A "thorn in the flesh?"

In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul writes

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

Many Christians believe that this verse means that God wants some of us (Paul included) to stay sick. They say that Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was an eye disease, migraine, baldness or some other type of sickness, and that God refused to heal him, telling him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

However, the word “thorn” as an idiomatic expression, is never used in the Bible to mean a sickness or physical affliction.

Numbers 33:55 But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.

Here, the “thorns” are people who have been allowed to remain in the land of Canaan to become an annoyance to the people of God.

Joshua 23:13 Know for a certainty that YAHWEH your God will no more drive out any of these tribes from before you; but they shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which YAHWEH your God has given you.

Again, here, the “thorns” were people who have been allowed to remain in the land of Canaan being bothersome "scourages".

Judges 2:3 Wherefore I also said, I will not drive them out from before you; but they shall be as thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare unto you.

Here also, the "thorns" refer to people who have been allowed to remain among the Israelites tripping up the people of God.

2 Samuel 23:6 But the sons of Belial shall be all of them as thorns swatted away, because they cannot be seized with hands:

Here, once more, David makes it clear that “thorns” are people (enemies) allowed to remain among the children of Israel. M,oreover, the Bible makes it clear that these people, in all cases, are a hindrance to the people of Israel, like thorns that must be swatted away because they cannot be seized. A modern idiom may be to compare them to gnats to be swatted away only to return.

So, it is clear that the Semitic idiom “thorn in the flesh/side/eye” refers to anoying people left to live, and cause trouble, among the saints. In fact, Paul's reference is a double insult. At once, a reference to troublemakers, and also a belittling comparison to a minor annoyance.

So, who was Paul’s thorn left among the Corinthians to torment them?

According to Acts 18:1-17, Paul visited Corinth on his second missionary journey and established a church there about AD 50. About five years later, in about AD 55, while in Ephesus, Paul heard of serious problems within the Corinthian church from “Chloe's people" and wrote a letter of instruction to them. He referred to this "previous letter" in 1 Corinthians 5:9. This “previous letter” no longer exists (perhaps, but at least one non-conanical version makes the claim).

Later, Paul was visited in Ephesus by Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (I Cor. 16:17), friends of Chloe of Corinth. On the basis of a second letter brought by them, and other information that reached him in Ephesus about problems in the church, Paul wrote what is now called 1 Corinthians in about A.D. 55 and sent it to Corinth via Timothy (I Cor. 4:17).

This letter, like the “previous” one was not successful and the situation grew worse. In fact, it seems to have stimulated rebellion against Paul's authority. In response Paul may have traveled to Corinth and certainly wrote a third letter to the Corinthians "out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears." This third letter is referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4, 9, and 7:8, 12. The text of this third letter is almost certainly the last four chapters (10 – 13) of 2 Corinthians, in which he refers to his principal tormenter as a “a thorn in my flesh; a messenger of Satan”

Titus visited Corinth with this "severe letter" in an attempt to reconcile the situation. Paul, in the mean time, was so anxious to hear from Titus that he left Ephesus traveling north to Troas seeking him (2 Cor. 2:13; 7:5, 13). Somewhere in Macedonia, probably Philippi, Paul received the good news from Titus of a change in attitude in the Corinthian church. The leader of rebellion, the “thorn in (Paul’s) flesh” had been rejected and disciplined. The church was once again open to Paul's counsel and desirous of his friendship.

Paul responded by writing what is now called the first 9 chapters of 2 Corinthians around A.D. 56 or 57. He eventually made a final visit to Corinth (Acts 20:1-3) during which he solidified his relationship with the church.

Because the “sorrowful letter” has been appended to 2 Corinthians, it has been mistakenly understood to have included the reference to some physical malady. However, if we understand this letter to have been written before the reconciliation, it is clear that the “thorn in the flesh” of Paul is his chief (yet unnamed) tormenter and opponent who was allowed to dwell (as all of Israel’s enemies) among the saints to “buffet” them.


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