The other day I was chatting with a person about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. The invariable question arose as the conversation continued—“What was the thorn, anyway?” There have been many who have asked this question over the years and many answers given. I would like to try my best to answer the question in this post.
The verse in question is 2 Corinthians 12:7 but is found in the middle of a larger section of Scripture that reads:
1 Boasting is necessary. It is not profitable, but I will move on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether he was in the body or out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. 3 I know that this man—whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know; God knows—4 was caught up into paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a human being is not allowed to speak. 5 I will boast about this person, but not about myself, except of my weaknesses. 6 For if I want to boast, I wouldn’t be a fool, because I would be telling the truth. But I will spare you, so that no one can credit me with something beyond what he sees in me or hears from me, 7 especially because of the extraordinary revelations. Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself. 8 Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. 10 So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 
Paul was given a vision of heaven. He saw things that no one (alive) had ever seen, heard things that no one had ever heard, and was instructed not to speak about that which he had seen and heard. No doubt, it would have been easy to talk about such an exciting experience with everyone who spoke to him. I can imagine it would have been like a child who had gone to Disney World and was telling everyone about it, whether they wanted to hear about it or not! However, Paul was told to remain silent about the details.
I imagine that having such an experience could cause someone to think that they were special, or better than everyone else. That maybe God was playing favorites by showing Paul the glories of heaven. Paul, himself, tells us that he was given a “thorn” to keep him humble. In fact, he repeats, “so that I would not exalt myself,” twice in the same verse. Shortly after calling the thing which would keep him humble “a thorn,” Paul switched to talking about “weaknesses.” It is likely that he is including in the “weaknesses” this new “thorn.”
His request for the thorns removal was denied. We are told that he pleaded three times. God’s response to his plea was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” God wanted Paul to rely completely on Him for power in his ministry. Paul could have told the story of his heavenly trip, and people would have been converted. This could have contributed to pride in himself. Thus, to remind Paul that nothing he did came from him and that while he was given a special revelation he shouldn’t think too highly of himself, he was given a thorn to remind him to stay humble. This is the very reason that God did not remove the thorn, it needed to be a constant reminder. Here, Paul is 14 years out from the experience and still needs that thorn to remind him who is really the power behind his ministry.
This is a good lesson for us to learn as well. We constantly need to rely on God’s power in our lives if we want to do anything of value for the Kingdom of God. It is when we recognize that we have no power that God’s power works in us to do what only God can do.
So, we have established the context. Paul receives a thorn, that God will not take away, in order to keep him humble about the vision and the power that his ministry displays.
Given by God
There are two interesting facets of the thorn. The first is that it was actually given by God. Paul uses a passive verb to describe how he acquired this thorn—translated above as “was given.” This would indicate that Paul considered God to be the one responsible for the thorn. Ultimately, the thorn was good—like so many other instances in the Bible where things seemed bad, but God used them for His good and His glory. God wanted to make sure that Paul wouldn’t forget, so a thorn was given. Warren W. Wiersbe writes:
The Lord knows how to balance our lives. If we have only blessings, we may become proud; so He permits us to have burdens as well. Paul’s great experience in heaven could have ruined his ministry on earth; so God, in His goodness, permitted…[the thorn] …in order to keep him from becoming proud. 
A Messenger of Satan
There are many theories regarding the understanding of this phrase “a messenger of Satan” as there are theories about what the actual “thorn” might be. While we will take some time to deal with what this might mean, I do want to echo the sentiment of John F. MacArthur, Jr, “As with Job, Satan was the immediate cause, but God was the ultimate cause.”  Satan must always have permission in order to do anything regarding humanity (cf. Job 1:6-12 and Luke 22:31-32).
The word messenger is the Greek word angelos, which is commonly translated as “angel,” and in this context is a reference to an evil being. It also is possible that angelos references a human messenger who caused Paul great pain (cf. Luke 7:24, 27; 9:52, 13:16; 1 Cor 5:5; 10:10 2 Cor 2:5; Jas. 2:25, et. al.). 
If an evil being is what Paul is referencing, it could be tempting him or causing him physical pain. Another theory is that this is a spiritual attack, something pointing to Paul’s sinful past which would make him feel guilty—rather than free in Christ, potentially making him think that God’s grace was insufficient for his sinfulness. 
Marvin R. Vincent argues that this messenger was in fact not “Satan” himself. Saying,
“Messenger and Satan are not to be taken in apposition [that messenger and Satan mean the same thing]—a messenger who was Satan—because Satan is never called ἄγγελος [angelos] in the New Testament. Messenger is figurative, in the sense of agent. Satan is conceived in the New Testament as the originator of bodily evil. Thus, in the gospel narrative, demoniac possession is often accompanied with some form of disease. Compare Luke 13:16; Acts 10:38, and see on 1 Cor. 5:5.” 
Regardless of the exact nature of this “messenger,” it was there for one purpose— to torment Paul so he would not exalt himself. The word for torment (or buffet in some translations) in this passage literally means “to strike with fists.”  Thus, whatever the thorn was, it was painful.
Now let’s move on to the thorn. There are many theories as to what this thorn may have been. Here is a list of possible contenders:
- Paul’s inner emotional turmoil about the church (2 Cor 2:4)
- an ongoing sin
- a temptation
- to doubt his calling
- to avoid his apostolic duty
- to sin
- his wife
- his human opponents (2 Cor. 10:10)
- like the so-called super-apostles (2 Cor 11:1–5)
- Alexander the coppersmith (2 Tim 4:14-15)
- Hymenaeus, and Philetus (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17)
- the false prophets of Corinth (2 Cor 10–13)
- Judaizers (
- physical suffering (Gal 4:13-14; 1 Cor 2:3-5; 2 Cor. 10:10)
- poor eyesight (Gal 6:11)
- ophthalmia—an inflammation of the eye (Gal 4:15)
- migraine headaches
- an earache
- recurrent fever
- his physical appearance was “weak” or “disfigured” (2 Cor 10:10)
- speaking disability (1 Cor 2:3-5; 2 Cor 10:10)
- a general persecution
- demonic opposition (both in general or specific to him, as in 1 Thess 2:18)
All of these options fall into 3 categories: Physical, Spiritual, and Relational.
