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

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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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  • 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 ? Sep 3 '15 at 4:56
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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. Aug 23 '14 at 12:32
  • 2
    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. 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. Sep 23 '17 at 12:47
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Paul's problem with his eyesight has been a favored speculation even among many commentators to be 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 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 wa sstoned, 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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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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Just What Did the Apostle Pray for Relief From?

Based on what I've been able to determine, scholars have, for centuries, recognized what appear to be conflicting portrayals of the apostle Paul’s public speaking abilities. The Book of Acts seems to describe him as a bold, effective spokesman while Paul’s own letters tell a very different story: He is quite clear about his severe limitations involving public discourse, despite his writings being exceptionally eloquent and forceful.

According to his close companion, Luke, Paul courageously proclaimed the Gospel to multitudes, often including those who sought to kill him. The Gospel of Luke and later the Book of Acts, of course, were both written by Luke, a historian and medical doctor. Some believe that Luke, using the conventions of Greek historical writing of the time, may have decided that Paul’s oratory inadequacies in Acts were Paul's personal challenge alone: either be revealed or suppressed by the apostle only.

Luke was a man whose Greek ancestors included Alexander the Great. And, this was the time of the mighty Roman Empire, whose strength was unparalleled in the ancient world. Perhaps Luke’s emphasis focused predominantly on Paul’s evangelistic efforts. It seems that Luke’s primary goal was to highlight the early successes of the Church – and to a lesser extent, the eccentricities of those involved. He intent may have to portray Paul’s great strengths and endurance over his weak public discourse. There was little to be gained by squandering words on his closest friend’s very personal afflictions.

Luke rightfully paints Paul as a heroic figure in Acts, someone deeply human, standing virtually alone in opposition to all who would challenge the Lord Jesus as the prophesied Messiah. Paul’s incredible stamina in the face of grave persecution, including relentless physical abuse, surely exceeded all other considerations regarding the tireless evangelist. If any personal revelations were to be made, Luke would probably have yielded to Paul's own disclosures about himself. It has been suggested that Luke may have embellished his close friend's rhetorical skills on occasion - perhaps rightly so, to camouflage Paul's public deficiencies.

Paul introduces himself as one well equipped for the difficult task of organizing small congregations rather than for persuasive rhetoric in open forums. The difference between these portraits appears to be a reason why many scholars doubt the historical validity of the Book of Acts. There is, however, a simple means of reconciling them. Paul may well have suffered from social anxiety (or something analogous, like agoraphobia).

The impact of social anxiety on someone’s emotional state can sometimes be debilitating - even more so that physical maladies. This particular condition generally includes great apprehension and anxiety before crowds and other social settings. It has been known to lead to acute stress, self-imposed isolation, and a host of other problems. It often manifests itself as an inability to look directly at one’s audience while speaking, trembling, stuttering, sometimes inducing watering eyes and other closely-related symptoms.

Those who do not suffer from this affliction will probably not appreciate it's severity because there are no obvious, outward signs of illness or injury. Worse, it is "contemptible" to be nervously trembling before audiences that cannot empathize with such difficulties. Social anxiety is indeed a “messenger of Satan,” one in which its victims pay a heavy toll through routine, public humiliation.

Paul appears to have suffered greatly, and even discloses to us (twice) the reason for his condition:

2 Corinthians 12:7: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself!”

Nothing can humble a person like acute social anxiety.

Although brilliant of mind, by his own admission, Paul was severely handicapped by his evangelistic adversities. He wrote to the believers in Corinth,

1 Corinthians 2:3-5: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”

It seems hard to believe that the man who wrote some of the greatest letters in history was unable to communicate with “persuasive words of wisdom!” If we are still not convinced of the adversity that plagued Paul’s apostleship during his public appearances, he conveys other clues for us:

2 Corinthians 10:9-10: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.’”

Does this sound like a confident orator, as might be the case with someone like Apollos (Acts 18:24-25)?

Earlier in his First Letter to the church at Corinth, Paul reacts to a potential breach in that early congregation:

1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 17: “[Each] one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

Some had obviously tended to identify more with their preferred speaker and were jeopardizing the unity of all saints under the name of Christ. Paul then apologizes that he had not demonstrated “cleverness of speech” (1:17) in the presence of this fledgling group. Rather, he was sent to proclaim the Gospel,

1 Corinthians 1:17: “[So] that the cross of Christ would not be made void.”

Obviously, Paul relates how he “trembled” when vocally delivering his messages, some of which were considered “contemptible” by his listeners. Yet the apostle is able to compensate for these difficulties:

2 Cor. 11:6: “But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things.”

Try to imagine the misfortune and sheer torment of proclaiming the Gospel to Roman citizens, all of whom valued boldness and fortitude. Their own leaders, the Caesars, were even worshipped as gods.

