The Thorn in Paul’s Side
In 2 Cor. 12:6 Paul shifts from speaking about the man caught up into Paradise and begins to speak about his own revelation, saying, “For if I do wish to boast… I shall be speaking the truth.” He goes on in the next verse to say, “And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations…” indicating that these “revelations” were given to Paul.
While some conclude that the man visiting Paradise was Paul, that view would mean that Paul was speaking covertly and yet at the same time admitting that he was the man in question. The question is whether Paul would really go to such lengths to engage in subterfuge, only to hint that he was speaking of himself after all. Was Paul so conflicted that he did not want to boast but in the end could not help himself?
The Angel Adversary
We read in verse 7 that God gave Paul “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me,” as he says, in order to keep him humble. A “messenger” can be either human or spiritual. The Greek word used is aggelos (pronounced angelos), often translated “angel.” The Emphatic Diaglott translates it “an angel adversary.” (Satan means “adversary.”)
If we are to understand this “messenger” to be human, Paul may have been thinking of a particular adversary among the “false apostles.” Paul would not name such adversaries, of course. Some have speculated that this “thorn in the flesh” was a physical disease. However, thorns in Scripture normally depicted men, not diseases. See Num. 33:55 where God says to Israel,
55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land in which you live.
We read later that God did not allow Israel to drive out all the Canaanites. Judges 2:21-23 gives us God’s reason for doing this, saying,
21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not. 23 So the Lord allowed those nations to remain, not driving them out quickly; and he did not give them into the hand of Joshua.
In other words, God gave Israel a thorn in the flesh. God’s purpose was to “test” Israel’s obedience. God has used this same tactic on the church and on America. The church baptized pagans, and America allowed non-Christians to remain in its midst. Rather than blaming the ungodly “thorns” in our midst, we ought to cease from our lawlessness. The unbelievers are not the real problem. The problem is that the believers are lawless, and so God is testing them.
Certainly, God uses men as adversaries for various purposes. However, if the “adversary angel” sent to Paul was a spiritual messenger, then we should understand the adversary to be an “angel” that was sent by God to keep Paul humble.
God has used such angels in the past. Such a strategy is not without precedent. In the story of Balaam, we read how God sent an “adversary” angel to kill him (potentially). We see how his donkey turned off the path to avoid the angel. Balaam did not see the danger, and so he beat the donkey. In Num. 22:31-33 we read,
31 Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed all the way to the ground. 32 And the angel said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out as an adversary [satan], because your way was contrary to me. 33 But the donkey saw me and turned aside from me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, I would surely have killed you just now and let her live.”
We could say that God sent an “angel adversary” or a “messenger of Satan” to Balaam. The “angel of the Lord” called himself a “satan,” that is, an adversary to Balaam.
Another similar case is found in the story of King Ahab of Israel, who wanted King Jehoshaphat of Judah to be his ally in a war against Syria. Ahab’s prophets all prophesied victory and prosperity (1 Kings 22:12). Jehoshaphat was hesitant and asked for a word from a prophet of Yahweh. So Micaiah was summoned.
At first, Micaiah answered Ahab according to the idol of his heart and merely confirmed the word of Ahab’s prophets. But Ahab knew Micaiah well enough to know that he was being disingenuous. He adjured the prophet to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (1 Kings 22:16).
At that point Micaiah was forced by law to tell everything that he knew. He then told how he had heard God ask, “Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Various spirits volunteered for the job, but God chose “a deceiving spirit” (1 Kings 22:21, 22) to put words of victory into the mouths of Ahab’s prophets to deceive him and lead him into a battle where he would be killed. Micaiah’s conclusion is found in 1 Kings 22:23,
23 Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.
Notice that Satan was not blamed for sending this lying spirit to the prophets of Ahab. God took full credit for it, showing that God has full power over lying spirits and uses them as He wills. They are sent to test or to judge mankind for lawlessness or heart idolatry (Ezekiel 14:3, 4).
