Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

12:1 It is necessary to go on boasting. Though it is not profitable, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.
12:2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows) was caught up to the third heaven. 12:3 And I know that this man (whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows) 12:4 was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speak.

I know a man – Paul is almost certainly referring to himself.

The third heaven – ‘In the Old Testament there seems to be a threefold division of heaven into the heaven in which the birds fly, the heaven where the stars exist (often thought of as a “firmament”), and above that the heaven where God resides, referred to as “the highest heavens” (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; 6:18; Neh 9:6; Ps 148:4)…When Paul says “the third heaven” we cannot be sure that he himself firmly believed that heaven was divided into three and only three parts, or only that he realized that his readers would understand that he meant the highest of the heavens.’ (HSB)

It is clear that Paul refused to make his own experience the basis of his preaching. He certainly had an amazing experience on the road to Damascus: he saw a blinding light, heard a voice, was knocked to the ground, was instantly changed from being a killer of Christians to being a servant of Christ, Acts 9. But his preaching was based on an appeal to the Scriptures, Acts 17:2-3; 29:23. Even after being caught up to the third heaven, he was not allowed to speak the things he saw.

‘Dr Percy Collett…a charismatic medical missionary, devised an extensive series of detailed messages on heaven, all drawn from his extraordinary personal experience. Collett claims that in 1982 he was transported to heaven for five-and-a-half days. He says he saw Jesus, who is supervising the building of mansions there, and he claims he was able to speak face-to-face with the Holy Spirit. A newsletter reports: “While Christianity abounds with accounts of the ‘other’ dimension from those who’ve had ‘out of body’ experiences, Dr Collett’s is unlike these. Obviously he was ‘caught up in the third heaven’ even as Paul was. The difference being, Paul was not allowed to utter the things he saw and heard, while Dr Collett, almost 2,000 years later, was commanded to do so.'” Collett describes the animals he saw in heaven – ‘these are perfect. For example, the dogs do not bark.’ He describes ‘the Pity Department, the place where the souls of aborted babies go, and also some severely retarded babies, and it is here that these little souls are trained for a period of time before they go before the Throne of God.’ Then there is the Record Room, ‘an immense area where all the “idle” words spoken by Christians are being retained until after Christians give an account of them, or are judged, at which time these will be emptied into the Sea of Forgetfulness.’ There is a “Garment Room,” where angels are sewing our robes. (MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos, 27f)

12:5 On behalf of such an individual I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except about my weaknesses. 12:6 For even if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I would be telling the truth, but I refrain from this so that no one may regard me beyond what he sees in me or what he hears from me, 12:7 even because of the extraordinary character of the revelations.
Therefore, so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me—so that I would not become arrogant. 12:8 I asked the Lord three times about this, that it would depart from me. 12:9 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Murray Harris (Navigating Tough Texts) identifies the following characteristics of Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’:

1. It was given to Paul as a direct consequence of the revelations he received in paradise (v. 7).
2. It caused him acute pain, either physically or psychologically, which prompted him to seek its removal (vv. 7–8). In Classical Greek, the word skolops commonly meant “stake,” but in the LXX, as also in the papyri, it means “splinter” or “thorn.” “In the flesh” (en sarki) has the sense “embedded in/driven into my body.”
3. He regarded it, paradoxically, as simultaneously given by God (“was given” is a “theological passive”) and yet a “messenger” or instrument of Satan (see part 1, ch. 2).
4. It was a permanent condition, as implied by the two present tenses, “to keep me from being too elated” and “to pummel.” Yet its exacerbations were intermittent, as implied by the “three times (I implored the Lord)” in verse 9.
5. It was humbling, for it was designed to curb or prevent spiritual arrogance (note the repeated “to keep me from being too elated”) over the “extraordinary nature” (or “stupendous grandeur,” Weymouth) of the revelations received.
6. It was humiliating, comparable to receiving vicious blows about the face. The colorful verb kolaphizō means “strike with the fist,” or, more generally, “maltreat violently,” “batter,” “knock about.”
7. It caused Paul to feel weak (vv. 9–10), yet the weakness it caused became an object of boasting (v. 9; cf. v. 5) and a source of pleasure (v. 10).

But was Paul’s ailment spiritual, psychological, or physical?  Harris favours the last of these alternatives.  He notes:

‘In 1 Corinthians 5:5 (cf. 1 Cor 11:30; 1 Tim 1:20), Satan appears as God’s agent for the infliction of disciplinary illness (cf. Job 2:1–10). Certainly a recurrent and tormenting illness could be considered “a messenger of Satan,” for it might bring Paul within the shadow of death (cf. 2 Cor 1:8–9) or hinder the advance of the gospel either by arousing the contempt of the hearers (cf. Gal 4:13–14) or by frustrating his travel plans (cf. 1 Thess 2:18).’

Harris adds that if Paul had been more specific about his ‘thorn’, then subsequent believers might have thought that his reflections only applied to that particular type of malady.  As it is, believers with various maladies may derive challenge and comfort from his experience.