It is my opinion that some have erroneously argued Paul suffered from “headaches.” One commentator went as far as to confidently suggest that: “Paul’s difficulty was that he was nearly blind.” This begs the question: "How does one’s visual impairment correlate with the symptoms that Paul has just described? Does failing eyesight lead to timidity and trembling – indeed, to speech that is “contemptible”? Many people have faulty vision and almost everyone has had headaches. How might these ever have been analogous to a “messenger from Satan?”

It seems that some have misconstrued Paul's statement in Galatians 6 to infer the apostle literally wrote large letters in the scrolls he was compiling, perhaps something analogous to α, β, γ, δ, ε, στ -- one Greek letter or so at a time per page!:

Galatians 6:11: See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.

It is hard to take such an interpretation seriously: it is based on the most frivolous of evidence: a single verse. (Actually, there appear to be two verses or so that are used to support this thesis as we will see.) As one considers the Paul's symptoms carefully, it should evident that these are not merely the characteristics of poor vision, or headaches. Rather, Paul exhibits the qualities of someone beleaguered by intense anxiety, experiencing great distress before his many audiences, a condition often (inaccurately) referred to as “stage fright.”

What can we learn from these words by the apostle? First, it seems that Paul’s letters were “weighty and strong” to those who received them. Who can read Paul’s Letter to the Romans (esp. chapter 8) or his First Letter to the Corinthians (esp. chapter 15) and not be impressed with the prowess that he exhibits in his material? Let's revisit Paul's Letter to the Galatians, where he emphasizes this sentiment himself:

Galatians 6:11: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”

I'm persuaded that the proper interpretation of what Paul has just conveyed is the grand significance of his powerful, authoritative testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul did not literally form extra-large Greek symbols on oversized scrolls. This simply cannot be true, and it diminishes the great hardship that Paul was forced to endure: a messenger from Satan, one that affects the mind.

All of this is exacerbated by the fact that Paul did not compose many of his own letters: he dictated them to others who wrote for him (e.g. Sosthenes: 1 Cor. 1:1, Tertius: Rom. 16:22). The implication here is that it would be irrelevant even if Paul had failing eyesight.

We should also not overlook the fact that the other apostles recognized the gravity of Paul's writing, something emblematic of all of his scriptural treatises:

2 Peter 3:16: “[Just] as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand..."

The other apostles recognized the impact of Paul’s writing – his profound, “large letters” so to speak. Despite this, some will still insist that Paul was nearly blind. Let us again observe another set of passages from the Letter to the Galatians that may be used to supplement the hypothesis from Galatians 6:11:

Galatians 4:12-15: “I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself... I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

What does all of this mean? Well, Paul is reminding his readers that due to some unspecified illness, he was detained and had to labor with the Galatians at a time of personal distress during his first visit. And, at that time, they might have been repulsed by his affliction -- which sounds very much like that we have already discussed. But they received him with open arms just as one might welcome “an angel of God.” Indeed, they might have “sacrificed their own eyes” for him -– which is simply tender hyperbole for their loving kindness toward this great man.

What we should understand is that Paul is not suggesting that he literally needed the eyes of others due to some visual impairment. Such is believe to be an oversimplification of what must surely have been an incredibly haunting condition -- again, one delivered by a "messenger of Satan." None of the verses from Galatians 4:12-15 is believed to relate to the disorder that we have contemplated. We should not confound a relatively straight-forward narrative with unwarranted assumptions, certainly none that cannot be reconciled elsewhere in the New Testament.

Indeed, Paul is contrasting his first encounter in Galatia – an exceedingly welcoming one, with this follow-up visit where the saints appeared to have forsaken their first love. As a consequence, they were no longer treating Paul with the kindness they had previously demonstrated.

The great apostle to the Gentiles wrote a significant portion of the New Testament. He proclaimed the Word to the Roman Empire, establishing new churches and turning the world upside down in the name of Christ. But he was not known for effective public presentations. We might well ask: “Why would God choose such an ineffective voice for the Gospel? Why not instead select someone like Apollos (as previously mentioned), a man known for his oratory prowess?” (Note: Some have plausibly suggested that Apollos may have been the one to write the Letter to the Hebrews, with a style all its own.) The answer appears to be given to us, just as we read earlier:

2 Corinthians 12:7: “[To] keep [Paul] from exalting [himself].”

God chose Paul because He wanted everyone to recognize that the forcefulness with which this preacher communicated his sermons did not come from any human source. Paul lacked a natural ability to speak, but his writing was influenced by the Holy Spirit. So, while Paul may have been severely handicapped in speech, and such was even viewed contemptibly,

1 Corinthians 1:27-29: “[God chose] the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong... so that no man may boast before [Him].”

Paul wrote prolifically, through masterful compositions as though attempting to compensate for his vulnerabilities. His own words disclose this very fact:

2 Corinthians 10:1: “I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you [in writing] when absent!”

Once again, Paul obviously wrote bold, commanding epistles to all his recipients. Social phobias are not unique to our modern world. There is at least one example of another man known for his social awkwardness in the Old Testament. Some may recall that Moses pleaded with God that he be spared from leading the Israelites:

Exodus 4:10: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue’” (cf. Ex. 6:12).

