THE MEANING OF “A THORN IN THE FLESH”
55 But if you will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass, that those that you let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns in your sides, and shall vex you in the land in which you dwell.
56 Furthermore it shall come to pass, that I shall do to you, as I thought to do to them.
JOSHUA 23:11-13 (Joshua)
11 Take good heed therefore to yourselves, that you love the LORD your God,
12 Else if you do in any way go back, and cling to the remnant of these nations, even these that remain among you, and shall make marriages with them, and go in to them, and they to you;
13 Know for a certainty that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations 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 the LORD your God has given you.
2 And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall throw down their altars: but you have not obeyed my voice: why have you done this?
3 Therefore 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 to you.
24 And there shall be no more a pricking brier to the house of Israel, nor any of grieving thorn of all that are round about them, that despised them; and they shall know that I am the Lord GOD.
Note: Why did Paul use such an expression as “a thorn in the flesh,” (2 Corinthians 12:7) when describing his affliction to the Corinthians? If he was sick, why didn’t he say that he was sick? He said that Epaphroditus was sick (Philippians 2:26), and he also said that Trophimus was sick (2 Timothy 4:20). So if a “thorn in the flesh” refers to sickness, why didn’t Paul say that Epaphroditus had a “thorn in the flesh”? Why didn’t he say that Trophimus had a “thorn in the flesh”? Where in the bible does it ever record anyone being healed of a “thorn in the flesh”? When people were sick or diseased, doesn’t the bible state it plainly everywhere? God does not try to hide, or disguise the fact that Christians get sick, but rather set gifts of healing in the church (1 Corinthians 12:9), and ordained that the prayer of faith would heal the sick (James 5:15). Paul wasn’t trying to confuse the Corinthians by referring to his affliction as a “thorn in the flesh”, but he used terminology from the Old Testament, which explained his situation very well. He said that he believed, “all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:” (Acts 24:14), so he knew what these scriptures meant, and they would also be available to the Corinthians too. When the Israelites went into the promised land, they were told to destroy their enemies completely, and often they did (Numbers 21:35; Deuteronomy 2:33-34; Joshua 6:21; 8:24), but when they did not obey, and
mixed with them, then they would vex them, and come back and persecute them in times of weakness. This situation still exists today with Israel, particularly with those nations around them who are possessors of the original land given to Joshua (Joshua 1:4). Notice that a “thorn” always refers to people:
(Numbers 33:55) “those which you let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes, and thorns1 in your sides, and shall vex you in the land in which you dwell.”
(Joshua 23:13) “these nations … they shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges in your sides, and thorns1 in your eyes,”
(Judges 2:2-3) “the inhabitants of this land; … they shall be as thorns in your sides,”
(Ezekiel 28:24) “there shall be no more a pricking brier … nor any of grieving thorn2 of all that are round about them, that despised them;”
In this last scripture, the word translated thorn2 (Hb. קוֹץ , Htr. qôts) is similarly translated elsewhere also. The fact that it does refer literally to a thorn is evident by its use everywhere. The word translated thorns1 (Hb. צְנִנִים , Htr. tsenînîm) only occurs twice in the Old Testament (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13). In two of these scriptures Numbers 33:55; Ezekiel 28:24) the word used in the Septuagint (Gtr. skolops) to translate the Hebrew word “qôts”, is the same word used by Paul when he referred to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). This shows us that this was exactly what Paul was referring to. Nowhere in scripture does a “thorn” ever refer to a sickness, or disease, or physical infirmity, but only to people who were a nuisance, or harassment. So why then would Paul ever use it in any other context? The answer is that he wouldn’t. Paul used this terminology to convey to the Corinthians the exact nature of his affliction, just like we might refer to somebody who troubles us today as “a pain in the neck”. Even though the Israelites suffered their “thorn” through disobedience, while Paul’s was for his own safeguard against self exaltation, it does not alter the fact that a “thorn” refers to people who persecuted in both cases. Strictly speaking we could say that Paul’s “thorn” was spiritually the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him, and physically the people who he used to persecute Paul. But to interpret a “thorn in the flesh” as a sickness, or physical infirmity, is a subtle ploy of the devil to steal the faith of ignorant Christians and keep them sick. Once we know that Paul’s “thorn” was not a sickness, the devil will never be able to use it to stop us from getting healed. However, we now need to answer the question, “If a thorn in the flesh means persecution, why doesn’t the bible say that other Christians had a thorn in the flesh”? because we have all been promised persecution. The answer is that Paul’s persecution was excessive in nature (2 Corinthians 11:23-25), and though many Christians were persecuted, some even to death (Acts 7:54-60), Paul’s was over a prolonged period. His attitude was “I am more;”, and he faced “deaths often.” (2 Corinthians 11:23). There is no evidence that anyone else had such prolonged and severe persecution through an evil angel being assigned against them individually. Why else would Jesus have a crown of thorns put on his head (Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17) if it was not to symbolize that he is the king of all those who are persecuted?
Tradition has taught that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some type of physical ailment or sickness. If you will take time to study the Word, you will find that this is not true. Paul clearly states in II Corinthians 12:7 that because of the abundance of revelations he had received, he was given a thorn in the flesh and the thorn was “a messenger of Satan.” The Greek word translated as messenger always refers to someone who is sent and denotes a definite personality.