In Paul’s case, God may have sent a spiritual “angel adversary” to keep Paul humble. It was to judge Paul’s flesh (pride), which is the spiritual equivalent of a Canaanite king in the time of Joshua. The 31 kings of Canaan (Joshua 12:24) represent spiritual strongholds in us that must be overthrown and cast out. The law calls these kings “thorns.”
There is no doubt that Paul understood this biblical terminology, being a student of the law. Nonetheless, we cannot say for sure if Paul’s “thorn” was a spiritual angel or a physical messenger. It may have been both.
If the thorn was a false apostle in the church, then we can see the parallel with Israel’s problem in the book of Judges. Just as Israel had allowed Canaanites to remain in the land and had intermarried with them and had adopted their idolatry, so also had the church in the first century allowed false apostles to remain in their midst, who turned the hearts of many believers to worship the flesh.
That is, God had allowed false apostles to remain in the church in order to test the hearts of the believers. Would they follow God or men? Would they worship God or flesh? Would they identify with the flesh (i.e., their genealogy from Adam or Israel), or would they seek a new identity in Christ? Would they boast in their flesh or boast in the Lord?
Concerning Paul’s thorn in the flesh, he wrote in 2 Cor. 12:8, “I implored the Lord three times that it might depart from me.” God’s answer is revealed in verse 9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.”
The “thorn” greatly hindered Paul’s ministry, at least from the human perspective. But Paul not only acted as an individual; he was part of a body known as the church. The church was supposed to succeed where Israel failed. Their Great Commission was to go into all the nations and make disciples, baptizing them into the body of Christ (Matt. 28:19, 20).
Although the church had done this to some extent, they had also adopted the fleshly ways of the nations, even as Israel had adopted the ways of the Canaanites in earlier times. Though Israel had come out of Egypt, it was difficult to take Egypt out of Israel. That is why Israel was found worshiping the golden calf—one of the gods of Egypt.
In the case of the church, it was easier to leave Judaism than to eradicate Judaism from their hearts. Coming out of Judaistic traditions, the believers in Christ were still heavily influenced by the dividing wall in the temple. Hence, they still maintained the idea that physical genealogy set them apart in the sight of God and made them “chosen” even above those who were sons of Abraham by faith alone.
This fleshly (or nationalistic) view was a hindrance to the true gospel of Christ. It blinded men from knowing and understanding the New Covenant. It caused many to continue to adhere to the Old Covenant and its confidence in the flesh, the will of man, and one’s fleshly identity that traced back to Adam, Abraham, or Israel.
These things run contrary to the New Covenant and to Christ’s purpose in abolishing the dividing wall that had elevated one ethnic group over another. The result was that God had already begun to judge the church by refusing to give them victory over Jews and pagans. Just as God had hindered Israel in their conquest of Canaan, so also did God hinder the conquest of the world in Paul’s day.
To put it another way, if a genuine believer in the early days of Israel had sought God three times to expel the Canaanites and all idolaters, God would have told him, “My grace is sufficient for you.” The genuine believers in Israel had to submit to a bigger plan, because they were part of a larger body, a nation that was already under divine judgment for their dependence upon the flesh.
So even as the genuine Israelite believers had to endure thorns in the flesh in the book of Judges, so also did the apostle Paul have to endure his own thorn in the flesh. From a personal standpoint, Paul’s thorn served to keep him humble; but when we see it from a broader viewpoint, it is clear that Paul’s thorn was one of many thorns sent to test the hearts of the believers within the church.
Although this thorn weakened Paul and hindered his ministry, he submitted to it “most gladly,” knowing that the power of God would work through him all the more. Hence, he concluded in 2 Corinthians 12:10,
10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.
It appears that Paul’s angel adversary had stirred up the false apostles as earthly adversaries, causing them to insult Paul and to persecute him. The “thorn” was hurtful and weakened Paul’s ministry, but he retained confidence that God would strengthen him in spite of it all.