Paul's Thorn In The Flesh



Dear Paul - courageous, loyal and determined Paul - with a handicap that would have detoured or prevented altogether one with less vision or courage. His thorn in the flesh has been a study of ongoing debate and supposition over the centuries and scholar after scholar has rendered his opinion regarding the nature of this impairment. Now, I am not a scholar nor do I pretend to be, but I am one who acknowledges without question the sovereignty of God and the compassion of Jesus Christ and I have never been able to accept the diagnosis of ophthalmia that has been suggested as Paul's thorn in the flesh.

In 1988 I allowed my curiosity to take root and send me to the scriptures for an intensive search of my own. The following findings were written down at that time and have been hiding in my files ever since. Only recently did the Spirit remind me of them and so it is with much conviction that I endeavor to deliver Paul from the disease others have spoken over him. Consider these findings with me, and if I have missed something, please feel free to share it with me. In any case, take the word literally as much as possible and allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the rest, and never, never suppose or assume...

We will begin with 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

(7) 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.

(10) Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then am I strong.

I believe Paul's thorn in the flesh was just what the scriptures call it, i.e., a messenger from Satan, sent to buffet him, to bruise, harrass, aggravate, and painfully persecute him. God refers to "thorn in the sides" in Numbers 33:55 and Judges 2:3 as painfully annoying, or vezing. The Greek word for flesh is Sarx, meaning the body, or the human nature with it's frailties and passions.

I checked the crossword puzzle dictionary to gather all the definitions applicable to the word "buffet" . These included Beat, Bruise, Blow, Buff, Slap, Toss, Snap, Flip, Urge, Smite, Batter, Strike, Strive, Thrash, Contend and Affliction. Paul's persecutions had just been described in that one little word, "buffet." Isn't that interesting? Remember, Paul is the one speaking here...

The word "Messenger" always denotes a "sent one", an entity sent from God - or Satan. Angels are messengers, as are prophets. So Satan has his messengers who buffet in order to prevent the spreading of the gospel. This particular messenger was a true thorn in the flesh in that he stirred up the people, causing riots, rejections, stoning, beatings, etc. But Paul said, "lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, THERE WAS GIVEN (ALLOWED) TO ME a thorn in the flesh, THE MESSENGER OF SATAN SENT TO BUFFET ME, lest I be exalted above measure".

Paul had seen the Glory of the Lord on the road to Damascus, and that Glory, greater than the sun, had blinded him. That was just the beginning. Paul had been well educated in the Law of Moses by the greatest Pharisaic teacher of his day, Gamaliel. Years after his conversion on the road to Damascus he would testify to the Galatians that the new gospel he preached was not received nor taught to him by man, but by the revelations of a crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Following his conversion and the Damascus incident, he was led by the now-indwelling Holy Spirit into Arabia then again into Damascus where he was set apart for three years of preparation before finally journeying to Jerusalem to meet Peter. The Scriptures are silent about his activities during this time except to carry Paul's testimony that he was being taught by the revelations of Jesus Christ.

It is also interesting that the Disciples were set apart with Jesus for three years before they began their ministries as Apostles and now we see that Paul also spent three years apart with the same Jesus before assuming the Apostleship Christ had called him to.

It is also interesting that he was led into Arabia for his desert experience just as Moses had been led into the land of Midian, and as Christ had been led into the wilderness.

At some point he was "caught up to the third Heaven", whether in body or in spirit, adding new dimensions to his already professed abundant visions and revelations. One can see where Paul, more than anyone else, would have reason to be puffed up if he were turned loose. It is also noteworthy that this same Jesus whom Paul preached, had devoted the entire three years of his ministry teaching and ministering to the needs of the people, going about "healing all who were oppressed of the devil" (Acts 10:38).

We need only to look at the Word to see that we serve a healing God. "I am the Lord that healeth thee" was his promise to the Nation of Israel in the wilderness.

In Psalm 103 He is the God who "forgiveth  ALL  thine iniquities; who healeth  ALL thy diseases", old testament promises Paul was familiar with. In the light of the ministry of Jesus, one is assured that it is God's will that his children enjoy good health. In 3rd John we read, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth".

It is difficult for me to perceive the charge that Paul was exempt from the promise, "By whose stripes ye are healed", considering that the Lord had healed his blindness. This healing was so important that the Lord sent a cautious but obedient Ananias to testify to Paul and to lay hands on him that he might receive his sight. The Lord never does anything half way, so, after such a divine healing, why would God put upon Paul, or allow Satan to put upon him, a painfully distracting and blinding disease like ophthalmia? This question confirmed to me that such a foregone conclusion would accuse our Lord of double-mindedness and betrayal, neither of which He is capable of doing.

