There are some doctrines so steeped in tradition that seeing it any other way takes a concerted effort. Usually most won’t ever change a tradition and others will only change when there’s no where else to turn. I’m speaking primarily on healing, but it goes for any teaching. Only when life or death hangs in the balance will some get serious enough to examine God’s word to get answers; to find out what God’s perfect will is and how to get it into their life. Sometimes they wait to long and don’t have time to get to the place where they have no doubt about God’s willingness to heal (or whatever).
We can see Abraham struggle with doubt about God’s promise. God had promised to make Abraham a “great nation.” Abraham believed God and the proof is that Abraham left his home for a place he didn’t even know where he was going (Genesis 12:1-7; Hebrews 11:8). Later Abraham questioned God and said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” (Genesis 15:2). Abraham was childless, yet God had promised to make Abraham a great nation. Abraham had come to a place, at about eighty-five years old, that his servant was going to be the one to be his inheritor. So what did Abraham do? He asked God about it. For us that translates into spending time in the Word and prayer to find out the answers we need. The point I want to get across is that we may believe God but still have a nagging question in the back of our mind that’s sabotaging our faith and ability to receive. “Paul’s thorn” is one such stumbling block for some.
Let’s look at the scripture about Paul’s thorn.
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecution, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I are strong” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
First, Paul never once mentioned sickness as being his thorn in the flesh. He said that it was a “messenger of Satan to buffet me.” Paul said that the messenger of Satan was buffetting him with infimities, reproaches, needs, persecution and distress. Just a cursory look at Paul’s life will reveal the buffeting he overcame: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they the seed of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? — I speak as a fool — I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prison more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I as stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:22-28).
I’d say that Paul was indeed buffeted. The Greek word “buffet” means to “rap with the fist.” Everywhere Paul went the satanic spirit that was sent to buffet him stirred up trouble. The demonic spirit was attempting to get Paul to quit. If Paul was to quit, the revelations that God gave Paul would never have been revealed to us (or at least God would have had to find someone else). Paul’s letters in the New Testament comprise most of the New Testament revelation: what Christ did on the cross, the body of Christ (the church), who we are in Christ, the grace of God, the righteousness of God by faith in Christ, and Gentiles being grafted into Israel (Romans 11).
Here’s a thought to consider: God gave Paul the revelations, if Paul was lifting himself up in pride, why would God continue to give Paul the revelations. God wouldn’t any more than He would you or me. To be “lifted up above measure” can mean to be prideful or it can mean to be lifted up and put over the top. The revelations that God gave Paul, and consequently to us, gives us the ability to overcome the things in this life. Jesus gave us instruction in the book of Revelation to “overcome” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). Apparently, Jesus thinks it’s our responsibility to overcome life’s problems with His help. How are we to do that? Through the abundance of revelations of His word. “This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 John 5:4); “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
Thorns in the Bible have been used to describe persecution and affliction from unbelievers before (Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13). Satan’s messenger was sent to stir up trouble for Paul. We have to overcome just as Paul did. We do this just like Paul did: God’s grace is sufficient for us.
Grace (God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense)
Jesus told Paul that His grace was sufficient to overcome the obstacles he faced. God’s grace is revealed in all that God did for us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We need to know how to bring God’s grace into our lives for it to work for us. Salvation is available for everyone, Jesus paid the price, but not everyone is saved. Why? Because they haven’t put God’s grace into effect for salvation. To bring God’s grace into our lives, we need to first know what is available. Then we need to do what Jesus told Paul to do: “My grace is sufficient for you, Paul. Put it into practice.”
How do we put into practice and receive the grace of God into our lives? “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2; emphasis mine). We recieve the grace of God with our faith: we believe and we act on what we believe. That’s how we got born again. We heard the Word and acted on it by asking Jesus to come into our life.
How did Paul overcome his thorns? There’s no specific explanation. But we know that Paul succeeded. He had to use his faith, just like we have to use our faith. “This is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith” (1 John 5:4). It’s not a matter of copying Paul or your favorite minister, it’s a matter of fellowshipping with God and finding out what He wants us to do.
What About Paul’s Eye Disease?
What about Paul’s eye disease? He didn’t have one. People read Galatians 6:11 (“See with what large letters I have written to you with my own hand!”) and declare that Paul’s thorn was bad eyesight. Hmmm?
First Paul never mentioned an eye infirmity in any of his writtings. The scripture says, “By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established” (Matthew 18:16; Deuteronomy 19:15).
Second, Paul knew how to get healed. We see that when he was bitten by a deadly snake on the island of Malta (Acts 28:1-4). Paul had a revelation of the grace of God that by the stripes of Jesus we were healed (1 Peter 2:24). Paul overcame even the deadly poison of a snake. Are you there yet?
Third, read what Paul said in Galatians 6:17: “From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” What did he mean by that? Well, what happened when Paul was in the region of Galatia? Read, “Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (Acts 14:19). I’ve seen people stoned. It’s not pretty. There’s no doubt that Paul was severely hurt. What marks were in his body? Scars from stoning, and stripes, and beatings. Could swollen eyes cause Paul to write in larger than normal letters. Of course. It could also mean that Paul was writing them a large letter. Nevertheless, we never find Paul having an incurable illness. We have to add that in order to make a specific doctrine fit our agenda.
Just before Paul’s stoning, God healed a man through Paul’s ministry. Paul knew how to cooperate with God’s grace.
To sum it up: Paul’s thorn was persecution and affliction, brought about by a “messenger of Satan to buffet” him. But even in persecution and affliction God’s grace is sufficient for us. Even if Paul had an eye disease, Jesus told him that His Grace was sufficient to heal it for, “Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknessess” (Matthew 8:17). But there’s no reason to believe Paul was living with an incurable eye disease. The abundance of revelation of what Jesus did for us put Paul over the top and lifted him up above sicknesses and infirmities, stripes and imprisonment, beatings and persecutions. We have access to the same revelations.