For years the Lord has been done a terrible disservice over the issue of Paul’s complaint about the thorn in his flesh, and it’s time to set the record straight. If you’ve been taught that “My Grace is sufficient for you” was the Lord’s excuse for not healing Paul, then pay close attention. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then get ready for a great example of how folks distort the meaning of Scripture—either to satisfy their pre-conceived notions or justify their lack of faith.
Jack’s note from 2008: (This is an update of an article I first published in 1999. I’ve received several emails lately questioning the views I expressed in my study entitled O You Of Little Faith. In each of them, a misinterpretation of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was used to support the theory that God sometimes refuses to heal us when we ask. Sadly, this misinterpretation is all too common among Christians today. I’ve updated and expanded the article and offer it in response to these questions. Be blessed.)
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Before we look at the problem, let’s review the popular interpretation. According to some, Paul’s eyesight was permanently damaged when he was blinded on the Damascus Road. Supposedly, this caused a disease of the eye common to the day, especially around Damascus. Its name was ophthalmia, and the visible symptom was a stream of pus running out of the eyes and down the face. It was nearly as repugnant as leprosy. The popular interpretation holds that this is the thorn in his flesh Paul was referring to when he asked the Lord for healing three times and was refused.
The “lesson” of this interpretation is that even the great Paul wasn’t healed when he asked and that the Lord had actually given him this disease to help him overcome his pride. We’re to understand that God gives us disease (and misfortune as well) to help us overcome our sins and that we shouldn’t ask for healing from something the Lord gave us for that purpose. If we do ask and don’t get healed, it’s because the Lord is dealing with us. All this is wrapped up in the Father’s love, saying that He’s working for our good in spite of our selfish desires.
So what’s wrong with that view? Well, aside from the fact that the Lord handled our sin problem at the cross and now sees us as being without any imperfection (2 Cor. 5:21), and that it comes perilously close to the Eastern notion of karma, the context makes it ridiculous, and the translation is flawed.
What’s The Context?
Just imagine you’re the Creator of the universe. Out of your boundless love, you’ve given the life of your Son to redeem your creation from its bondage to sin, and you’ve gone to great lengths to recruit someone to go around telling people about it so they can be saved. You want this person to prove that you’re much greater than all their pagan gods so you bring him right up to your very throne and show him things no other man has ever seen so He can speak with authority. (2 Cor. 12:2-4) And you empower him to heal them from their diseases (Acts 19:11-12) and even raise some of them from the dead (Acts 20:7-12).
But every time he speaks of your wonderful love and miraculous power, he has to stand there with pus running out of both eyes and explain that you gave him this disease and won’t heal him because you’re afraid he’ll become too proud. Would he have a credibility problem? I’d say so.
Now let’s learn what the passage really says. The word for thorn literally means a pointed stake and recalls a situation inJudges 2 when the Israelites failed to rid the land of all its previous inhabitants as God had commanded (Deut. 20:16-18). Because of their failure to obey Him, The Angel of the Lord declared that these people would become perpetual enemies to oppose the Israelite’s physically and distract them spiritually. He then coined the phrase “thorn in your sides” to symbolize their physical and spiritual opposition. From that day to this, these people have inflicted incredible physical abuse upon God’s people.
The word torment actually means to rap with the fist, or buffet. It also comes from a root meaning to physically punish.
In both these words, there’s a clear implication of physical attack. So the real story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh goes more like this. Everywhere Paul went he was physically abused. Hear his own account from 2 Cor. 11:23-26:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.”
Is He Dead Yet?
I urge you to study these events carefully in Acts. For example, in Philippi, Paul and Silas were stripped and severely beaten with rods. The flesh on their backs was bruised and bleeding, and the pain was incredible, but they were taken to prison without medical attention, their hands and feet secured in stocks, forcing them to sit in an upright position, making sleep virtually impossible even if the pain would have allowed it.
But at midnight they were heard singing hymns of praise, and the doors of the prison broke open, freeing them. They went to the home of the jailer, who washed and fed them. The miracles he had seen caused his whole family to be saved that night. The next morning when they were officially released, they walked 30 miles to Amphipolis having received no medical treatment and having had no recovery time, not even a night’s sleep. (Acts 16:22-40) The Lord had healed them.
But an earlier incident in Lystra is perhaps the most dramatic. A group of angry Jews from Antioch and Iconium had followed Paul to Lystra. When they caught up with him, they took up stones and stoned him. (Acts 14:19-20) Remember, stoning was the Jewish method of execution. It consisted of immobilizing a person, sometimes by burying him up to his waist, and then hurling rocks at his head and upper body until he died.
Believing they had been successful and that Paul was dead, they dragged his body outside the city and left it there for the wild dogs to eat. But the believers gathered around him and prayed. Paul got up and went back into the city with them. The next day he walked 25 miles to Derbe. It’s like walking home from your execution; it just doesn’t happen.
These are incredible examples of God’s miraculous power. Contrary to the popular interpretation, Paul was physically healed by the grace of God over and over again. He was rescued from the open sea and even raised from the dead. It was a great testimony of God’s strength perfected in Paul’s weakness.
The idea that God doesn’t heal people anymore can’t be supported by this or any other scripture. The real lesson here is that while God refused to eliminate the resistance to Paul’s ministry, He promised to see him through it successfully if Paul would walk in faith down the path God had set before him. Imagine the faith Paul must have had, going into those towns knowing his enemies were waiting and would try to stop him again. But each time it happened, and each time God healed him, his faith was strengthened, God’s glory was increased, and the Gospel was spread.
In the conquest of the Promised Land, God could have simply struck all of Israel’s enemies dead, but instead, He required Israel to fight, telling them in advance that they would achieve victory. The only defeat they suffered was when they disobeyed, and as soon as they confessed He gave them that victory too. (Joshua 7-8)
Jesus said that in this world we will have trials, but to take heart because He has overcome the world. (John 16:33) What He meant by that is He may not choose to deliver you from the trials you face in this world, but He will never leave you or forsake you as you go through them, and given the chance, He will miraculously restore you to show forth His glory. The only reason Paul performed greater miracles than we do is because he had bigger faith. The only reason he had bigger faith is because he fought bigger battles. Selah 10-18-08