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


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!


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  • Hey Brian, could you cite any of these 'many commentators'? We prefer that answers show their work, and citations are part of that when claims like this are made (we'd like them to be supported). It's a good answer but could benefit strongly from citing sources. Thanks! – Dan Oct 20 '14 at 1:00
  • So Satan is the good guy helping keeping his pride in check ? – Cynthia Avishegnath Sep 3 '15 at 4:56

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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  • 1
    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 '14 at 12:32
  • 1
    Absolutely nailed it. I was going to post something similar and figured I would do the diligence of scanning the answers to make sure someone hadn't said it already. I must say you did a better job than I would have. I find it confusing that so many have questioned what it is when he outright tells you in the verse. With a quick and simple concordance search for the same phrase it's pretty obvious. – Micah Gafford Sep 23 '17 at 6:03
  • It may be relevant that throughout history, various holy men of God, saints, have claime to have been literally, physically attacked by the devil. A more recent example was the stigmatist, Padre Pio. – Sola Gratia Sep 23 '17 at 12:47

The "Thorn in Paul's flesh" is the limitation that language places on our ability to describe the Kingdom reality. This reality is ineffable, it defies external description, when one goes there, returns, and then tries to describe the experience, one is afflicted by the limitations of the physical realm. We actually become aware of the reality of the "third heaven" and want to bring others into contact with this reality, so we try to describe the experience from our perspective using everyday experience, but we encounter ours and others' natural limitations. The flesh is too weak to understand this reality, the flesh does not participate, only the higher mind can partake of this. Paul writes in four layers, the first three layers are his petitions to God to favor his undertaking as he leads readers up into "metanoia", the turning of the consciousness toward the higher mind. God refuses to reveal Himself at the lower levels of reading: literal, moral, and allegorical levels. But at the fourth level, where the weak flesh is left behind, Our Father's power is made perfect and we unite with him and have the same experience Paul had that led him to write these very words two thousand years ago.

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Here are a couple of scriptures which could tie in with the theory that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was an eye ailment of some sort: Gal 4:13-15

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  • Welcome to BHSE! Make sure you take our tour. Thanks – John Martin Nov 30 '19 at 22:12

Paul's problem with his eyesight has been a favored speculation even among many commentators as his "thorn in the flesh". We do know from Gal. 6:11 that Paul seems to have had some type of deficiency with his eyes, but the nature of what the thorn was seems very clearly defined in the context of 2 Cor. 11 and 12. Paul uses three different descriptive terms all of which refer to the same thing. He calls it a 'thorn in the flesh,' a 'messenger from Satan,' and 'my weaknesses.' These weaknesses are not of a singular nature. They are described as insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties, all of which are in the plural. I do not doubt that his seeming deficiency with his eyes would certainly fall within this menagerie of weaknesses. The 'thorn in the flesh' is simply a descriptive term which Paul employed to describe a host of things he was called to endure for the cause of Christ. Their purpose was to keep him humble in the midst of his exalted position. It is hard to be proud and self-exalting when someone is beating the hide off of your back with a scourge or breaking your bones with rods or stoning you. These types of experiences are by their very nature, humbling.

Let us open up the context of 2 Cor. 11 and 12.

The context is Paul's defense of his apostleship. If one was able to boast according to the standard of the flesh, then Paul had more reason to boast than anyone else and he begins to compile a list of reasons to prove why this was true, 11:16-28. Beginning in verse 22, Paul says,

"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I."

These are all genealogical factors that he has in common with all other Jews. Then in verse 23, he begins to set forth a list of comparisons in which he is proven to excel above them all.

"Are they servants of Christ? (I speak as if insane) I MORE SO; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. From 11:29 through 12:8 he stresses the fact that these are all things that Paul regards as weaknesses of the flesh. These are things that are hard to endure and that he had the right to boast in the fact that he has suffered in the flesh more than all of them. In 12:6 he says that he does not wish to boast in these things, "... but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me."

In verse 7, he gives the paramount reason for his capacity for boasting which was “the surpassing greatness of the revelations.” To keep him from boasting and exalting himself in this, he was given a “thorn in the flesh.” The “thorn” represents something that is external to the flesh but that is intrusive to the flesh. In spite of his petition for God to remove it, God says “My grace is sufficient for you.” It was not through Paul's own power that he was able to endure the suffering that had been imposed upon his flesh (not to mention the psychological stress that accompanies these types of experiences), it was the grace of God that enabled him to endure them and to continue to preach in spite of them. The connecting statement that links all of this to gather is in verse 10 when Paul says, “THEREFORE.” Whatever he says next is rooted in everything he has said up to this point and he connects it to the thorn that was given him. “Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties for Christ's sake.” Why? Because “when I am weak THEN I am strong.” The thorn made him weak. The grace made him strong. NOW, he is able to rejoice in his sufferings - in his thorn.

So, because of the “the surpassing greatness of the revelations,” Paul was allowed to suffer all of these hardships - his thorn in the flesh - in order to keep him from exalting himself. One is not so likely to be self-exalting when he is having the hide stripped from his back with a scourge or having to go hungry or floating around in the sea or having his bones broken from being beaten with rods or lying in a pit left for dead after having been stoned. God allowed these things so that Paul would learn humility in spite of the exalted status that God had granted him. Remember what God told Ananias in Acts 9:16 “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake.”

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Traditionally Paul's thorn in the flesh has been thought to be some type of physical illness or sickness. More biblically 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)

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  • 4
    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 '14 at 1:36
  • Please don't "preach" at readers. Instead, describe your perspective without prescribing it. We're looking for lectures rather than sermons. Please keep in mind that not all of your readers here are Christians. I've removed the prescriptive content. – Dan Oct 20 '14 at 0:57

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