Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Was Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh” a physical sickness? An expository study of 2 Corinthians 12

I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:1-10

   How is  the Christian supposed to respond in the midst of suffering in hardship?
   The above passage taken from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has long been a source of encouragement to believers undergoing difficulty – especially the words “My grace is sufficient.” No matter what challenges the Christian may face, the Lord is with us to carry us through any and all obstacles.
   But what was Paul himself referring to that would spurn him to plead thrice for the mercy of God? Was he simply referring to his sufferings in general that were applicable only to himself, or was he referring to something specific yet normative for any believer in similar circumstances?

Common Interpretations of “Thorn in the flesh”

Opposition to the Apostolic ministry

   At the most basic level, the “thorn” could be a metaphor for the opposition that Paul faced for preaching the gospel. This can be confirmed by the surrounding passages where Paul talks about both persecution against both his ministry and person as well as having to confront the false “Super-apostles” who had infiltrated the Corinthian church:

24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
2 Corinthians 11:24–29

A Jewish euphemism

   Does the phrase “thorn in the flesh” appear elsewhere in Scripture? Indeed it does:

53 And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.54 You shall inherit the land by lot according to your clans. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance. Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his. According to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit. 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.”

Numbers 33:53-56

Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

Judges 2:1-3

12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.

Joshua 23:12-13

Those who cling to a Dispensational hermeneutic as taught and promoted by the likes of Darby, C.I. Schofield and Charles Ryrie will no doubt appeal to the “Law of First mention” – that the first mention of any given word in scripture is to be the basis of interpretation for future usage – as the basis for defining Paul’s thorn. Paul must therefore be likening his struggles to the conditions experienced by Ancient Israel. The problems I can see with this interpretation are:
1. Contrary to dispensationalism, there is no clear precedent within scripture itself (let alone the Hebrew or Greek languages) wherein the first mention of any given word is binding upon definition at the expense of connotation.
As an example of the problems inherent in the first mention method consider Cain. He was the first person in the Bible to bring a botanical offering to God and that offering was rejected (Genesis 4:2-5). Should we therefore conclude that all such offerings will be rejected? Of course not, because in Deuteronomy 26:1-4 God commands an offering of fruit to be brought by the children of Israel and placed on His altar.
2. The historical context of the above three verses refers to national Israel’s relationship with it’s neighbours under the Mosaic covenant. If Israel were to break covenant, the surrounding nation would become “thorns”. But this clearly has nothing to do with the overarching meaning of 2 Corinthians 11-12. Paul is giving a personal testimony, not a history lesson.
3. It should be remembered that 1 and 2 Corinthians was written to a primarily gentile audience. For Paul to resort to Jewish slang in the midst of the Corinthians’ several problem would be of little benefit.

Demonic oppression

This would be most obvious from v7: “a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited”. The word for “messenger” is angelos – from where we derive the English “Angel”. In other words, this is a demon sent to torment Paul.
   So the thorn was an attack from Satan to attack him spiritually, right? Not necessarily.
   First, Paul describes the purpose for the “thorn” as preventing “me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations”. But Satan's whole design is to produce conceit, pride and arrogance, not prevent it. That's how Satan tempts people: either with pride in ourselves, or despair over. Paul's revelations opened the possibiity to pride and self-exaltation. Satan wanted to make Paul miserable and turn him away from the faith and the ministry and the value of the visions he had seen. But God wanted to make Paul humble and turn him away from self-exaltation. So God appointed the thorn of Satan for the work of sanctification.

