Wednesday, 14 September 2016

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

     In the twelfth chapter of 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of “visions and revelations of the Lord” (v. 1) and briefly describes a remarkable heavenly experience (vv. 2-4). He then confesses, “that I should not be exalted by the surpassing excellence of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me …” (v. 7a).1 It is depicted here as a “messenger” [aggelos] of Satan, the purpose of which, “that it might maltreat [kolaphizō] me that I should not become exalted” (v. 7b). Paul pleaded with the Lord three times that it might be taken away (v. 8), yet it persisted.
     A “thorn” [skolops]2 signifies a sharp affliction, while “flesh” is indicative of something physical (cf. 2 Cor. 5:16; 10:2-3; 11:18). This follows the lengthy account of Paul’s vexations that included beatings, imprisonments, stoning, and various perils (11:23-26). As Satan’s aggelos, readers are reminded of the preceding warnings about “false apostles” (11:13) exposed as masquerading “servants” of Satan (11:15), who himself masquerades as an aggelos of light (11:14). Moreover, these troublemakers were prone to violence (11:20), and the word used here for the maltreatment inflicted on Paul is kolaphizō, which literally means to “strike with the fist” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:11).3
     Contextually, therefore, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” seems to be a veiled allusion to the incessant opposition he was facing, particularly “persecutions … for Christ” (12:10; cf. 1:8-10; 7:5; 4:8-12; 6:4-9; 11:23-26). This interpretation is consistent with similar imagery in the OT (Num. 33:55; Josh. 23:13; Ezek. 28:24) and is confirmed by what is known about the persistent challenges he endured throughout his ministry (see Acts 9:16, 23, 29; 13:8, 45, 50; 14:2, 5, 19, 22; 15:1-2; 16:19-24, 37, 39; 17:5, 13, 32; 18:6, 12; 19:9, 23-31; 20:23, 29-31; 21:11, 27-33; 22:22, 25; 23:2, 10, 12; 24:27; 25:2-3; 26:21; 28:17, 30; 1 Cor. 15:30; Gal. 5:11; 1 Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17; 4:14; cf. Rom. 5:3; 8:35-36).
     Other suggestions have included some type of physical malady (cf. Gal. 4:13), such as headaches, malaria, epilepsy, poor eyesight (cf. Gal. 4:15; 6:11), or a speech impediment (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-4; 2 Cor. 10:10); perhaps a psychological disorder. At the end of the day, the observation of P. E. Hughes is worth noting: “the plain fact is that it is impossible to escape from the realm of conjecture, which is by its nature the realm of inconclusiveness. Presumably those to whom the Apostle wrote knew well enough the character of this particular infirmity with which he was afflicted, but there is an absence of any firm tradition which might enable us to identify it” (Second Corinthians 442).
     “And [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you; for the power is perfected in weakness’” (2 Cor. 12:9a). In the Lord’s response to Paul, the verb arkeō (“suffice”) in the Greek text is the first word of the sentence, placing emphasis on the sufficiency of divine grace. Though employed with a variety of nuances, “grace” has a heavy emphasis in Paul’s writings, particularly in the letters sent to Corinth.4 As he has stated earlier, “But [by the] grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been worthless, but I labored more abundantly than all of them, yet not I but the grace of God that [was] with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
     “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ might dwell upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9b). This “boasting” started at 11:16, in response to unjustified attacks, and “weakness” was introduced at 10:10 as an insult from antagonists. But Paul has shown it to be a virtue in the Lord’s service (11:21, 29, 30; 12:5, 9, 10; 13:3, 4, 9). Divine power is more clearly evident in the face of human frailty (see 3:5; 4:7; 6:7; 13:4; cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
     “Therefore I am well pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, and difficulties for Christ; for when I might be weak, then I am strong” (12:10). This strength-out-of-weakness paradox clashes with man’s infatuation with achievement, prosperity, status, notability, power, and success. Nevertheless, adversity is inevitable for everyone in this imperfect world, and especially for servants of Christ (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12). Paul, through his “thorn in the flesh,” teaches us that humility and greater dependence on God are constructive benefits to be appreciated and utilized. Let us be thankful, therefore, no matter what challenges we face, that we still have access to the same source of comfort and strength!
--Kevin L. Moore

     1 Scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     2 This is the only occurrence of the word skolops in the NT. It refers to anything with a sharp point that causes pain, like a stake, thorn, or splinter. See Num. 33:55; Ezek. 28:24; Hos. 2:6 (LXX).
     3 The present tense indicates ongoing abuse (see also Matt. 26:67; 1 Pet. 2:20).
     4 Charis (“grace”) appears 156 times in the Greek NT; 100 times in Paul, and 28 times in the Corinthian correspondence: 1 Cor. 1:3, 4; 3:10; 10:30; 15:10; [15:57; 16:3]; 16:23; 2 Cor. 1:2, 12, 15; [2:14]; 4:15; 6:1; 8:1, 4, 6, 7, [16], 19; 9:8, 14, [15]; 12:9; 13:14.

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