QUESTION: What was the "thorn in the flesh" that was given to the apostle Paul, and how could this thorn also be a messenger of Satan? (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)
ANSWER: We are not told what the thorn in the flesh was. Some have speculated that it had to do with Paul's eyesight (see Galatians 4:13-15). Others have thought that it affected his appearance and his speech (see 2 Corinthians 10:10). I believe there is a good reason why God did not tell us the exact nature of this "thorn in the flesh." If, for example, we knew that it was Paul's poor eyesight, we might be likely to limit the lessons learned from it to just people with poor eyesight. However, these lessons can easily be applied to all who endure painful burdens.
Paul referred to his thorn in the flesh as "a messenger of Satan" because Satan was allowed by God to bring it to pass. Remember that Satan is a very powerful enemy whose desire is to keep the Christian from glorifying the Lord. One of the ways he does this is by seeking to bring plenty of trouble into the believer's life. This trouble can take the form of physical pain or personal loss. We see both brought to pass in the life of Job, a righteous man who suffered the loss of all his possessions and children, and endured intense physical pain from boils that broke out over his entire body. Notice in reading Job chapter 1 that God had placed a protective "hedge" around Job and it was not until God gave permission to Satan that he could break through that hedge and afflict Job.
In the end, both Job's affliction and Paul's "thorn in the flesh" benefitted these faithful men and brought glory to God. In Paul's case, this trouble served to:
- Keep him from being "exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations" that were given to him (v. 7).
- Make him realize that God's grace was sufficient for him to endure any trial (v. 9).
- Remind him of his weakness in order that God's strength could be realized (vv. 9,10).
Many today erroneously say that a faithful Christian never needs to suffer. However, God's message to Paul (an Apostle who penned at least 13 books of the Bible) was that the trial would remain and that God's grace would give him strength to endure it. In addition to this thorn in the flesh, Paul's life as a Christian was marked by an enormous amount of suffering, including: financial loss, hunger, thirst, exposure, attacks against his life, beatings, being assaulted with stones, at least three shipwrecks, false accusations, imprisonment in Roman jails, and eventually execution (see Philippians 3:8; Acts 9:24; 2 Corinthians 11:23-27).
Even through all of this, Paul had tasted deeply enough of God's grace to confidently declare: "All things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28). By placing his sight upon the Saviour in glory and weighing this life against the promises of the life to come, all of the suffering in his life became nothing but a "light affliction, which is but for a moment" and which "worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17).
—John D. McNeil
"We live by promises, and not by explanations" —Adrian Rogers