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2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (AKJV)
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

Is Scripture alluding as to what the "thorn in the flesh", referred to, by the Apostle, might be?

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Also asked on Christianity SE. –  Wikis Aug 26 at 12:58

3 Answers 3

The simple answer to the question is: we don't know specifically. So what do we know?

He refers to it as an "weakness" or infirmity, as you have it. It's the word astheneia in Greek. The same word is used in both places in 12:9. This "thorn in the flesh" is probably not a reference to the idea of the flesh as the sinful nature, but more likely something physical. Why do I say that? Paul used the word for flesh (sarx) both as our physical bodies (for example 1 Cor. 15:39 or 2 Cor. 7:5 - "our bodies") as well as to describe our sinful nature inherited from Adam.

Since either of these uses could be in mind in reference to the thorn, which is most likely? Which one makes the most sense in this context?

Paul believed that his "sinful nature" had been crucified with Christ, as in Gal 5:24 - "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” How would he have a thorn in that understanding of his flesh in any way that makes sense to the rest of the passage?

Paul says that the reason for having this "thorn" was "so that I would not exalt myself". Even though he refers to it as a messenger from Satan, the overall context implies that the purpose of this weakness came from God. God wanted to use this weakness, or infirmity, to place Paul's reliance on God as the power in the midst of his weakness.

Many commentators have come up with theories on exactly what the thorn is, all the way from bad eyesight to his ex-wife. Paul's point is about the reason for the thorn, and the details will have to be left behind in obscurity.

Hope this helps!

Brian

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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:

Numbers 33:55
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.

Joshua 23:13
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 you.

Judges 2:3
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:

Acts 13:49-52
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 Spirit.

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 there.

Acts 14:19
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.

Acts 16:22
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.

Acts 20:23
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.

2 Corinthians:6
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.

Matthew 5:11
"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 you.

John 15:18-27
"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:

Matthew 26:67
Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palms of their hands,

Mark 14:65
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.

Cross reference:

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.

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Interesting, thoughts, I will consider them. +1 for the extensive use of Scripture in your answer and the reference to it, for every argument. –  G.Rassovsky Aug 23 at 12:32

Traditionally Paul's thorn in the flesh has been thought to be some type of physical illness or sickness. More scripturely it refers to the tests and trials that Paul repeatedly underwent. Paul was imprisoned numerous times, attacked by mobs, and betrayed by those close to him. (Acts16:37, 21:30) These attacks from Satan were purposed to remove the word of God from Paul's mouth and to destroy his faith. But Paul knew that defeating these tests of would be through the power of Christ. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.Nevertheless you have done well in that you shared in my distress". (Phil.4:12-13) It was in the attitude of leaning on God and pressing onward that Paul stated, "I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God." (2Cor.2:3-5) We as Christians should all be able to identify with Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' and 'messenger of Satan'. It is simply the sinful nature of the flesh which is at enmity with the Spirit; it is fear, doubt, lusts, drunkenness,jealousy, envy, wrath, selfish ambitions,heresies, or whatever fleshly trial that Satan can use to turn you from doing the will of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

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Welcome to BH.SE! Please keep in mind that this is not a Christian site. It would be helpful if you could cite sources for the traditional opinion you mention and lay out the reasoning for why you think otherwise. (There is little doubt that Paul did suffer hardship, but whether that is the thorn in this passage requires analysis of the context of the passage. The idea that the thorn is the “sinful nature of the flesh” seems to be a different hypothesis.) –  Susan Aug 18 at 1:36

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