If you are asking, "What about Job," there is no comparison and that is an entirely different story. In Job 3:25,26 one can see that Job was not trusting God. He was living in fear which is not a sin, and this fear brought his divinely placed and protective hedge down, exposing him to Satan's power. Fear cancels trust and when we are not trusting God, he cannot enforce His protective shield over us.

However, God commanded that Job's life would not be touched, exhibiting His merciful Grace to shield that part He has total authority over - the length of our days. Only with the nod of God's approval is one's life ended. Does He not know when even a sparrow falls to the ground? You ask, "What about Job's children? Did God approve their slaughter by Satan - this merciful Father we know - allowed and approved the destruction of Job's children? Satan had challenged God to test Job to prove his weaknesses of the flesh and his abandonment and cursing of God if God dismantled the blessings He had poured out upon Job.

Of course Job loved God, Satan argued, God had given him everything, but take it away and God would see how Job would turn on Him. Yes, God allowed the testing to prove Job's faithfulness, and His justified right to bless him, so Satan was allowed to afflict Job's flesh but he could not steal his life.

"The thing I feared has come upon me" had been birthed in fear and manifest in the loss of Job's children and all that he had save his wife and three loyal friends, and the painful sores that covered his body.

When Job finally acknowledged the mightiness of God and the sovereignty of God, when he finally repented of his fears and weaknesses, and praised God in spite of all of his pain, God healed him and restored all that was lost, doubling the counts.

Paul and Job were very different in their circumstances although each had a weakness - Job's was fear, Paul's was pride. Job was tested, now Paul would be tested by this pest from Hell whom God would allow to annoy and harrass him, reminding him constantly that he could do nothing in his own right, but only by the will and leading of God.

Fervently, Paul had accepted the Divine call and would not turn back over a troublesome pest sent from an already defeated foe. Satan had sent it, and for the sake of the Gospel, God allowed it. Seeking help from the Lord three times for the departure of this pest, the answer was always the same:  "My Grace is sufficient for thee."

The phrase Paul used, "There was given to me..." lends proof that Satan had sent this demon on special assignment to destroy Paul's efforts and if possible, to kill him. I also believe that, as with Job, God intervened and in sovereign authority told that demon, "You can test him but you cannot take his life."  I believe He was also saying to Paul, "I have given you everything you need, through my Grace and my Spirit, to do the work I have called you to do. Now, that messenger is there with my permission, lest you be exalted above measure. After all, Paul, you are not the one we are trying to exalt".

Paul had the anointing and power to cast out (and away) demons as we see in Acts 16:16-18 when he cast a devining demon out of a damsel in Thyatira. Yet he was powerless to cast from himself this buffeting messenger sent to harness him and this is why  I believe he was there with God's approval - he could stir up the people and effect persecution of Paul, but the messenger himself could lay no hand upon him.

Paul was a zealous Jew, a man in high authority, accustomed to giving orders and not being questioned. This was the man who hurled men and women from their homes to be tortured and put to death at his command. He was a man's man, and the breaking of personal pride is never easy. Entire lives have been wrecked because of pride. Beautiful ministries have toppled because of it. 

There was also a time element involved. The Holy Spirit had a job to do, and time was of the essence. Paul had received the Divine calling for this specific job, and there was no time, nor could there be any risk that Paul could crush his own prideful will. One can be saved, filled with the Spirit, heavily anointed, and with a high calling on his life, and pride can destroy it all. This messenger was allowed for this reason, to break Paul's pride and his will, enabling him to focus on his mission and his Lord, not on himself or his own   abilities.

This is contrary to what most theologians and Bible scholars teach. They believe that Paul's thorn in the flesh was chronic ophthalmia, an optic condition that produces bodily weakness and a repulsive appearance, not to mention blurring of vision and near blindness.  The scriptures they elicit this conclusion from are vague in context, and can be interpreted that way only when taken separately.  However, when one studies all of Paul's letters in relations to these scriptures, they tell a different story. And the fact that Paul himself states that it was a messenger sent to buffet him, rules out any proof of an anatomical thorn in the flesh. Logic speaks, and the Word speaks. Let's look at them closely...


Paul had been trained in tent making and continued this occupation during his stay in Corinth with Aquila and Priscilla. He needed good eyesight for quickly sewing and handling the massive tents of that day.

