Thorn in the Flesh- 2 Corinthians 12:7

In our previous post, we examined Paul’s boasting in his accomplishments and experiences , and how this boasting made him so uncomfortable he referred to himself almost like someone else. It was necessary for him to boast in this manner to deal with false apostles who were bringing strife and division within the church. He boasts in revelations he received which no one else had, hearing and understanding things no one else has. But in receiving this kind of revelation he finds there is a danger, and the danger is that he may become “conceited”. The Greek word conceited here is hyperairo- to raise up over or above, and it refers here to Paul seeing himself as above all others, becoming proud and seeing himself as better than others because of what the Lord revealed to him. But the Lord here “gives” Paul something in order to keep this from happening. The Greek term “give” here is didomi- to give as a gift. God gave Paul a gift to keep him humble, and the gift he was given was a “thorn”. We normally have a hard time conceiving of something like a thorn being a “gift”, and we will look closely at verse 7 in order to try and see just what form this thorn took and how it might keep Paul from raising himself up above others. Many suggestions have been proposed as to just what this thorn was, mainly dealing with a physical affliction of some kind (such as poor eyesight, epilepsy, malaria, hunchback, sexual frustration, etc.). This comes from interpreting the word “flesh” here literally, as referring to the physical body. The Greek word flesh here is sarx, which Paul normally does not use to refer to physical flesh (he normally uses the Greek soma for that) but which Paul normally uses metaphorically to refer to our human “fallenness”, our old pre-salvation ways of thinking, speaking and behaving. It is our contention that this is how Paul is using the term flesh here, and that the thorn in the flesh here is not something but someone. There are several reasons for this, the first of which is the word thorn itself, which is the Greek word skolops, which can mean a “splinter, thorn or stake”, and more importantly always refers to an irritation or annoyance, never to an illness in Greek literature. The second reason is that Paul, as a former Jewish rabbi, would be very well versed in the Old Testament scriptures, and the expression “thorn in your side” is used several times in the Old Testament (Numbers 33:55, Joshua 23:13, Judges 2:2-3) in reference to people as a thorn in the side. The third reason is Paul’s use of the dative case here for this expression, of which the Syntax of the Greek New Testament says “it should be noted that the dative is ordinarily used in connection with persons rather than things”. The fourth reason is the context of the passage itself, in which Paul is discussing his dealings with the “super-apostles”, with people and not health issues. The fifth is his use of the phrase “a messenger of Satan” to describe this thorn. His use of the term messenger in reference to this thorn also points to the likeliness of this thorn being other persons, for a messenger is normally a person. This is also confirmed by Paul’s own use of this phrase to describe the false apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15. So we conclude that the thorn was actually the false apostles, who were to Paul a “thorn in my flesh”, with flesh not being used physically here but metaphorically. So what “flesh” does Paul refer to here? We have already asserted that our flesh refers to our “old ways”, and Paul himself gives us a description of his “flesh” in Philippians 3:4-6. There he describes his former way of life in Judaism, how he focused on his accomplishments and experiences and how those accomplishments and experiences made himself raise himself up above others, which he tells us in Galatians 1:14 caused him to “advance beyond his contemporaries”. Paul’s “flesh”, his old ways, consisted of boasting in his accomplishments and experiences to elevate himself above others. This is exactly what Paul is required to do in order to deal with these false apostles, and would explain why having to do this made Paul so profoundly uncomfortable that he would in effect refer to himself as someone else. So the thorn for Paul then most likely refers to these false teachers he dealt with, finding it necessary to boast in his accomplishments and experiences to deal with them as needed. This necessary boasting brought up the very real possibility of Paul’s “flesh”, his former ways, being “resurrected”, and this makes him very uncomfortable, for he realizes in this the very real possibility of his former ways coming back to haunt him, thus seeing his need for a “thorn”. This is the reason he could describe this thorn as a “gift”, how an annoyance or irritation could be for his good. Having seen the nature of this thorn, our next post will examine more thoroughly the idea of the goodness of this thorn.

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