‘Paul perceived…that the thorn was given him, not for punishment, but for protection. Physical weakness guarded him against spiritual sickness. The worst diseases are those of the spirit: pride, conceit, arrogance, bitterness, self-seeking. They are far more damaging than physical malfunctioning’ (J.I. Packer, Laid-Back Religion, 131).

‘God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your “thorn” uncomplainingly – that is, sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel weak – is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace. The healing of your sinful person thus goes forward, even though the healing of your mortal body does not.’ (J. I. Packer)

‘Again and again our Lord leads us into situation that are painful and difficult, and we pray – as Paul prayed regarding his thorn in the flesh – that the situation will change. We want a miracle! But instead the Lord chooses to leave things as they are and to strengthen us to cope with them, as he did with Paul, making his strength perfect in continuing human weakness.

Think of it in terms of the training of children, and you will see my point at once. If there are never any difficult situations that demand self-denial and discipline, if there are never any sustained pressures to cope with, if there are never any long-term strategies where the child must stick with an educational process, or an apprenticeship, or the practice of a skill, for many years in order to advance, there will never be any maturity of character. The children (who, of course, want life to be easy and full of fun, as children always do) will remain spoiled all their lives, because everything has been made too easy for them. The Lord does not allow that to happen in the lives of his children.’ (J.I. Packer, A Passion for Holiness, 214f)

Power perfected in weakness

At first Paul could see no benefit in his thorn in the flesh. Hardly able to “count it all joy,” he instead resented the tormenting affliction. It interfered with his busy ministry schedule and caused him to question God. Three times he pleaded for a miracle of healing. Three times his request was refused. Finally, he received the lesson that God wanted him to learn through the affliction: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

The physical weakness was, in fact, being used for Paul’s own benefit. The sins of spiritual pride, arrogance, and conceit represented far greater dangers, and this nagging physical weakness kept him relying on God, and not himself, for strength. When he finally saw that, Paul’s attitude moved from one of resistance to one of transforming acceptance: instead of begging God to remove the thorn, he prayed that the pain would be redeemed or transformed to his benefit.

Once Paul had learned this lesson, in typical fashion he began shouting it to the world, “boasting” about his weaknesses. To the Corinthians, a sophisticated audience impressed by power and physical appearance, he bragged about God’s pattern of choosing the lowly and despised people of the world to confound the wise, the weak to confound the strong. Paul had learned the lesson of the Beatitudes: poverty, affliction, sorrow, and weakness can actually be means of grace if we turn to God with a humble, dependent spirit. “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” Paul concluded. The weaker we feel, the harder we may lean.

Yancey, Philip. Where Is God When It Hurts? (pp. 150-152). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Grace cannot be stockpiled

If God wants you to do something, he’ll make it possible for you to do it, but the grace he provides comes only with the task and cannot be stockpiled beforehand. We are dependent on him from hour to hour, and the greater our awareness of this fact, the less likely we are to faint or fail in a crisis. (Louis Cassels)

The story is told that one day Charles H. Spurgeon was riding home after a heavy day’s work, feeling weary and depressed. A verse came to his mind, “My grace is sufficient for you.” In his mind he immediately compared himself to a little fish in the Thames River, apprehensive lest drinking so many pints of the water each day he should drink it dry. Then Father Thames says to him, “Drink away, little fish. My stream is sufficient for you.” Next he thought of a little mouse in the granaries of Egypt, afraid lest its daily nibbles exhaust the supplies and cause it to starve to death. Then Joseph comes along and says “Cheer up, little mouse. My granaries are sufficient for you.” Then he thought of a man climbing some high mountain to reach its lofty summit and dreaded lest his breathing might exhaust all the oxygen in the atmosphere. The Creator booms his voice out of heaven saying, “Breathe away, oh man, and fill your lungs. My atmosphere is sufficient for you!” So lets rest in God’s wonderful grace, knowing it will be sufficient for us! (Our Sufficiency in Christ, John MacArthur p. 256.)

‘He never brings them into so low a condition that he does not leave them more cause of joy than sorrow.’ (Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 37.)

‘Twice it has been my privilege to introduce quadriplegic Joni Eareckson. … Each time I have ventured to predict that her message would show her to be the healthiest person in the building-a prediction which, so far as I could judge, came true both times.’ (J.I. Packer)

‘There is no situation so chaotic that God cannot from that situation create something that is surpassingly good. He did it at the creation. He did it at the cross. He is doing it today.’ (Bishop Handley Moule)

So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me. 12:10 Therefore I am content with weaknesses, with insults, with troubles, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Gladly – ‘Gladly! How can this be? Why is Paul willing to embrace his thorn with gladness? Because his greatest goal in life is that Christ be magnified in his body whether by life or by death (Phil. 1:20). To see the beauty of Christ, to cherish Christ as his supreme treasure, to show Christ to the world as better than health and life—that was Paul’s joy.’ (Piper, Coronavirus and Christ)

‘God uses broken things. Broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume. It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.’ (Vance Havner)

The Signs of an Apostle

12:11 I have become a fool. You yourselves forced me to do it, for I should have been commended by you. For I lack nothing in comparison to those “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12:12 Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds.