Being a day and a night in the deep following a shipwreck, he certainly needed his eyesight to see the shore in the darkened night, and to gather sticks for a fire, as well as to recognize the poisonous viper that bit him, and which he shook off into the fire. A man near blindness would not have seen clearly what it was that bit him and would have shaken it wildly all about him.

When Paul was made a prisoner in Rome, he called the chiefs of the Jews to him (Acts 28:16-31) and witnessed to them of Jesus out of the Old Testament, "both out of the law of Moses and out of the prophets, from morning until evening."  To locate these scrolled prophetic passages, he needed good eyesight.

When Elymas, the sorcerer (Acts 13: 8-11) withstood Paul, trying to prevent his testimony to Sergius Paulus, the scripture tells us that Paul "set his eyes upon him" and rebuking him as a child of the devil and an enemy of the "gospel, said, "And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season."

Immediately 'Elymas was blinded. Somehow, I cannot envision Paul calling down blindness upon someone else, even an enemy, if he himself suffered from a chronic and painful eye disease.

Paul officiated in three offices - Apostle, preacher and teacher. One needs his eyesight for just one of these offices.

In Proverbs 4:20-22 we read God's directive, " My son, attend to my words; incline thine ear unto my sayings. LET THEM NOT DEPART FROM THINE EYES: keep them in the midst of thine heart. For they are life unto those that find them, and HEALTH TO ALL THEIR FLESH." That is Old Testament Word, and Paul knew and lived by the Word.

We need only to look at that Word to see that we serve a healing God. "I am the Lord that healeth thee" was his confession to the nation of Israel in the wilderness. In Psalm 103 He is the God who "forgiveth ALL thine inequities; who healeth ALL thy diseases", again, Old Testament words Paul was familiar with.

In the light of the ministry of Jesus, one is assured again that it is God's will that His children enjoy good health. In 3rd John we read, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth". It is difficult for me to believe that Paul was exempt from the promise, "By whose stripes ye were healed", a promise he preached and proved again and again, zealously preaching, recalling the faithfulness of God often in the testimony of his own healing from blindness in Damascus.


The following are some of the scriptures that scholars have interpreted to give indication that Paul suffered from chronic ophthalmia: (1 Corinthians 2:1-4) "I came in weakness, and in fear and in much trembling."

We are reminded that when Paul first came to Corinth, he taught in the Jewish synagogues, but the Jews withstood him and blasphemed the gospel he was preaching. He said to them, "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles". Those Jews wanted to kill him.

Paul went into hiding, planning to leave Corinth. Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, "Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee for I have much people in this city". (Acts 18: 9-10) So Paul stayed there a year and six months, preaching to the Corinthians, Jews and Gentiles alike "in weakness, fear and much trembling " even though the Lord had told him NOT to fear, that he was with him. So we see that Paul was still struggling with his human nature.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul reminds them that although he came in fear and weakness, God had encouraged him, and that his teaching of the gospel to them was not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. He was defending his authority as an Apostle, and reminding them that they had been taught with Godly wisdom.

Paul took pleasure in his weakness. This allowed the Holy Spirit to manifest God's power and God's strength in that worldly wisdom "comes to nought." I believe Paul was referring to his human weakness, as compared to the mightiness of God, coupled with the humility of his calling and the awesomeness of the task before him.

In Galatians 4:13-15 we read:

(13) Ye know how through the infirmity (weakness) of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at first.

(14) And my temptation (testing) which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.

(15) Where then is the blessedness ye spake of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me."

The Greek word for infirmity is Astheneia, which also means weakness. I believe the proper word here would be "weakness of the flesh", and with good reason. He had been stoned at Lystra, beaten, flogged, weakened, scarred, and probably looking as though he had been in on good fight.  This was the weakness in his flesh.

The word temptation means a trial of testing or solicitation to do evil. In Paul's case, there was no evil intent, so he was referring to the trials of testing that had weakened and afflicted his body. Stoning alone would have marred his appearance.

"For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me."

Today we would say, "You would have given me the shirt off of your own back", which might imply that I was naked and destitute, but would in no way prove it. This is figurative expression, first used by God in his covenant with Abraham. We will find it all through the Written Word. We use it every day.

I believe what Paul was actually saying was: "What happened? When I came to you at the first you welcomed me, you loved me. You did not despise me or reject me as some did. In fact, you received me as an angel of God. You would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. What has happened."

