What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?

Q.  What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh“?  I’ve heard some people say it was a disease he couldn’t recover from.  But I’ve heard other people say this isn’t right because Paul had the gift of healing and could have healed any sickness he had, so we need to take him literally when he calls it “a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  In other words, these people say it was a demon that was harassing him that he couldn’t make go away.  Which is right?

I think the first understanding, that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a disease he couldn’t recover from, is more likely the correct one.

We know that Paul suffered from a disease at some point in his ministry because he wrote to the Galatians, “It was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.”  (“Illness” here is astheneia in Greek, literally “weakness.”) This was most likely some disease of the eyes, because Paul goes on to say, recalling the Galatians’ love and concern for him at this time, “If you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

There’s a further suggestion that Paul had eye trouble at the end of Galatians. Paul authenticates the letter, which he has been dictating to a scribe, by adding some things in his own handwriting, and he begins by saying, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand,” as if he had difficulty seeing.

Some have actually speculated that Paul suffered from chronic bacterial conjunctivitis, a recurring infection of the lining of the eye (a common ailment in the time when he lived) that would have made it difficult for him to see. It would also have affected his appearance, making his eyes red and causing them to discharge fluid or mucus.  Perhaps this is why Paul also told the Galatians, as he recalled their earlier care, “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.”  There was something embarrassing about Paul’s condition that the Galatians overlooked in love.

All of this background helps make sense of what Paul says about his “thorn in the flesh” as he defends his credentials to the Corinthians, at the demand of the self-styled “super-apostles” who had infiltrated the church there.  Paul describes some amazing visions he had, but then explains he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to “keep me from becoming conceited” because of these “surpassingly great revelations.”  An unsightly disease of the eyes would be an ironically appropriate means of keeping a person from boasting about visions they’d had.

After explaining that he’d asked the Lord to take this “thorn” away from him, but that God had told him in response, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” Paul says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me.”  “Weakness” here is astheneia, the same word Paul used to describe his “illness” to the Galatians.

Paul also notes, earlier in this section, that the super-apostles were saying about him, “In person he is unimpressive,” literally “the appearance of his body is weak” (asthenos).  Such language about “weakness” seems more appropriate for describing the effects of a disease like chronic conjunctivitis than the frustrations of persistent spiritual harassment.

Even though Paul had the gift of healing, this didn’t mean that God always chose to heal everyone through him.  For example, Paul tells Timothy at the end of his second letter, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.”  The fact that Paul had to leave this valuable co-worker behind shows that he couldn’t heal everybody, and that would include himself.

And so when Paul describes his illness as a “messenger of Satan,” he most likely uses this language not because his “thorn in the flesh” was a harassing demon, but to indicate that God is not the creator or source of sickness and disease. These things are instead the result of sin and evil in the world.

We’re promised that when God renews the heavens and the earth, there will be no more sickness or pain.  But in the meantime, Paul’s experience with his “thorn in the flesh” shows us that God can redeem even these features of our fallen world to make our character more Christ-like and to lead us to rely more on the sufficiency of his grace.

(When I discuss Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I ask, “Do you have a physical ‘weakness’ that you wish God would take away? If so, given what Paul writes here, could this weakness actually be protecting you from something and permitting God’s power to be seen more clearly in you?”  What would you say in response to that question?)

The apostle Paul, 5th-Century Ceiling mosaic, Archepiscopal Chapel of St. Andrew, Ravenna, Italy. (Do the large eyes reflect some ancient tradition about Paul’s appearance?)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

6 thoughts on “What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?”

  1. Though I do believe that the best explanation of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is the one you laid out concerning his eyesight I have also heard the two following explanations.

    The first revolves around the term “messenger of Satan”. Basically the argument is that the Greek word for “messenger” is only used elsewhere in the New Testament for people or angels and in light of that, Pauls thorn in the flesh could have been some Gnostic or Jewish teacher that followed Paul trying to undo his work among the churches.

    The second explanation I’ve heard is that Paul had struggles with sexual temptations, not being married, and that his “thorn” in the “flesh” was simply a euphemism for his ever-present maleness.

    Do you think there is any merit to either?

