I believe the following link expounds on a pretty good explanation of what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was actually all about. It had nothing to do with sickness or disease, per se, as has been commonly taught in the church. The purpose, of this “messenger of Satan sent to buffet him”, as Paul explained himself was to keep him humble, to keep him out of the sin of pride, by causing him to realize that in his own strength, in his own flesh, he could do nothing without the grace and power of Jesus Christ to enable him. Pride is something we all must battle against. God will resist those who do not turn to Jesus for strength in their lives, for without him, we can do nothing.
I. What is the Biblical Definition of a Thorn? Many of the theologians of our day have made the assumption that the thorn in the flesh that Paul testified of in 2nd Corinthians, was likely some physical ailment. But what was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? The theories are that it was probably stammering speech, arthritis, bad eye sight or some other physical illness or malignity. Many others believe that we can’t really know from the scriptures what the thorn in the flesh was. One would wonder if biblical hermeneutics has digressed so far that “comparing scripture with scripture” is now not even considered an option? Even the use of the common concordance would reveal much of the truth here. One of the first principles of sound biblical hermeneutics is that the scripture is it’s own interpreter. i.e., the Bible is not subject to personal opinion or private interpretation. And therefore, before we can assign a meaning to any passage, we must search both the context of the passage in question, as well as the whole Bible, to see how the word is used throughout scripture. We are careful in this system of study to note if there are any other related verses or references. In this way, we have God, via His infallible harmonic word, interpret His word. We cannot arbitrarily assume anything in discerning difficult passages. In the case of discerning what was Paul’s thorn in the flesh, simply looking up the word thorn throughout scripture and examining how “God” uses it, what it represents, and the context in which the word is found, I believe would reveal what this thorn represented. For the scriptures (both the Old and the New Testament), are replete with examples. The “thorn” in scripture is a common word that is frequently used figuratively. And Paul was very familiar with the Old Testament scriptures, so I believe that he surely used this term in the same way that it is used throughout scripture. Indeed, God is the true author of these scriptures, and so we would “expect” there to be harmony and consistency in the use of the word in similar situations. For example:
- “Know for a certainty that the Lord your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; but they shall be snares and traps unto you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you”.
God is not using this language of a scourge (piercing or pricks) in their sides and thorns in their eyesto denote some bodily disorder as we might assume today. Rather, God is using these terms to signify the people of these other nations will be entanglements for the Lord’s people to vex them or cause spiritual affliction. They are typed as “scourges or thorns” to signify they will trouble them and cause them not to see clearly. In other words, they will be their nemesis to frustrate them in their serving the Lord. Likewise, in the book of Numbers, God uses this same type language, but switches the use of the thorn to the side, and the scourges to the eyes.
- “But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.”
The thorns in their sides is the same as the thorn in the flesh that vexed the Apostle Paul. It is not illustrating these people literally would have thorns in their sides anymore than Paul would have them in his flesh. It was illustrating these are people, whom God declares if they are left among the Children of God, would be thorns to vex or trouble them. the thorns are not physical ailments, but rather spiritual ailments. This is what the thorn in the side signifies in God’s word. Paul, being a man of knowledge of scripture, would be very familiar with these terms and God’s use of them. He is indeed inspired by God to use this term to signify people who trouble the children of God. These were the Judaizers, enemies of God, who were the thorn in the flesh of the Apostle Paul in his day. they vexed him because they hated that he was teaching against their doctrines, the doctrines of Christ. The thorn is illustrative of the people who detest and frustrate (to a certain degree) and cause spiritual problems for the Children of God. Another example:
- “Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you”.
These were the unsaved ungodly people who fight against the law of God and are a snare unto the Lord’s people. They would be as a trap and a trouble to God’s Covenant people. In fact, we use very similar language to describe those who vex us today. For example, have you ever heard anyone say a person was, “a burr in his saddle?” Or have you ever heard someone say that a person was, “a pain in the neck?” These colloquial phrases convey the exact same meanings as Paul’s thorn in the flesh. They don’t mean we have some physical sickness, and they don’t convey that we have literal pains in our necks or even have a saddle. Likewise, Paul isn’t talking about a literal thorn sticking out of his flesh, rather he was using a common expression of those days, just as they are used in our day.
It is a common practice of some Christians to assume that the thorn in the flesh was disease or an ailment that Satan gave him. But what Satan gave him was not physical disease, but people to vex him in his ministry. There is obviously symbolism involved here (since no one to my knowledge considers this a literal thorn), and sound hermeneutics dictates that when symbolism is involved, we have to let God’s word itself interpret the symbolism. We cannot privately interpret it, make assumptions, or guess at what the symbolism might mean. We compare scripture with scripture to discern God’s truth.
- “And thou, son of man, be not afraid of them, neither be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns be with thee, and thou dost dwell among SCORPIONS: be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house”.
The briers, thorns and scorpions are all “symbolic” of the people of Satan which come against the Lord’s Children to vex them. These are the adversaries of God’s servants who come to revile, persecute and trouble them. And this symbolism holds true consistently in the New Testament scriptures as well as the Old. And why not, since it is all God’s wholly divinely inspired consistent word. We can see this as Jesus talks about those who call themselves of God, yet are revealed by their fruits to be false messengers. In other words, by their fruits ye shall know them.
- “For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes”.
Figs and grapes symbolic of the works of the children of God, while thorns and bramble are symbolic of the works of the children of Satan. And so we see that consistently throughout scripture, the symbolism of what the thorns represent is clear. Here they are false teachers who are the enemies of God’s people and come bearing no fruit. Their defining characteristic is that they are thorns and bramble (brier) bushes, not a tree from which to get the fruit of figs or grapes. Here we see the same consistent “signification” and contrasts of thorns and scourges (pricks, bramble) as those contrasted with the Lord’s people. Christ says they were those of Satan bearing no fruit, not messengers of God. Likewise, these thorns which were sent to buffet Paul were not of God, but messengers of Satan. Again, in the book of Hebrews, God speaks of those fallen away from Him..
- “But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.
- But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany Salvation, though we thus speak”.
Here again we see the contrast between the messengers of God, and the messengers of Satan. One planting signified as thorns and briers (thorn bush), and the other planting, God says brings forth better things that accompany Salvation. The clear illustration of thorns as the fruit of the wicked who are under God’s judgment. And it’s very important to note that though many noted theologians may claim that the thorn could represent an illness, not once does the Holy Canon use this term “thorn” to represent any physical illness or sicknesses. And in Biblical hermeneutics where scriptural validation or biblically based interpretation is paramount, that is most certainly not an insignificant fact. So what was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? It would seem to be the unsaved people, the messengers of Satan, who constantly impeded, harassed and persecuted him.”