Again in Galatians 6:11 we read: "Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand." It was customary for scribes to write the Apostle's letters for him, but as we see in 1st Corinthians 16:21 and Galatians 6:11, Paul did do some writing "with mine own hand." The "large letter" (singular) of Galatians 6:11 has been interpreted by scholars and printed as such in their commentaries to read  "large letters" (plural), changing the context.

The Greek word for large is Pelikos, a quantitative form meaning "how much," "in size," or "how great." Since Paul, who was definitely literate, used the term letter in singular form, I believe he was referring to the length of the letter ("see how long a letter I have written to you"). Being technical, "how great a letter" or "how much a letter", A LETTER in any case. As no scribe or disciple was present, and the situation was urgent, he wrote to the Galatians himself. Galatians contains six chapters --- a long letter.

Now, .concerning that weakness of the flesh (soul). First let us establish that the soul and the spirit are separate. The spirit is that part of man that lives eternally with soul. The soul is that part that involves the mind, the emotions, the will of man. When I speak of the mind, I am referring to a man's thoughts and not the condition of his mind. Paul often referred to weakness that I believe was related to the soul part of him.

You see, soul breeds carnality or spirituality, and Paul was still having a problem separating the pride of the old Saul from the meekness of the new Paul. His dispute and separation from Barnabus testifies of this, in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit had announced, "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them."

As we grow in the Lord, we come to recognize our own weaknesses and inabilities as compared with His strength and His ability. "We grow into this daily, reminding ourselves and our Lord, "without you I can do nothing, without faith in your faithfulness I cannot please you". Yet, with Him, we can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens us.

Before we can reach this point, and even beyond it, we have to "die daily" to ourselves by submitting our will, our thoughts, out emotions to Him, "forgetting that which is past" and pressing on. Then His strength is made perfect in our weakness and our soulish inadequacies are replaced with His abilities and His power.

We find ourselves putting on the mind of Christ and those human emotions of fear, anger, worry, resentment, grudges, etc. cease to exist. Such growth does not come overnight. And it does not come easily. It requires discipline to "mortify the flesh". Paul said he beat his body to bring it into subjection. He said he was "always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus". We become soul and flesh watered-down as we decrease and allow Jesus to increase in us. "When I am weak, then I am strong."

Persecuted as he was, Paul never compromised. He never tired of telling the wonderful news he had been commissioned to share. He was a man's man, full of the spirit, powerfully anointed, and one hundred percent committed.

Paul was saying, "If you look at me you will see a man who has died to self, weakened, broken in soul, but alive and strong in the Lord who sustains me." He himself was humble, but he operated in much boldness of the Holy Spirit, the two personalities meshed together to become one ("I in you and you in me" as Jesus had prayed in the Garden just prior to His arrest).

Paul's writings, so dearly beloved, I believe, were his real high calling. These are Christ's love letters to His bride, testimonies of the new covenant progress, His concerns, His promises, and His warnings. No other Apostle contributed so much to the New Testament. These letters, inspired  by the Holy Spirit,  and so lovingly conveyed with Paul's gentle boldness and warmth, will live forever for God has said, "My  words will never pass away."

Well, Paul, your sacrifices paid off. Your words have been, and still are, read, re-read and treasured by millions all over the world. Over nineteen hundred years later you are still evangelizing, still shepherding, still teaching. Now that is what I would call a prize. How many, during all of these years, in secret hiding places, in prisons, in hospitals, churches and private homes have been led to Christ while reading your letters --letters that were so difficult for you to write? How many, Paul? Can you number them yet? Probably only God knows! I know that  years ago, I was one of them. Thank you, Paul, for being obedient and faithful.

That buffeting demon sent to destroy your efforts failed in his assignment miserably. The Holy Spirit won the race and you, Paul, came through with the prize of the high calling of God. It was spiritual warfare all the way but your continued perseverance and sensitivity to the will of the Holy Spirit dealt the final blow. Mission accomplished, you went home healed and free --I bet you a pup tent!

Spiritual warfare continues...

Who wants to be the next Paul?

The world has always viewed the Christian as weak and subservient and only they who are willing to humble themselves could be a Christian. You know something --they are absolutely right! What the world does not know or comprehend is that "Greater is He that is within us than he that is in the world."

They are just beginning to sit up and take notice. The world will always hate us, but they can't ignore our growth through the centuries and our steadfastness in the faith. Like Paul, we continue to move forward with or without our own thorns in the flesh, for like Paul, there are far too many of us who have too much pride that gets in our way -