.e. those who look weak naturally, and are vexed by numerous trials) that God puts His treasure i.e. His power (see 2 Corin 4:7-15).

The more Paul suffered, the more God’s power, strength and superabundant empowerment upon his life was revealed. That he could yet serve the Lord, irrespective of great trials and tribulations, made the Lord’s grace (working in his life) more evident. Therefore, Paul could face persecutions for the sake of the Gospel, and he could do so JOYFULLY, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities (Grk. astheneiais: frailties or weaknesses, not necessarily bodily illness), in reproaches, in needs, in PERSECUTIONS, in DISTRESSES, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE. FOR WHEN I AM WEAK, THEN I AM STRONG” (vs. 10).


© Josh Banks Ministries. 2022.


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