A physical ailment

   It is no secret that sickness and physical infirmities were a regular part of the lives of the Apostle Paul and those he worked with:

12  Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13  You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14  and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.
Galatians 4:12-14

25  I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26  for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27  Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. 28  I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious.
Philippians 2:25-28

22  Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23  (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)
1 Timothy 5:22-23

19  Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. 20  Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. 21  Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.
2 Timothy 4:19-21

 Even the Apostle Paul, for whom healings and miracles was a regular part of his own ministry, still had to call upon Luke to serve as his personal physician when traveling:

12  Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. 13  For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis. 14  Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.
Colossians 4:12-14

10  For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11  Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.
2 Timothy 4:10-11

There is a seemingly cruel irony in that while Paul himself had the gift of healing and it greatly aided his preaching of the gospel, he still had a doctor present to lend support when worse came to worse.

dynamis teleitai astheneia” – the reality of God-given ailment (and what Faith-Healers don’t want you to know)

Following from the above point, in this section, I wish to present an exegetical case for why I believe that the “thorn” may indeed have actually been a metaphor for a physical sickness or infirmity. Let’s take another look at v8-10 and three specific words that I believe will provide an irrefutable answer:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Power – δύναμις dynamis (supernatural power, mighty deeds, rule)

Made perfect – τελέω teleitai (complete, ended, fulfilled, payed off. Note that on the cross, Jesus declares “Tetelestai!” when declaring “It is accomplished” or “It is τελέω teleitai)  

Weakness - ἀσθένεια astheneia (illness, infirmity, incapacity, timidity, weakness)

It should be noted that ἀσθένεια astheneia is the same word that Paul uses in 1 Timothy 5:22-23 to describe Timothy’s own stomach problems: 

22  Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.

Strong’s Concordance lists 24 occurances of ἀσθένεια astheneia (cf. Matthew 8:17, Luke 5:15, Luke 8:2, Luke 13:11-12, John 5:5, John 11:4, Acts 28:9, Romans 6:19, Romans 8:26, 1 Corinthians 2:3, 2 Corinthians 11:30, 2 Corinthians 12:5, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, 2 Corinthians 13:4, Galatians 4:13, 1 Timothy 5:23,  Hebrews 4:15, Hebrews 5:2, Hebrews 7:28, Hebrews 11:34). Of these 24 occurances, it should be noted that only 8 refer to “weakness” in reference to the human condition existentially, the remaining 16 refer to either physical “sickness” or “infirmity”.[1]
   That being said, there is no reason why Paul could not be talking about his “thorn” as a physical sickness. Those who would assert that 2 Corinthians 12 says nothing about physical sickness or infirmity (even if such were a manifestation of demonic influence as per v7) are either ill-informed as to what the text in of itself actually says, or are choosing to ignore it altogether.  

   “dynamis teleitai astheneia” can thus be rendered as “[my] supernatural power – [will be] fulfilled completely – [through] physical ailment”. From the above analysis, we can thus conclude about the nature of the “thorn”:
1. It is demonic in origin, yet godly by design and intent
2. It did indeed have a physical manifestation
3. Paul begged God to remove it three times, to no avail.
4. The purpose of the thorn is to buffet Paul so as to mould his character lest he become conceited.
5. Throughout the whole experience, God’s power would be made visible in it’s fullness.

   Such obviously refutes that teachings of Word of Faith adherents who would assert that God has no part in physical ailment, but rather God always intends to heal; and if healing doesn’t happen, either the believer lacks the faith or Satan is preventing it. Consider the following devotional written by Gloria Copeland:

Cancer. Heart disease. Multiple sclerosis. When we think of killer diseases, those are the names that come to mind. But the truth is, there's a far more deadly killer on the loose in the Church today. And it's destroyed more lives than any of us can imagine. It's called tradition. Traditions rob believers of their healing. They steal the power from the promises of God. Here are three you should beware of:
1. The tradition that says it's not always God's will to heal you.
It is God's will to heal you! It says so in His Word. If you don't believe that it is, then you can't pray in faith believing you'll receive. You're like the farmer who sits on his porch and says, "I believe in crops, but I'm not going to plant any seed this year. I'll just believe, and if it's God's will, my crop will come up." That farmer will never see his crop. Faith is the seed of healing--if you don't plant it, it won't grow. A prayer that includes the words, "If it be thy will" won't produce a healing harvest. You must know without a doubt that healing is always God's will for you.
2. Another tradition we hear is that healing has passed away. That there are no miracles today. But the Word of God proves that's not true. In Exodus 15:26, God says, "I am the Lord that healeth thee." He also tells us that He does not change (Mal. 3:6). He has never changed since the beginning of time. For healing to pass away, God would have to pass away...and He is not about to do that!
3. The third dangerous tradition is this one: "God gets glory from Christians being sick." That tradition totally violates the Word of God. The Bible says that people gave glory to God when they saw the lame walk and the blind see. God receives glory from your healing--not your pain!
The world is looking for a way out of sickness and disease, not a way into it. Let's break down those traditions and deliver a hurting world from the most dangerous killer of all.[2]

