What Was Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh?November 9, 2016
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. — 2 Corinthians 12:7
In Second Corinthians 12:7, the apostle Paul writes that he had been given a “thorn in the flesh” because of “the abundance of the revelations” he had received. Today I want us to delve into this verse to discover the identity of this thorn in the flesh and where it came from. Did it come from God, as some assert, or was this thorn personally sent from Satan to impede Paul from making an even greater impact with his ministry?
Let’s begin looking for the answer to this question by carefully examining Paul’s words in Second Corinthians 12:7. He writes, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations.…”
The words “exalted above measure” are taken from the Greek word huperairo, a compound of the words huper and airo. The word huper means over, above, and beyond. It depicts something that is way beyond measure and conveys the idea of something that is greater, superior, higher, better, more than a match for, utmost, paramount, or foremost. It could also describe something that is first-rate, first-class, top-notch, unsurpassed, unequaled, and unrivaled by any person or thing. The second part of the word huperairo (“exalted above measure”) means to lift up, to raise, or to be exalted.
When these two Greek words are compounded to form the word huperairo, it speaks of a person who has been supremely exalted. This is a person who has been magnified, increased, and lifted up to a place of great prestige and influence. Although huperairo could be used to express the idea of a person who has haughtily exalted himself, this is not the idea Paul has in mind when he writes this verse. Rather, this is a person who has been greatly honored and recognized due to something he has written, done, or achieved.
Notice that Paul refers to the “abundance of the revelations” that God had given to him. The word “abundance” is the Greek word huperballo, a compound of the word huper, described above, and the word ballo, which means to cast or to throw. But when these two words are compounded to form the word huperballo, it describes something that is phenomenal, extraordinary, unparalleled, or unmatched. It is the picture of an archer who aims for the bull’s eye; but when he releases the string and shoots his arrow, he watches as his arrow flies way over the top of the target. Now Paul uses this word to explain that the revelations he had received were not only unparalleled in quality, but the vast number of them were far beyond what anyone else had ever received.
The word “revelations” is from the Greek word apokalupsis. It refers to something that has been veiled or hidden for a long time and then suddenly, almost instantaneously, becomes clear and visible to the mind or eye. It is like pulling the curtains out of the way so you can see what has always been just outside your window. The scene was always there for you to enjoy, but the curtains blocked your ability to see the real picture. But when the curtains are drawn apart, you can suddenly see what has been hidden from your view. The moment you see beyond the curtain for the first time and observe what has been there all along but not evident to you — that is what the Bible calls a “revelation.”
From Paul’s words in Second Corinthians 12:7, we know that the curtain had been pulled apart and Paul had seen into the spirit realm on many occasions. He’d had an “abundance” of these experiences. It was this “abundance of the revelations” that Paul was preaching as he traversed the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. Everywhere he went, he preached what had been divinely revealed to him. As he preached, his power, authority, and fame grew greater and greater. As his authority grew, so did his ability to impact the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Due to these revelations and his boldness to preach them, Paul was unquestionably becoming one of the most influential men of his day.
Now Paul lets us know that Satan was alarmed by the great progress the apostle was making with the Gospel; therefore, the enemy launched an full-scale attack to impede that progress. Satan didn’t want Paul to be recognized or magnified to a greater extent than he already was. Instead, the devil wanted to pull down this man of God — to ruin him, to destroy him, and to discredit the message he preached. Since there was no moral flaw in Paul that Satan could use to destroy him, he inflicted Paul with a “thorn in the flesh.”
The word “thorn” is the Greek word skolops, a word used to describe a dangerously sharp, spiked instrument or tool. However, this word was also used to describe the stake on which an enemy’s head was stuck after being decapitated.
The word skolops gives the impression that this thorn was excruciatingly painful. Some have suggested that the words “in the flesh” refer to a physical sickness, but this is not affirmed by any scripture in the New Testament and should be taken as unsubstantiated conjecture. People have gone so far in their imaginations as to assert that Paul suffered from malaria, epilepsy, eye disease, club feet, or a hunched back. There is nothing in any New Testament scripture to back up such speculations!
One thing is clear, however: Satan wanted Paul’s head on a stake! He wanted to eliminate this man of God and put him completely out of the picture. Instead of referring to sickness, the words “in the flesh” most likely describe a type of event that was a constant source of irritation to the apostle Paul. This event caused him personal distress and kept reoccurring over and over again. For this reason, he referred to it as a “thorn in the flesh.”
Some argue that God sent this thorn in the flesh to keep Paul from being prideful about his many revelations. But there is no reason to debate this issue, for Paul plainly wrote that it was a “…messenger of Satan to buffet me….” The word “messenger” is the Greek word angelos, a word that can describe an angel; one who is sent on a special mission; or a messenger who is dispatched to perform a specific assignment. This “messenger of Satan,” perhaps a demonic angel, was sent directly from Satan himself to buffet Paul and to restrict the progress of his ministry.
This thorn in the flesh categorically did not come from God; otherwise, Paul would have called it a “messenger of God.” Paul himself plainly states that this thorn in the flesh was given to him by a “messenger of Satan” — a special force that had been dispatched to keep Paul from gaining additional status and prestige and to prevent him from taking the Gospel further and higher into the world scene.