This same word for messenger is translated in other verses of the New Testament as “angel.” Angels, as God’s messengers, are created beings with personalites. Satan’s messengers would be in the same category. In contrast, sickness is not a personality, nor a messenger.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a wicked spirit or angel sent by Satan to buffet him. Buffet means to strike repeatedly. God does not send wicked spirits against people in the Body of Christ for any reason (James 1:13). He sent the Holy Spirit and has given us His Word, which is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness to discipline and guide us (see John 16:13; II Timothy 3:16-17).
The phrase “thorn in the flesh” is a figure of speech or illustration. It is similar to calling someone who irritates us “a pain in the neck.” Likewise, Paul’s thorn was an evil angel who caused him great irritation, but not with sickness or disease. In II Corinthians 11:24-26, Paul lists what some of these “irritations” were – being imprisoned, stoned, beaten, shipwrecked and attacked by angry mobs.
Other examples of the persecutions Paul suffered are found in Acts 13:45, 50 and Acts 14:5-7, 19-20. The people in these verses were instruments used by the source of persecution – the messenger of Satan.
This evil angel was assigned to Paul for one reason – to stop the Word from being preached. Wherever Paul went, the messenger of Satan worked to incite the people against him. All the persecutions that Paul suffered were Satan’s attempt to steal the Word from him (see Mark 4:14-20).
Satan will see to it that no believer is exalted above the measure of the Word that actually lives in him. The Word that is alive in your heart is the word on which you steadfastly act. You will have to stand in faith for every word of revelation knowledge you receive.
Many have used Galatians 4:13 to support their traditional teaching that Paul’s thorn was sickness or disease: “You know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first.” The Greek word for infirmities means “want of strength; weakness, indicating inability to produce results.” This translation is used in I Corinthians 2:3: “And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling.” Like many believers, when Paul first started ministering, he never felt he had the natural ability to do the job God called him to do.
But the next verse goes on to tell us he was obedient anyway and the Holy Spirit made up the difference with a demonstration of His power: “And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Corinthians 2:4). Paul’s infirmity or weakness of the flesh provided an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to do a mighty work.
That’s why Paul could say, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities [lack of strength], that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities [weakness], in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10). Our weakness is no longer a problem once we learn to rely on the Holy Spirit’s power.
God had given Paul the revelation of the authority of the believer. Paul had authority over Satan in the Name of Jesus – just as you do. But he had to enforce his authority by directly commanding the evil spirit to desist in his maneuvers against him. However, in this instance, Paul sought deliverance from the Lord instead.
“For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me” (II Corinthians 12:8). If you want results, do not ask God to deal with the devil for you. Just as God told Moses to drive out the inhabitants of the land (Numbers 33:52), He instructs you to drive out the demons or evil spirits (Mark 16:17). “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
When Paul asked the Lord to make this messenger of Satan depart from him, the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). He did not say that the messenger would not depart. He was saying to Paul, “My favor is enough. For when you do not have the ability to humanly overcome, you have My Name to stop Satan’s attack and cast out the devil.”
The Greek word dunamis, which is translated strength in this verse, can also be translated as power. We get our English words dynamite and dynamo from it. It is the same word Jesus used in Acts 1:8 when He said, “Ye shall receive power [dunamis], after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you.” Weymouth’s translation of II Corinthians 12:9 reads, “My grace suffices for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (The New Testament in Modern Speech). This is the opposite of the traditional teaching that Paul had no victory over the thorn in the flesh.
Paul lived to be an old man and then said that he could not decide whether to stay here or to go be with the Lord (Philippians 1:22-24). He needed to stay here for the Church’s sake, but he yearned to go be with Jesus. He did not leave this world until he and the Lord were ready. This is not the description of a man who lived with sickness and disease.
Satan’s angel, the thorn in the flesh, could gain no victory over Paul through adverse circumstances because the power of Christ rested on him. “I have learned in any and all circumstances, the secret of facing every situation…” (Philippians 4:12, The Amplified Bible). He revealed this secret in the next verse: “I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me – I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me.”
When Paul in himself was weak, Paul in Christ was strong. Satan’s angel, the thorn in the flesh that we have heard so much about, never did overcome Paul and the power of God. Satan could do no more than irritate or annoy him like a thorn in his flesh – a temporary discomfort which could be removed. Paul was a covenant man; he ran the race and won. He knew his authority as a believer. He knew the shield of faith would quench all the fiery darts of the wicked (Ephesians 6:16). When he began using his faith, the Lord was able to deliver him out of all the afflictions and persecutions (II Timothy 3:10-11).
Paul’s thorn in the flesh is a tradition that Satan has used to deceive and rob many people. Using it as an excuse, tradition says that God gets glory from sickness because the world sees how marvelously the Christian bears pain and agony. Tradition never adds up to the right answer – anyone knows that the world has all the pain and agony it can stand. The world wants a way out of sickness, not another way into it.
If we allow the traditions of men to usurp authority over God’s Word, we will be helpless in the face of sickness. God will be able to do nothing for us, because we have made the Word “of none effect” in our lives (Matthew 15:6).
Use the following confession to declare your freedom from ineffective religious traditions and walk in the power of God’s Word instead.
Your Word is Truth, O Lord. It is an incorruptible seed which I plant in my heart. I believe the Word has been planted in good ground and that I receive a mighty harvest.
I do not receive the ineffectual traditions of religion or the world which nullify the Word. I root out every perverse doctrine. I resist the powers of darkness that come to steal the Word of God.
The Word reveals Your will and I set myself in agreement with it. I renew my mind daily with Your Word in order to acquaint myself more intimately with You and to know Your ways. As Your Word becomes established in my heart, I become rooted and grounded in the Truth. In Jesus’ Name, amen.