What Gloria Copeland writes off as “tradition” is in Paul’s own words his own testimony. Here we have an instance of God giving a believing a physical ailment delivered via a demonic vessel for the purpose of demonstrating His power while prayers for healing are refused. Demonic oppression and physical sickness are, in Paul’s own words, not at odds with God’s plan and purposes, but rather come under it just like anything else in creation. 

The down-to-Earth Apostle

   Although Paul speaks in the third person in v3-6, v7 qualifies that Paul was actually referring to himself. The revelations he speaks of were not so much the inspiration of scripture, but rather face to face encounters with phenomena that were simply beyond the realm of normal human understanding, let alone his own e.g., journeys to heaven, at least four personal encounters with Jesus in addition to thinks that Paul was forbidden to speak of. We can only guess what Paul saw, but whatever it was it was definitely beyond what was the norm. No doubt such experiences would give Paul every reason to excitedly testify, but instead he is told by God to stay silent about it.

   Compare the words of Paul with those of Jesus in the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. [1] The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
   24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’
 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers [2]—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
What was the rich man’s sin that resulted in damnation?
   The rich man wears purple and fine linen. Purple is the biblical color for royalty (Esther 8:15). Fine linen represents righteousness (Revelation 19:8). The tabernacle, where God’s glory was said to present, had ten curtains of purple linen (Exodus 26:1). Who is this man who wears a uniform representing royalty and divine righteousness? If we take this verse as an account of what killed poor Lazarus i.e., Lazarus as a poor man with a skin disease (leprosy?) that eventually kills him as a result of a lack care on the part of someone with the spiritual authority to tend to him, we can easily say that this righteous royal was one of the Pharisees. Yet Jesus went on to describe the afterlife of these two men. The rich man was damned for his apathy while Lazarus was brought into heaven to stand at Abraham’s side.
   Again, who is this rich man supposedly of righteousness and royalty? And what exactly does he represent? If in this tale he is not just a Pharisee, who is he and what does he have to do with us?
   The key lies in 1 Peter 2:9 where we get a description of how God sees his church:“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Jesus was in fact, speaking about what would be his own royal priesthood: his church. Whereas the Good Samaritan was able to treat an innocent, helpless man despite being a foreigner and a stranger, here we have the same scenario only that the one God himself has anointed to actually do the same job merely walks past and couldn’t care less.

   Knowing his eternal predicament (v24-26), the rich man asks that Lazarus be resurrected as a testimony – that is, a miraculous sign – that will convince his household and relatives to repent so that they may reside with Abraham in heaven. To which Abraham replies “They have Moses and the Prophets”. Who or what is Moses and the Prophets? Moses delivered the Law, which explains in specific details the standard of God’s holiness in such a way that it brings conviction of sin (cf. Rom 3:19-20, 7:7-25) and reveals the need for a savior, since “before faith came, we were held captive under the Law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the Law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” The prophetic writings reveal the heart and character of God as well as how he will accomplish his goal of redemption.
   This is what Abraham is saying: miracles and signs and wonders alone will not lead people to the savior any more than accounts of the afterlife. Why? Because if the dead were to be immediately brought back to life and they were to call everyone to respond, the underlying motive will be one of self-centered fear. They’re only interested in their own necks. You don’t need to be born again of the spirit in order to be shocked into responding with wordly sorrow. Miracles in of themselves have neither the power to transform nor the authority to convict. It is only by preaching from “Moses and the Prophets” that the right heart-motives will arise in a non-believer that will result in genuine repentance.

