Misconceptions about Paul’s Thorn

I was sitting with a few friends in a restaurant a few years ago, when one of them leaned over and whispered, with what might been a touch of pride to me, “You know, I think I’ve got a thorn, like Paul”. I asked him what he meant, fully knowing what he was going to say. “Well”, he said, “I’ve got this sickness, and it’s my thorn, just like Paul.” I sighed at yet another Christian myth, continually propagated. If I had a dollar for every time I heard about Paul’s thorn or how Paul left someone sick in Miletus (Trophimus), I’d be a very rich man.

Let’s look at Paul’s thorn here in 2 Corinthians 12:

7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Here is Paul saying that Satan sent him a messenger to torment him. I’m sure you’ll agree that a person’s messenger runs errands for that person, not anyone else. He prayed to God, who told him that His grace was sufficient and His power perfect. How this came to be seen as sickness, I don’t quite know. Here are two verses from the Old Testament where God is chastising Israel:

Numbers 33:55 ” ‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’ “

Joshua 23:13 “then you may be sure that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the LORD your God has given you.”

In neither case is God talking about sickness, he is talking about harassment, same as in Paul’s case. In fact, if only people take the time to read what Paul himself said in 2 Corinthians 11, they would see what this “thorn was”, as shown below:

23 ..I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. 27I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Doesn’t this sound like the same kind of harassment shown in the OT? It sure does to me. Using hermeneutics, we study the context of passages, so we can understand them better. This helps us to see what is meant by a “thorn” in his flesh. Same thing when you say a person or situation is a “pain in the neck”. You clearly don’t mean sickness, do you?

In any case, I didn’t mention this to my friend, I simply repeated 2 Corinthians 12 to him:

7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh,….

I asked him, “Since Paul said the thorn was given because of surpassingly great revelations he received, please tell me your surpassing great revelation and I’ll agree with you that the thorn is sickness. ” He declined and left me to enjoy my meal in peace.

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