Thorn in the Flesh is an idiom, found in Scripture, with which Paul, as a Pharisee, would have been well acquainted. In all of its Scriptural occurrences, this idiom is used to refer to people who harass:
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.
know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer
drive out these nations from before you. But they shall be snares and
traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes,
until you perish from this good land which the LORD your God has given
Therefore I also said, 'I will not drive them out before
you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a
snare to you.' "
With that in mind, we see that Paul actually states what his thorn in the flesh was.
Paul's thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan who was sent to buffet him.
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
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.
Definition of terms:
The english word, buffet means to strike repeatedly or batter. However, Thayer's etymology provides the connotations conveyed by Greek word behind this translation: κολαφίζω; 1 aorist ἐκολαφισα; present passive κολαφίζομαι; (κόλαφος a fist, and this from κολάπτω to peck, strike); to strike with the fist.
The Greek word, ἄγγελος, translated messenger, is the same word that is translated into english as, angel. Thus, more specifically, Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was either a messenger of Satan or an angel of Satan (demon) sent to beat him. The latter is more in keeping with what we see transpire in the historical account.
Consider Paul's experience as recorded in Acts.
Note how the people were "stirred up by the unbelieving Jews," and Paul was persecuted and beaten in the various cities where he went:
And the word of the Lord was being spread throughout
all the region. 50 But the Jews stirred up the devout and prominent
women and the chief men of the city, raised up persecution against
Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. 51 But they
shook off the dust from their feet against them, and came to
Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy
Acts 14:1-4 1
Now it happened in Iconium that they went together to
the synagogue of the Jews, and so spoke that a great multitude both of
the Jews and of the Greeks believed.2 But the unbelieving Jews
stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the
brethren.3 Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly
in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace,
granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. 4 But the
multitude of the city was divided: part sided with the Jews, and part
with the apostles.5 And when a violent attempt was made by both the
Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to abuse and stone them,6 they
became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia,
and to the surrounding region.7 And they were preaching the gospel
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the
crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city,
thinking he was dead.
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and
the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods.
Acts 17:10-15 10
Then the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas
away by night to Berea. When they arrived, they went into the
synagogue of the Jews.11 These were more fair-minded than those in
Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and
searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were
so.12 Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the
Greeks, prominent women as well as men.13 But when the Jews from
Thessalonica learned that the word of God was preached by Paul at
Berea, they came there also and stirred up the crowds.14 Then
immediately the brethren sent Paul away, to go to the sea; but both
Silas and Timothy remained there.15 So those who conducted Paul
brought him to Athens; and receiving a command for Silas and Timothy
to come to him with all speed, they departed.
except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying
that chains and tribulations await me.
Acts 21:27-36 27
Now when the seven days were almost ended, the Jews
from Asia, seeing him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd and
laid hands on him, 28 crying out, "Men of Israel, help! This is the man
who teaches all men everywhere against the people, the law, and this
place; and furthermore he also brought Greeks into the temple and has
defiled this holy place." 29 (For they had previously seen Trophimus
the Ephesian with him in the city, whom they supposed that Paul had
brought into the temple.) 30 And all the city was disturbed; and the
people ran together, seized Paul, and dragged him out of the temple;
and immediately the doors were shut. 31 Now as they were seeking to
kill him, news came to the commander of the garrison that all
Jerusalem was in an uproar. 32 He immediately took soldiers and
centurions, and ran down to them. And when they saw the commander and
the soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. 33 Then the commander came
near and took him, and commanded him to be bound with two chains; and
he asked who he was and what he had done. 34 And some among the
multitude cried one thing and some another. So when he could not
ascertain the truth because of the tumult, he commanded him to be
taken into the barracks. 35 When he reached the stairs, he had to be
carried by the soldiers because of the violence of the mob. 36 For
the multitude of the people followed after, crying out, "Away with him!"
Consider Paul's experience as he recounts it elsewhere:
Note how Paul delineates his experiences of persecution showing that for Christ's sake he humiliated, beaten, weak.
1 Corinthians 4
he uses the same word in Greek as buffet (here translated "beaten").
For I think that God has displayed us, the apostles, last, as men
condemned to death; for we have been made a spectacle to the world,
both to angels and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you
are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are
distinguished, but we are dishonored! 11 To the present hour we both
hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and
homeless. 12 And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled,
we bless; being persecuted, we endure; 13 being defamed, we entreat.
We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all
things until now.
3 We give no offense in anything, that our ministry may not be
blamed. 4 But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God:
in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, 5 in
stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in
fastings; 6 by purity, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by
the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, 7 by the word of truth, by the power
of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the
left, 8 by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as
deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying,
and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful,
yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having
nothing, and yet possessing all things.
2 Corinthians 11:25
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;
Consider Jesus assurance that his followers would suffer persecution "for his sake"/"for his name's sake" even as He would suffer persecution.
"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute
you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My
sake.12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your
reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before
"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated
you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet
because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world,
therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you,
'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me,
they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep
yours also. 21 But all these things they will do to you for My name's
sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me. 22 If I had not come
and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no
excuse for their sin. 23 He who hates Me hates My Father also. 24 If I
had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would
have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My
Father. 25 But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is
written in their law, 'They hated Me without a cause.' The Coming
Rejection 26 "But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you
from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He
will testify of Me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have
been with Me from the beginning.
Jesus himself was "beaten"
(same Greek word = "buffet"), as recorded in two gospels:
Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others
struck Him with the palms of their hands,
Then some began to spit on Him, and to blindfold Him, and
to beat Him, and to say to Him, “Prophesy!” And the officers struck
Him with the palms of their hands.
The disciple Peter commends suffering for doing good, using the same Greek word.
I Peter 2:20
For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you
take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it
patiently, this is commendable before God.
Notice: persecution and weakness For Christ's sake
Paul's weakness that he refers to in 2 Corinthians, presents itself as weakness which resulted from persecution and beating for Christ's sake:
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.
Matthew 5:11 "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and
say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake."
Matthew 10:21 "You will be hated by all for My names sake."
Luke 21:12 "But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and
persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You
will be brought before kings and rulers for My name's sake."
The same Greek word lies behind both weakness and infirmity in the entirety of this passage, and on into chapter 13 where Paul continues to write of their weakness and liken it with Christ who was crucified in weakness. Knowing this makes it easier to see the continuity of it all in regard to weakness from being beaten and persecuted.
Conclusion: Paul makes use of an idiom, "thorn in the flesh" to speak of a constant harassment he endured as he delivered the gospel. He told the Corinthians that his "thorn in the flesh" is a messenger sent from Satan to buffet him so that he would not be exalted. It was most likely a demonic messenger who followed Paul to various places he went, influenced the unbelieving Jews who stirred up the crowds against him to persecute and "buffet"/beat him.