Look at the facts: Paul was preaching to kings, governors, and world leaders. He was establishing churches, writing New Testament scriptures, and pushing back the forces of hell. His personal influence was growing, and his impact was increasing day by day. The revelations that God had given him were about to change the course of human history. Fearing that Paul’s influence would grow too great, Satan strategically sent forces who had been instructed to create disturbances to “buffet” the apostle.
The word “buffet” is the Greek word kolaphidzo, a Greek word that comes from the word kolaphos, a word that describes the fist or knuckles. When it becomes the word kolaphidzo, as Paul uses it in Second Corinthians 12:7, it refers to beatings with the fist. The Greek tense describes unending, unrelenting, continuous, repetitious beatings. This means Paul is not telling us of a single event, but of a series of many events. This word kolaphidzo (“buffet”) gives us our greatest insight into the “thorn in the flesh” Paul is writing about in this verse.
As noted earlier (see October 17-30), Paul endured many afflictions during his ministry. Many of the afflictions he faced were due to the religious leaders who so fiercely opposed him. These religious leaders included Jewish leaders who hated him and his message. They also included false brethren who were constantly trying to displace his position of authority in the local churches. Paul was resisted outside the church by leaders of the Jewish faith who hated him. He was also opposed from within the church by those who wanted him out of the picture so they could take his place of prominence.
Thus, the biggest “thorn” in Paul’s life was the fact that he had to deal with these different groups of people who covertly planned the problems and hassles he frequently faced in the ministry. A special messenger from Satan, perhaps even a demonic angel, had been sent to incite these people against Paul.
If you survey the types of ordeals Paul endured, you will see that many of them were orchestrated by these people who wanted to get rid of him. They were so teeming with hatred toward Paul that they wanted to see his head on a stake! These people were the primary source of Paul’s problems and distractions he faced in his life and ministry.
One type of attack Paul experienced at his opponents’ hands were many physical “beatings,” which explains his use of the word kolaphidzo (“buffet”) in this verse. However, Paul was also constantly buffeted, harassed, hassled, and distracted by the negative activities of these people. As a result, he was hindered from focusing on what God had called him to do because of the great amount of time he had to spend defending his apostleship and answering the charges of those who were stirring up trouble against him. These opponents really were a thorn in the flesh for Paul. Their actions were a constant irritant that he had to deal with on an almost daily basis.
In light of these Greek words, consider this fresh interpretation of Paul’s words in Second Corinthians 12:7:
“Because of the phenomenal revelations I have received and on account of the vast number of these revelations that God has entrusted to me — and to hinder the highly visible progress I am making in the Lord’s cause — a special messenger has been sent from Satan to harass me with constant distractions and headaches. There’s no doubt about it! Those whom Satan has stirred up against me want my head on a stake! Satan is using these people to constantly buffet and distract me in an attempt to keep me from reaching a higher level of visibility and recognition and to sidetrack me from preaching my revelations.”
You see, Paul’s thorn in the flesh wasn’t sickness or epilepsy or any other physical malady; it was the people who opposed and irritated him and continually caused him problems! The devil used these people again and again, trying to keep Paul so distracted solving “people problems” that he wouldn’t be able to make any more significant personal or Gospel advancements.
What about you, friend? What do you intend to do about the “thorns” that the devil is using to steal your joy and to sidetrack you from your mission? How do you intend to react to this ongoing disturbance? Paul never allowed people to keep him from fulfilling his divine call, so today I urge you to follow his example. Don’t allow people to stop you! The devil is obviously afraid of you, your gifts, your potential, and your revelations; otherwise, he wouldn’t need to incite people to stir up trouble for you.
More than likely, the opposition you’re facing is a good indication that you’re right on track. So just keep forging ahead toward your God-ordained goal, regardless of the distractions that try to steal your focus!
My Prayer for Today
Lord, I ask You to help me remain focused on my goals, even when the devil tries to use people to steal my focus and distract me. Knowing that the devil tries to use people, I ask You to help me equip myself spiritually and mentally so I will be able to keep my eyes on the goal You have given for my life. I choose to forgive those whom the devil uses. I will pray for them to change and to repent for their actions; I will keep my heart free of offense; and I will continue to march full-steam ahead to achieve what God has told me to do! Holy Spirit, please help me stay on track and keep my heart free from all strife!
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
My Confession for Today
I confess that Satan is unable to distract me from what God has told me to do. Although the enemy tries very hard to knock me off track, I will not take my eyes off the goals God has given me, nor will I ever stop pursuing those goals until I know they have been achieved. The power of God resides in me. The power of Christ’s resurrection operates in my life. I have all the power I need to shove aside every distraction and to keep pressing toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
Questions to Answer
1. Are there any people that the devil regularly uses to inflict grief in your life? Do you find their behavior a distraction or an irritant — a “thorn” in your flesh that the devil uses to steal your joy and distract you from your God-given assignment?
2. Have you asked God to give you a strategy to turn these “enemies” in your favor? Have you prayed that they would have a change of heart and repent?
3. What can you do to undergird yourself in order to stay focused and undistracted and to successfully resist these types of assaults?