All of these options might seem possible considering circumstances in Paul’s life. No matter what Paul’s thorn might be, “it was a painful, humiliating experience given to prevent pride.” 
I personally do not think that this thorn has anything to do with past or present sin in the life of Paul, nor do I believe that this has anything to do with temptation. The reason that I don’t think that the thorn belongs in these categories is that its design was to keep him from a sin—pride. How could one temptation to sin keep him from another?
While the oppressor option is tempting, it does leave something to be desired.
The word translated thorn means “a sharp stake used for torturing or impaling someone.” This would seem to indicate that it was some sort of physical affliction that brought pain and distress to Paul’s body. Also, the words used to describe the thorn’s affliction are those of continued action. Spiritual battles come and go, as do human and demonic opponents, but the physical pain is always with us. Additionally, looking at the picture that Paul paints in the text, it is one of physical suffering.
All this leads me to believe that Paul was suffering from some sort of physical malady. Now the question becomes, “which one?” We also have to take into consideration that this is a “messenger of Satan.” We also know that Satan twists the good of God—like his words to Adam and Eve in the garden.
Taking all of this into consideration, I believe that Paul had some sort of issue with his eyes (and maybe his ears too). The visions that he saw (and the revelation that he heard) were twisted by Satan to cause him harm in the ministry, but God used it as a reminder to stay humble.
Paul is struck blind by the light of Christ from heaven on the Damascus Road, in Acts 9 (he also heard a voice, which those traveling with him could not hear clearly). We are told that he was blind for three days before his sight was restored (Acts 9:9, 18). Additionally, Paul was given a revelation of heaven, in 2 Corinthians 12, where he had visions that were “extraordinary” (there were also spoken to him “inexpressible words”).
Another clue for this thorn being eye trouble is found in Galatians 6:11—“Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting.” Galatians is not a particularly long letter when compared to his other letters. Also, Paul typically used a scribe to pen the letters—but would often write something in his own handwriting so that the recipient would know that it was genuinely from him. Thus, I believe that “large letters” means that he was writing in bigger writing because he had trouble seeing what he was writing. It would be like books in “large print” today.
Yet another clue is in Galatians 4:15b, where Paul writes—“For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” Clearly, there was something that was going on that caused them to want him to give their own eyes to Paul—were it even possible at that time. If it were not something with his eyes, why would he even mention that they would do this? The only logical explanation is that something was wrong with his eyes.
While I believe that Paul’s deteriorating eye condition was the thorn, we cannot know for sure this side of heaven. It is the most plausible explanation and covers all the bases that we would need. It was a good gift of God that Paul saw Christ and heaven. That gift was allowed, by God, to be altered by Satan to keep Paul humble. It would have been a frustrating situation that led to physical pain (headaches for one).
This would have been a pain to Paul both physically and emotionally. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to have to watch as your eyes begin to fail you. Additionally, there were those who would make fun of Paul for being powerful in a letter, but weak when he was present. It likely had to do with the fact that he couldn’t really see anything and would need help to do everything. This is not the powerful man that most expected when they met him in person. [A case could be made here that Paul had some sort of painful physical deformity. This would have also caused those to be shocked between the Paul of the letters and the Paul who stood before them. However, the clues of Galatians still make for the argument that it had something to do with his eyes. Though it could have been some disease that affected his whole body—but his eyes in particular.]
It is no wonder Paul prayed that it be taken away so that he could more easily fulfill the ministry that God had planned for him. However, God took nothing away but reminded him that it was His grace that would carry him through to the end. He need not worry about the HOW but rather needed to focus on the WHO that would get him through.
Some people will say that if we have a “thorn,” it is God’s way of punishing us. They teach that afflicted Christians have, in some way, disgraced God. They will teach/preach that “If you are obeying God, claiming all His blessings, you will never have a ‘thorn.’” These are the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel advocates. These are the ones who preach that the godly will never face physical disabilities or sickness, but that God will bless you in every area of your life if you live for him and love him.
While we should live for God and love Him, there is not one biblical teaching that this obligates God to give us wealth or health. If this were the case, Paul would have said the “magic words” necessary to receive the healing he desired. For that matter, he could have used it to bring healing into the lives of all those he came into contact with. In reality, what we find in the Bible is that even believers will suffer.
I actually think that it is good that we don’t know specifically what the issue was. If we did we might not realize that the grace of God is for all of us, no matter what situation we face. Because the specifics are not in the text, we can apply the truths of Paul’s thorn to our own.
Truths to Remember About Our Thorns
- Satan can do nothing without permission—this means that God is still in control.
- God often brings good out of evil.
- We can either give up, wallow in suffering, or allow God to use us to bring glory to himself in spite of our “thorn.”
- God’s grace comes to ordinary people.
- A “thorn” doesn’t mean that we are being punished—it is there to teach us a lesson.
 Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 2 Co 12:1–10.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 674.
 John F. MacArthur Jr., The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), 2 Co 12:7.
 Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 3 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 354–356.
 John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016), 2 Co 12:7.
 Robert James Utley, Paul’s Letters to a Troubled Church: I and II Corinthians, vol. Volume 6, Study Guide Commentary Series (Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International, 2002), 294.
 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), 1511.