And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
T. De Witt Talmage, one of America’s most prominent preachers in the late 1800s, put it best when he said, “Many of the theological doctors have felt Paul’s pulse to see what was the matter with him.” Boy, have they ever! The question “What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?” is one of the most well known in all of Christianity. So I thought I’d write a blog post and offer the correct answer so I could clear up the debate once and for all. Yeah, right.
What I will do is name the two contenders for the “best answer” category. Ready? Here we go.
Possible answer #1: The thorn in the flesh was some kind of physical ailment with which Paul struggled continually.
In Galatians 4:13-15, Paul speaks of preaching the gospel in “physical infirmity” and “my trial which was in my flesh.” He also says of the Galatian Christians, “…you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.” If we take Paul’s specific use of the word “eyes” at its simplest meaning (as opposed to let’s say “legs,” “hands,” or “back”), it would seem to indicate that Paul had a problem with his eyesight. So, perhaps that was his thorn in the flesh. However, it’s possible that “plucked out your own eyes” was just a figure of speech (Matthew 5:29, 18:9) that Paul used to show that the Galatian Corinthians would go to any lengths to meet his needs.
Still, even if it was just a figure of speech, the idea that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some kind of physical ailment (bad eyesight or something else) is further strengthened by the fact that he himself says in our text passage, “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities…” Furthermore, the thorn was in his “flesh,” which most commonly would be taken to mean “in my body.”
Possible answer #2: The thorn in the flesh was a demon (a fallen angel).
On the heels of using the term “a thorn in the flesh,” Paul further describes the thorn as “a messenger of Satan to buffet me.” The Greek word that is translated there as “messenger” is angelos, which is the common Greek word for “angel.” This answer is given even more credence by the fact that Paul knew the Old Testament well, and the word “thorn” is used multiple times in its pages to refer to enemies of Israel (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3; Ezekiel 28:24). All of this explains why both Martin Luther and John Calvin held to this answer.
However, while the term “messenger (angelos) of Satan” seems to refer to an “angel of Satan” (which would be a demon), it should be noted that Paul also referred to the thorn as “this thing” and “it.” This creates a problem for this answer because scripture refers to Satan, the leader of all the fallen angels, as “he” not “it.” The point is that maybe Paul would have used a pronoun if he was indeed talking about a fallen angel.
Well, as you can see, each of these two possible answers has its merits. Because of this, the debate will continue until we all get to heaven. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, though. As many students of the Bible have figured out, the fact that Paul’s thorn in the flesh remains unidentified allows more people to relate to it. Putting it another way, if we knew for sure that the thorn was an eyesight problem, it would lose some of its appeal to people who have 20/20 vision. But since we don’t know for sure, each of us has the freedom to compare Paul’s thorn to whatever problem we are facing.