The things that mark an apostle – lit. ‘the signs (σημείον, ‘sign’) of an apostle’

The NIV reflects the view that ‘the things that mark an apostle’ are ‘signs, wonders and miracles’.

A literal translation would be: ‘The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all endurance with signs and wonders and miracles.’ In this case, ‘the things that mark an apostle’ are his life and ministry, and this verse should not then be taken to teach that signs, wonders and miracles were the exclusive provenance of the apostles.

‘Paul is defending his personal ministry, rather than his role as an inspired writer. In fact the “signs of a true apostle” are listed in chapters 10-12, not merely in the much-quoted verse. They include powerful preaching that breaks down menal strongholds (10:1-6); the privilege of first bringing the gospel to these people (10-13-18); faithfulness to divine truth (11:1-6); unwillingness to be a financial burden to his converts (11:7-11); the endurance of great hardship and suffering for the gospel (11:22-33); a deeply personal semi-ecstatic experience which he does not describe (12:1-6); and the “patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (curious combination), 12:11-13. None of these factors is unique to apostles.’ (Bridge, Signs and wonders today, 173f)

Grudem (Systematic Theology, p362) adopts a similar view:

‘The “signs” of an apostle are best understood as everything that characterized Paul’s apostolic mission and showed him to be a true apostle. We need not guess at what these signs were, for elsewhere in 2 Corinthians Paul tells what marked him as a true apostle:

  1. Spiritual power in conflict with evil (2 Cor 10:3–4, 8–11; 13:2–4, 10)
  2. Jealous care for the welfare of the churches (2 Cor 11:1–6)
  3. True knowledge of Jesus and his gospel plan (2 Cor 11:6)
  4. Self-support (selflessness) (2 Cor 11:7–11)
  5. Not taking advantage of churches; not striking people physically (2 Cor 11:20–21)
  6. Suffering and hardship endured for Christ (2 Cor 11:23–29)
  7. Being caught up into heaven (2 Cor 12:1–6)
  8. Contentment and faith to endure a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7–9)
  9. Gaining strength out of weakness (2 Cor 12:10).’

In any case, this verse should not be pushed so far as to make it say that miracles are the exclusive provenance of apostles. For this would fly in the face of 1 Cor 12:10,28-29. Rather, it should be understood as teaching that apostles would work miracles on a more regular basis. (Fee) This is consistent with the view that miracles do not occur evenly across biblical history (or across history generally, for that matter). Miracles are clustered around four major epochs – (a) Moses, Exodus, and the giving of the Law; (b) Elijah and Elishh; (c) the Lord Jesus Christ and his earthly ministry; (d) the apostles. ‘There may well be situations in which miracles are appropriate today, for example, on the frontiers of mission and in an atmosphere of pervasive unbelief which calls for a power encounter between Christ and Antichrist. But Scripture itself suggests that these will be special cases, rather than “a part of daily life”.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 387)

Paul, then, is in no way inferior to his opponents in the matter of performance of miraculous signs. Acts records some of these, eg 2 Cor 14:8-10; 16:16-18. The account of Paul’s first visit to Corinth in Acts 18 records no miracles, but obviously such had been carried out, otherwise the present claim would make no sense.

Note that Paul does not try to prove these miracles: he asserts them in a matter-of-fact way.

Cf. Rom 15:17-19, penned shortly after penning 2 Cor. Clearly, the performance of such miraculous signs was a normal accompaniment of Paul’s ministry, and in this respect his work in Corinth had been no exception.

The things that mark an apostle – these offered tangible evidence to the doubters that Paul’s credentials as an apostle ordained by God were sound. These are to be distinguished from the various extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, 1 Cor 12:4-11, which were not limited to the apostles (or, as far as we can tell) to the apostolic age.

But note that Paul does not seek to legitimise his ministry by an appeal to apostolic signs. He regarded as surer evidence of the genuineness of his ministry his faithful evangelism and the resulting establishment of congregations of believers, 2 Cor 3:1-3; 5:11-13; 10:7.

12:13 For how were you treated worse than the other churches, except that I myself was not a burden to you? Forgive me this injustice! 12:14 Look, for the third time I am ready to come to you, and I will not be a burden to you, because I do not want your possessions, but you. For children should not have to save up for their parents, but parents for their children. 12:15 Now I will most gladly spend and be spent for your lives! If I love you more, am I to be loved less? 12:16 But be that as it may, I have not burdened you. Yet because I was a crafty person, I took you in by deceit! 12:17 I have not taken advantage of you through anyone I have sent to you, have I?
12:18 I urged Titus to visit you and I sent our brother along with him. Titus did not take advantage of you, did he? Did we not conduct ourselves in the same spirit? Did we not behave in the same way? 12:19 Have you been thinking all this time that we have been defending ourselves to you? We are speaking in Christ before God, and everything we do, dear friends, is to build you up.
12:20 For I am afraid that somehow when I come I will not find you what I wish, and you will find me not what you wish. I am afraid that somehow there may be quarreling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder. 12:21 I am afraid that when I come again, my God may humiliate me before you, and I will grieve for many of those who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.