    1. Thank you for your question, which provides the opportunity to address a couple of other interpretations of this passage.

      For two reasons, I think it’s unlikely that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a rival teacher who followed him around trying to undo his work. First, we have no record or suggestion of this elsewhere in the Bible, as we do for an eye disease. It’s true that people who came after Paul brought different teachings into many of the areas where he worked; that’s why he had to defend himself to the Corinthians and write about a “thorn in the flesh” in the first place. But there doesn’t seem to have been one person in particular who dogged Paul’s footsteps everywhere he went. The second reason for not accepting this interpretation is that its claim is not correct that the Greek word angelos, for messenger, is used only of angels and humans, never of demons. For example, the gospel of Matthew refers to “the devil and his angels,” and Paul actually writes in Second Corinthians, shortly before talking about his “thorn in the flesh,” that “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.”

      I also don’t think that recurrent sexual temptations were Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” He says that this “thorn” was “given” to him, apparently around the time of his extraordinary visions, specifically to prevent him from becoming proud. I doubt that Paul would say that God had “given” temptations to him or to anyone else. James explains that God does not tempt anyone. We can imagine that Paul had his struggles like any man, but his letters provide an encouraging and hopeful testimony of experiencing the power of God to transform motivations and overcome sin: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” I don’t think Paul could write about such things if he hadn’t experienced them himself, and his letters make clear that God wants every follower of Jesus to experience the same kind of freedom in Christ. So it’s quite unlikely that God would have consigned Paul to strong and recurring temptations, supposedly for his spiritual benefit.

  2. I personally do not believe that the thorn in his flesh was any physical condition. First, it is.important to take into consideration the fact that God had already healed Paul of his eyesight (after he blinded him.) What God does is always perfect, his eyesight would have been.better than.it was.before! From.the.very beginning the Lord had.already established that Paul.should suffer persecution because he once persecuted the church. But concerning the specific reference to.the thorn in his flesh, remember that a lot.of references in the.New testament are from the Old. Numbers 33:55, “..it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides” also mentions a thorn in the side, and in that case it is.clear that it is a metaphor for someone who comes against you. Notice that the verse also says “irritants in your eyes” which covers what you were saying about Paul’s comments about his eyes. It also makes sense that Paul did not need to explain what the thorn was, this metaphor may have been used often in reference to adversity the same way we say “pain in the behind” today.

    I believe that it is God’s will for us to be healed. To say otherwise, would be to accept only half of the sacrifice made for us on the cross. 1 Peter 2:24 says ” He bore our sins in his own.body on the tree so that we,being dead to sins, should live to righteousness. By his stripes we were healed.” Salvation and healing go hand and hand. Accepting the sacrific of Jesus Christ is to also accept the healing. Using the thorn in Paul’s flesh that God didn’t remove to say that it is a disease He did not heal, is to suggest that it may not be God’s will for us to be healed. Suggesting this would be crippling to our faith. Time and time again we are reminded that God is our healer, “I am the Lord who heals you.” Never once did Jesus turn anyone away for healing, and if it is true that He is the same today, tomorrow and always then I don’t think he would have started denying healing with Paul.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement with this post. However, I personally believe that the biblical picture of sickness and healing is a bit more complicated than the idea that God will always heal everyone. For example, Paul had to tell Timothy in his second epistle, “I left Trophimus sick in Miletus,” even though God had used Paul to heal many other people in powerful ways. But I do share your belief that God can and does still heal today–just not always, for reasons that often remain a mystery.

  3. why then if it was an illness or his eyesight why would he refer to it as a temptation in the flesh and not a sickness or disease?

    1. Paul actually never refers to his “thorn in the flesh” as a “temptation.” He calls it a “weakness,” which would fit a bodily ailment. And while he also calls it a “messenger of Satan,” I argue in this post that “he most likely uses this language not because his ‘thorn in the flesh’ was a harassing demon, but to indicate that God is not the creator or source of sickness and disease. These things are instead the result of sin and evil in the world.” I also say in my post that “Paul’s experience with his ‘thorn in the flesh’ shows us that God can redeem even these features of our fallen world to make our character more Christ-like and to lead us to rely more on the sufficiency of his grace.”

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