   Paul is all too aware that the gentile Corinthians are no more fickle than Jesus’ jewish listeners towards the subject:

11 I have been a fool! You forced me to it, for I ought to have been commended by you. For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. 13 For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this wrong!
2 Corinthians 12:11-13

In all likelihood, the “super-apostles” probably tried to lyre people astray with their own bogus accounts of visions and journeys to heaven. Paul in effect says in response: “Yes, I actually have had these experiences; it’s not as hyped up as you think it is. In fact, I’d rather not talk about it at all…”

  Despite what Jesus and the Apostle Paul have to say about the subject of heavenly visions, there has been an onslaught of books and films such as Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven, Todd Burpo’s Heaven is for Real, Bill Wise’s 23 Minutes in Hell and the late Choo Thomas’ Heaven is so Real!


   Paul’s Christian walk was far from “a form of godliness lacking in power” (2 Timothy 3:5), but even so, 2 Corinthians 12 begs a very important question:

if it is indeed the norm for Christians led by the Spirit to have deep and extraordinary encounters with the divine that reveal more and more of God progressively as one moves from “glory to Glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18), why then, was Paul held back?

 Paul was certainly self-conscious of the fact that his walk with God was far from being perfected (cf. Romans 7:21-25, 1 Corinthians 9:27, Philippians 3:12-15). Surely such encounters would leave him overwhelmed with conviction as to who God really is.
   Yet this was not so.

   It is only reasonable to say that such experiences were not to be the focal point of Paul’s Christian walk nor the message that would be at the centre of his apostolic ministry. Instead, the focus was far more specific: Christ and Him crucified.


18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,[a] puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Colossians 2:18-19

If God does cause sickness, why pray for healing?

Some may still object: “If it is true that God causes physical infirmity and uses it to conform believers to the likeness of Christ, why should we pray for healing?”
   This is a good question. From the onset, such a high view of God’s sovereignty over matters of the believer’s well-being may clash with the notion of faith with regards to prayer. To start, why does God heal in the first place? 
   First of all, God heals because he chooses to reveal himself as a healer:

“If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, your healer (Jehovah ropeca).”
Exodus 15:26

   Secondly, God promises to hear the prayers of his children:

22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Matthew 21:22

13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me[a]anything in my name, I will do it.
John 14:13-14

14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.
1 John 5:14

This by no means suggests that simply taking “in Jesus’ name” on to the end of every prayer guarantees that it will be answered, but rather God answers the prayers that are in line with His sovereign will. The prayer for healing is no different. We cannot judge God should he choose not to answer prayers for healing as within his providence, he has sufficient reason for allowing it to continue in such a way that does not contradict his power or his loving goodness.
   I have been a Christian for 12 years now, 10 of which I have seen in the intercessory prayer ministry. One thing that I have recently seen in the disturbing trend where instead of prayer being an act of humble submission, what passes for “prayer” nowadays is commanding assertion – “I DECLARE!”, “I SPEAK FORTH!” or even “I COMMAND THEE!” Of course, the Bible sets forth no precedent for the idea that believer can or should seek to assert their will over that of God (witchcraft).
   Let’s also consider the prayer of faith that leads to healing in James 5:10-20

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
12 But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.[a] 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and forthree years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

By pointing out “
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” and “steadfastness of Job” (and if there was anyone who learned the hard way about God’s sovereignty over suffering, Satan and sickness it was Job), James is making it crystal clear that the faith spoken of that should undergird prayers for healing is not to be a blind faith that turns the other way in response to the reality of suffering and God’s hand in it – rather, such prayers must take it into account.
   We should also take heed of the fact that the overarching theme of James 5 is that when a believer stumbles – whether it be the result of sin, of sickness, emotional toil, etc) – we should seek to encourage and edify them it thehopes that God would grant restoration. If the spiritual gift of healing is for the church today in the 21st century, then this should be the fruit which will indeed point out whether a person genuinely carries such a gifting – a deep compassion fueld by a desire to see struggling Christians built up. On the other hand, if such a person claims to possess such an “anointing” yet is openly condescending or even hateful towards te suffering Christian, it should be sufficient reason to write off such a persons gifting and claims to ministry as a counterfeit.    
   The Corinthians no doubt lacked such compassion in response to the Apostle Paul’s sufferings.
   What should stop us from cultivating it?