Indeed, God described Moses as:

Numbers 12:3 [ESV]: “[Very] meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth.”

Moses also appears to have been afflicted with some form of speaking infirmity; his meekness was probably the result of a speech impediment or social phobia similar to that of Paul’s. God always chooses those who we might think were the least likely candidates for His special purposes.

Naturally, Paul had distinct qualifications as an apostle:

  • He was born a Jew in Tarsus, capital of Cilicia;
  • He was of the tribe of Benjamin;
  • His given name was Saul – he is renamed Paul in the Book of Acts (13);
  • He was a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” a master of the Law;
  • He kept the Law of Moses “perfectly”;
  • He was a Roman citizen, and,
  • He saw and spoke to the glorified Christ on the road to Damascus, Syria.

The outstanding characteristic with which God endowed this endearing man was his ability to write. And, he did so exceptionally with the help of the Spirit of God:

1 Corinthians 4:20: “For the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power.”

Christ provided Paul with unparalleled spiritual insight at a considerable cost, as noted previously:

2 Corinthians 12:7: “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations...”

He was afflicted so that he might not fall victim to an even greater handicap: the evil of Pride. Paul has not left us in the dark regarding when and why he became afflicted as he did. We read about his demonic torment from his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Note that Paul discloses this condition immediately after he tells us of his heavenly vision:

2 Corinthians 12:2-4, 7-9: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows – was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak... Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’”

Of course, the “man in Christ” in these verses is Paul himself. In his own words, a messenger from Satan was permitted by God to keep Paul from exalting himself. And, that was due to the “surpassing greatness of the revelations” that Paul received, perhaps only rivaled by the apostle John's in the Book of Revelation.

[Note: This experience by Paul was clearly by divine arrangement. It may have been allowed to strengthen Paul’s resolve against the many trials and suffering that he would eventually endure along his missionary journeys. Having experienced this vision of Paradise, he would be stronger in the face of the great tribulations that would consume all his great endeavors.]

We may be able to reconstruct this period in Paul’s life. There are those who believe that the apostle's heavenly vision occurred after he and others had fled to escape persecution from the Jewish elders of Antioch, Syria, where he was later stoned in Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). The 14-year period prior to the Letter to the Corinthians seems to correspond well with the timeframe of the Book of Acts (chapter 14). Some have placed the time of the stoning to be between 45-46 A.D. The Second Letter to the Corinthians may have been written approximately 14 years after that brush with death. More to the point, how could any man be stoned, and then be dragged out of a city by enemies intent on killing him without truly experiencing death? The text reads:

Acts 14:19-20: “[Jews] came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city.”

If anyone knew how to effectively stone someone it was the Jews. That had long been their method of execution, one commanded by God for violating certain Laws of Moses. It will be remembered that the Jews stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr, while Paul (“a young man named Saul”: Acts 7:58) looked on. Unlike the injuries sustained during a random mob attack, a real stoning was strictly intended to kill the victim.

It strains credulity that the Jews were not successful in that attack. After they had done this, they dragged Paul’s lifeless body outside the city. Even if we concede that he was only badly injured, how is it possible that anyone could survive more than a few hours – or minutes, following such a brutal assault? In modern times, anyone who sustained such injuries would immediately be placed in critical care. They would have their broken bones set, their wounds stitched together, and pressure inside their skull relieved to minimize brain trauma.

Imagine the amazement that must have gripped the disciples who stood around Paul’s lifeless body, as they watched him stand up only proceed to reenter the city (Acts 14:20)! Nothing short of divine intervention could have brought Paul back to life and healed (or at least mitigated) what must surely have been severe, life-threatening wounds.

However, during the time Paul lost consciousness, that may have been when he was:

2 Corinthians 12:4: “[Caught] up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.”

It is because of the “surpassing greatness of [these] revelations” that God allowed him to be influenced by a messenger of Satan. Paul was plagued by a demonic infirmity that appears to have overcome him in the same manner as acute social anxiety, often consisting of numerous symptoms including tremor in the hands and legs, elevated heart rate, perspiration, facial and other bodily tics, dry mouth, dizziness, and often panic. Only the Devil himself could concoct such a paralyzing blight on a human being, one intended to maximize the anguish of this courageous, invincible servant of Christ.

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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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    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
  • @Dan Is your comment directed to me (Xeno)? How do I determine who down-voted my commentary? This is very discouraging since I've not been able to contact anyone about these things. Thanks for your assistance.
    – Xeno
    Apr 16 at 19:31
  • @Xeno this was directed at the author of this post (Michael Dale). I edited the post to remove the problematic content. This was done in October 2014. I believe you have a completely different post, which this comment has nothing to do with (comments are grouped underneath the specific posts they apply to).
    – Dan
    Apr 17 at 0:58

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