Question: What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?—anonymous.
Thanks for the question, and for reading! This is one of the most common questions that people ask. It’s often used as an example of what people call “unimportant questions.” But everything in the Bible is important. There’s no such thing as an “unimportant question” from the Bible.
Before we go on, it’s important that you come to this with an open mind and an open Bible. A lot of people say “no one knows what the thorn in the flesh is.” Others say, “It’s probably bad eyesight, but no one knows for sure.” We’re not concerned with what people have to say about it. We’re only interested in what the Bible has to say about it. So, open your Bible and let’s discover the answer for ourselves.
The “thorn in the flesh” is described in Second Corinthians 12:7-9. Please notice how Paul describes it:
- It is something physical (a thorn in the flesh).
- It is the “messenger of Satan.”
- Its purpose is to beat Paul (buffet, in King James, which literally means to hit or strike repeatedly. This indicates violence).
- It humbled Paul.
- It didn’t go away, even after Paul prayed about it.
- Paul calls it “my infirmities.”
Now, look back a chapter and let’s see what the context tells us. In chapter eleven, Paul is dealing with the Jews who were trying to undermine his efforts for Christ. These are frequently called “Judaizers” or “Judaizing teachers.” They were Jews who tried to take people away from Christ and back to the Law of Moses. Look what Paul says about them and their work against him.
- These Jews brought physical persecution (11:24-26, 32-33).
- These Jews are called “messengers” of Satan (11:13-15).
- These Jews attacked Paul with violence (11:24-26, 32-33).
- These persecutions kept Paul from exalting himself (11:30).
- These persecutions didn’t go away, even after Paul prayed about them (see the book of Acts).
- These persecutions from the Jews were called “my infirmities” (11:30, 12:5).
If you notice, everything that was said about Paul’s thorn in the flesh was said about the persecution Paul endured from the Jews—just one chapter earlier.
Based on the evidence and the context, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was the continual persecution from the Jews who were trying to destroy Paul and the message of the gospel.
-Bradley S. Cobb