Thorn in the flesh

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 22-minute message. Or watch the video on YouTube. The whole Eucharist service is available (59 minutes), and the message starts at 14 minutes.

What is Paul’s thorn?

  • Our English translation ‘thorn’ could be a thorn/splinter, or a stake/spike/pole, or anything pointed – differing views on which is more likely – a stake implies something shattering and devastating, while a thorn implies a low grade but constant irritation/infection
  • Could be ‘in the flesh’ or ‘for the flesh’, i.e. ‘for the inconvenience of the flesh’
  • ‘Flesh’ can mean the physical body, in which case the thorn would be some physical malady, e.g., his poor eyesight, possible epilepsy, maybe malaria, migraines. Paul seems generally strong, resilient, tough, so a physical ailment seems unlikely.
  • Paul’s appearance – some disfigurement that made him ugly.
  • Flesh also means our human nature, particularly in Paul’s writings, so this could be some aspect of his human nature, mostly probably pride.
  • ‘Sins of the flesh’ are almost always understood to be sexual sins, so this could be a sexual sin or temptation that Paul grappled with. But it would not have to be so narrowly defined – it could refer to any and all sins or temptations to sin.
  • It could the persecutions Paul suffered – the repeated attacks on his ministry, which could well have felt like a thorn in the flesh. Numbers 33:55 has a parallel: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.”
  • The thorn as a ‘messenger of Satan’ might best support the thorn as persecution. Other passages speak of Satan impeding God’s work: 1 Thes 2:18 – “For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.”
  • “To torment [or buffet] me” suggests this was a long-term issue, not just a temporary one. The Greek word means “to strike a blow with the fist” or “to maltreat” in a way that brings shame, humiliation and indignation. Jesus was himself humiliated by the beatings he endured before the crucifixion.
  • He later refers to his ‘weaknesses’ – it the thorn the weakness, or does the thorn cause weakness?
  • We really don’t know what the thorn was and whether it was a thorn or a stake. If it was important that we know, Paul would presumably have told us. Let’s consider than any and all of these could have been his thorn or stake, and that for us, it can be any or all or others.

How did Paul handle or make sense of his thorn?

  • Paul prayed for its removal, three times, but it was not removed. God declined his repeated request. God does not always give us what we want.
  • But the response he got from God seems to inspire him, not discourage him.
  • God’s response – ‘he said to me’ – is in the perfect tense, it is a past tense that is definitive – what God said was definitive at the time, and remains definitive in the future, that “God’s grace is sufficient”. It was almost tattooed on his hands.
  • He is unworthy, unnecessary, dispensable = our human condition
  • Yet, God chooses to work with, in and through him because God chooses to do so = grace
  • The more dependent he is on God (i.e. the weaker he is) the more God is free to shape and use him (i.e. grace) and so he ‘boasts’ and ‘delights’ in his weakness, so that Christ’s power will rest on him. ‘Rest on him’ is shekinah in Hebrew: literally, “may pitch his tent upon me” or “may tabernacle on him”
  • This is not a masochistic spirituality! It is a recognition that Christ can and does work in and through his frailties and keeps at bay any pride/boasting: Any delight Paul gains is ‘for the sake of Christ’, not for the challenges themselves.
  • ‘Then I am strong’ implies ‘strong in the Lord’, not ‘strong in myself’. He is ‘weak in himself, but strong in the Lord’.
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