In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” that has been given to him (v.7-10). There are many different interpretations as to what this could mean, so in this message, I boiled it down to what the background and context was of the text, who gave Paul the thorn in his flesh, why it was given to him, what it was, and then ended with a few closing truths about God as well as some practical application points. Here is a short written summary of the message:
In verses 1-6, Paul speaks of “visions and revelations of the Lord” that he saw. This is important context in light of verses 7-10 because Paul says the reason he was given the thorn in the flesh was to keep him from becoming “conceited” (v.7) and boasting on his own merits or supposed special favor from God since he was able to see the visions and revelations.
Moving on to the main part of this passage, verses 7-10, we look at who it actually was that gave Paul the thorn. The text says it was “a messenger of Satan” (v.7), but a verse later we see Paul appealing to God, asking him to remove this struggle. So while it was Satan antagonizing Paul, it was ultimately God working through the work of Satan to accomplish his purposes because God created all that there is, so all that there is exists for his glory and purpose (Colossians 1:16).
Next, we see why Paul was given this thorn. This was already answered a couple paragraphs above, but it was to keep Paul humble in his ministry and not boast of his own good works, but rather to boast in Christ (v.7).
Now moving on to what the thorn in Paul’s flesh actually was, there are three different interpretations to chose to cover in this. The first is an emotional or psychological issue, perhaps grief over his early persecution of the church (1 Corinthians 15:9; Acts 26:9-11), lament over Israel’s unbelief (Romans 9:1-5), or his continuing temptations (Romans 7:18-20, 24).
Another potential interpretation is the thorn as Paul’s enemies in regards to the gospel. We see similar language in the Old Testament in Israel’s enemies being referred to as “thorns” (Numbers 33:55; Ezekiel 28:24). Fast forward to Paul’s time, he often talks about false prophets spreading a false gospel that is not of Christ. (Galatians 1:6-7; 1 Timothy 6:3-4; 2 Timothy 3:1-5).
A third interpretation, which is what I think is most correct, is the thorn as an actual physical affliction. Many people think that the revelations and visions Paul saw actually damaged his eyes, which makes sense in light of what he writes in his letter to the Galatians (4:13-15, 6:11). There is much more to this passage than what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was, so I continued in discussing three truths about God we learn from this text as well as three practical applications for our lives.
The first truth about God we see in this passage is that God is sovereign. In verse 8, Paul acknowledges this by pleading with God to remove his struggle.
The second truth about God is that God’s grace and love are for his own sake, not ours. This does not negate the love that God has for us, that is still tremendous and incomprehensible. But why does God love us? God loves us so that we can love him and make much of him. God’s glory is above our own and he doesn’t love us just so we can be better people. Let’s look at verse 9, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” It’s all about God. It’s not about us looking good, or looking strong, it’s about Christ looking strong. This is the whole point of suffering, that the weaker we are, it is all the more that Christ shows himself more powerfully.
Lastly, the third truth about God is that God does not promise to always deliver us physically (Matthew 24:9), but he will always deliver us spiritually (1 Cor. 10:13). Whenever we are tempted or face trials, he will always provide a way out so that we are not crushed (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).
Moving into the last section, we see three practical responses we can have in response to this passage. First, recognize that God is sovereign, just as Paul did in verse 8. Second, understand that when we face trials, it is our fault, and not God’s (2 Corinthians 12:8; James 1:13). We live in a fallen world where sin is rampant and unavoidable. But this is not a reason to lose hope, because we are commanded to rejoice in our weakness and struggle and desire the glory of God more than our own comfort (2 Cor. 12:9-10; Romans 5:1-5). How do we do this? By delighting ourselves in God (Psalm 37:4).
The point of this passage, 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 is not that Paul has a thorn in his flesh (i.e., something to struggle over), the point of this passage is Paul’s response to his struggle. In his response, he points everything back to God because he is the one whom everything points back to.