What Satan Did to Paul: A Thorn in the Flesh

“The Wiles of the Devil” series (post #14)

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. (2 Corinthians 12:7, N.K.J.V.)

Fourteen years before Paul wrote the letter we call 2 Corinthians, something astounding happened to him. It was either a vision or an out-of-body experience; even he wasn’t exactly sure. Somehow he was caught up to the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Since the “first heaven” is the earth’s atmosphere, and the “second heaven” is the blackness of space, the “third heaven” is God’s heaven, way up there above it all. Paul called it “Paradise” (2 Corinthians 12:4).

In heaven, Paul heard what he described as “inexpressible words, things that man is not permitted to tell” (2 Corinthians 12:4, N.I.V.). These revelations were so otherworldy that if he had preached them on earth his listeners would have exalted him above measure and caused him to become “puffed up” (N.L.T.) with pride (2 Corinthians 12:7). So to prevent any possibility of him becoming so conceited, he was given, to use his own term for it, a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble.

While it’s true that all our English translations go with the translation “thorn” to describe Paul’s problem, the Greek word in question is actually not the common one for thorn. The common word is akantha, which is used in Christ’s parable of the sower and to describe His crown of thorns. But the word Paul used for his thorn is skolops. That’s a word that originally referred to “anything pointed” but eventually came to be used more in reference to a stake. For this reason, J.B. Lightfoot, one of England’s greatest New Testament scholars, held that Paul’s condition would be best translated as “a stake driven through the flesh.”

Theories have been kicked around for centuries as to what Paul’s thorn was. Some believe that it was some type of disease or ailment. Migraines, malaria, epilepsy, a speech impediment (1 Corinthians 2:1-4), earaches, and eye trouble (Galatians 5:14-15; 6:11) have all been suggested.

Others believe that Paul used the word “flesh” to refer not to his physical body but to his inborn nature of sin. This interpretation places the buffeted area inside his inner nature rather than upon his outer body. If the interpretation is correct, it means that his thorn was some type of inner temptation with which he constantly struggled.

And then there are those who believe that the entire question centers around the Greek word translated as “messenger” in the term “messenger of Satan.” That Greek noun is angelos, which comes from the Greek verb angello. Since angello means “to deliver a message,” angelos means “a messenger.” This makes the translation “messenger” in “messenger of Satan” literally correct.

However, while angelos does mean “messenger,” it is also the common New Testament word for “angel.” Angels, of course, are messengers sent from God. This explains why in the more than 180 instances in which angelos is used in the New Testament, it gets translated as “angel” about 99% of the time. The exceptions are this verse as well as Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:24,27; Luke 9:52; and James 2:25.

So, if Paul’s thorn in the flesh was an “angel of Satan,” that would make it a demon that constantly dogged Paul and in some way buffeted him with blows. Obviously the demon wouldn’t have actually possessed Paul, and so how exactly would it have buffeted (beaten) him? One possibility is that it would have struck him with some type of disease or physical ailment. If this was the case, it would put Paul in the company of Job, whom Satan struck bodily without possessing him (Job 2:1-7). It could also account for any migraines, malaria, epilepsy, speech impediment, or eye trouble that Paul might have had.

Another possibility, though, is that the demon would have jumped in and out of others, temporarily possessing them whenever they had dealings with Paul. While this idea might seem far fetched, it should be noted that the Greek word translated as “buffet” is kolaphizo, and the New Testament uses that word exclusively to refer to ill treatment from other humans (Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65; 1 Corinthians 4:11; 1 Peter 2:20). To further bolster this possibility, it can also be mentioned that God frequently described Israel’s human enemies as “thorns” in the Old Testament (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3; Ezekiel 28:24). Paul, being the Old Testament scholar he was, would have known these passages well.

Whatever exactly Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, and however exactly it manifested itself in his life, there are two things that are certain about it. #1: Satan was the source of it. It was, after all, an angelos of Satan. And #2: God allowed Satan to get by with it because He wanted to use it to keep Paul humble. Even though Paul begged God on three separate occasions to make the thorn depart from him, God refused by saying, “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8, N.L.T.).

I believe that Satan still imparts thorns to Christians today and that God still lets Him do it to suit His purposes. Not every disease, sickness, ailment, problem situation, or problem person in our lives is a thorn, but it’s possible that some of them are. The trick is to have the spiritual discernment to recognize a thorn (an angelos of Satan) for what it is. For that you need God’s help.

Once God has made it clear to you that you are dealing with a Satan-sent thorn, you have every right to ask Him to remove it from your life. Just know going in, though, that He has every right to answer your request the same way He answered Paul’s. And if He does choose to allow your thorn to continue to buffet you, that’s when the hardest part will begin for you. You will need great faith, great trust, and great commitment to stick with God in the midst of your buffeting. But, like Paul, what you will find is that God’s grace will be enough to keep you moving, and His power will be evidenced more through your weakness than it ever could be through your strength.

This entry was posted in Adversity, Commitment, Demons, Faith, Prayer Requests, Satan, Series: "The Wiles of the Devil", Spiritual Warfare, The Devil, Trials, Trusting In God and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to What Satan Did to Paul: A Thorn in the Flesh

  1. Pingback: Ministering in Humility | The Disciple's Road

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