Grace & Peace


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Examining Paul's Thorn in the Flesh

"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."

Paul's account of his "thorn in the flesh" is found in 2 Corinthians, chapter 12:7-10. The Apostle Paul writes this second letter to the church in Corinth from Macedonia, while on his way to Corinth in approximately 55 AD. Even for the Apostle Paul speaking into the church at Corinth in these formative years met with those who would at times oppose his authority, leaving Paul feeling led to qualify himself or validate God's calling on his life.

Paul, in a sense, builds a case for his ministry by contrasting the true signs of apostleship found in his ministry against certain false apostles who were preaching a false gospel in an attempt to lead people astray. Paul writes of the signs and wonders which accompany the true gospel as he teaches it and also the persecution which can arise for preaching this same gospel. In so doing, Paul lays the groundwork that must be understood to truly see the teaching of Paul's "thorn in the flesh" in it's proper context.

What's brought out by the Apostle Paul earlier in this epistle and climaxes in this account is a proper understanding of what suffering is for a Christian, and what it is not, what grace is and how it empowers us, where our faith should be focused, and how we stand in our authority, the way we are to wage war as a Christian and what it is to be a true servant of righteousness. (ref. 2 Cor. 11:15)

Paul's effort to defend his ministry and expose these false apostles and their untrue claims, or boasting, is really the lead in to the account of Paul's "thorn in the flesh." The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Cor. 11:16 "I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then receive me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.  vs 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. vs 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. vs 21b What anyone else dares to boast about - I am speaking as a fool - I also dare to boast about.

Paul then proceeds to list his Hebraic heritage, as well as his vast servitude for Christ and his many accomplishments and sufferings in his missionary endeavors as he served the Lord. He speaks of his heavenly vision and then recounts his "thorn in the flesh."

Note: The words boast and glory are often used interchangeably between the NIV and the KJV translations of chapters 11 & 12 of 2 Corinthians.

Although Paul chose to use this method to validate his ministry in the eyes of the Corinthians, he begins to, in essence, explain why his hope or faith is not tied into any of his accomplishments or merit gained by his pedigree or performance. It is with this foreknowledge that this account takes on it's real meaning and intended value to us as Christians and allows it to be applied to our lives.

Beginning with verse 7 of 2 Cor. 12, we read, "And lest I should be exalted above measure, through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure." The Apostle Paul is letting the readers know that he had "opened a door" for the enemy to come in and harass him or buffet him. The reason he states for this happening is, "lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations" which he had received from God. The Apostle Paul was at this point in a quandary as to how to shut the door he had opened to the enemy. Verse 8 tells us he thought God could do it for him. "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me." Verse 9a gives us God's response, "And he said unto me, my grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness."

Here in God's response lies the answer to Paul's problem, and ours, anytime we are in a quandary or our hope falters; grappling for a solution to an unmet need. God's answer of grace being sufficient for Paul is also his answer for us. In fact, as we examine these definitions, we will see exactly why.

Definition of Grace
a: unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification
b: a virtue coming from God
c: a state of sanctification enjoyed through divine assistance

Definition of Unmerited
not adequately earned or deserved: not merited

Definition of Pride
: the quality or state of being proud: such as
a: inordinate self-esteem: conceit
b: a reasonable or justifiable self-respect
c: delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship <parental pride>

Definition of Boast
1 : a statement expressing excessive pride in oneself: the act or an instance of boasting (see 2 boast: brag
2 :a cause for pride

Definition of Infirmity
1 a: the quality or state of being infirm
   b: the condition of being feeble: frailty
2 : disease, malady
3: a personal failing: foible <one of the besetting infirmities of living creatures is egotism>--

(taken from the online dictionary)

Definition of Infirmity
1 a physical weakness or disability
2 a defect of personality or character
3 an infirm condition; feebleness

(taken from The New Webster's Concise Dictionary of the English Language, 2003 ed.)

Note: the word "infirmity" and the word "weakness" are often used interchangeably between the NIV and the KJV translations in chapters 11 and 12 of 2 Corinthians.

We can see that boasting and pride are the opposites of grace and unmerited favor. Grace is at the heart of New Testament teaching and contradicts pride. This is why Paul writes, in ch. 5:12 of 2 Cor., "We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart." Shortly after this verse, Paul explains the "grace of God" and how this is the message we as New Testament believers should be promoting. This is found in 2 Cor. 5:16-20, which says, "Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new and all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." He then concludes, stating, that God made Jesus who had no sin to "be sin" for us so that "in him" we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.

Righteousness means by definition that we are in "right-standing" with God. This is a right-standing apart from our works or performance. (ref. Rom. 3:21-22) Understanding this, we can see that the Apostle Paul had "opened a door" and allowed the enemy access by being prideful of all the great revelations God had given him. Paul, too, was on a learning curve as a Christian at some point in his life concerning this issue and chose this time to give the account of his "thorn in the flesh."

Pride is the opposite of faith, because pride points to your accomplishments and takes your eyes off of Jesus, (our true faith-object.) The remainder of verse 9, in 2 Cor. chapter 12 tells us the Apostle Paul got his eyes off of himself and back on Jesus as he states "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities (weaknesses) that the power of Christ may rest upon me." The Apostle Paul in making this statement is reiterating what he says in his epistle to the Philippians, found in ch. 3, verses 8-10, "Yea, doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;" Paul's reference to suffering in the previous verse harmonizes with the beginning of Paul's second epistle to the Corinthians where the Apostle Paul states, "for just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows." 2 Cor. 1:5 NIV

A study of the word "suffer" in scripture shows us that at times it is used in reference to permitting something, such as found in Jesus' words when he said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." Matt. 19:14 KJV  The significance of this is found as we examine why the Apostle Paul used the term "thorn in my flesh." This phrase is taken from several locations in the Old Testament; (Num. 33:55, Josh. 23:13, Judg. 2:3) In Numbers 33:55 it says, "But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; then it shall come to pass that those which ye let remain of them shall be pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell." God states that he had given the land as an inheritance for the Israelites to possess it and they were to go in and dispossess the inhabitants of the land.  (ref. Num. 33:53) The inhabitants of the land that they were to drive out were squatters. God had given them (Israelites) the land and God said failure to drive them out would cause these squatters to be pricks in theirs eyes and thorns in their sides, and vex them in the land where they would dwell.  In other words, these Israelites permitted this to happen to them in some cases, and in these areas where this was allowed to happen, they did not receive their inheritance. (ref. Deut. 4 38, Judg. 3:1-6)

When the Apostle Paul was prideful concerning the revelations God had given him, he was failing to utilize the empowerment that could "shut the door" to the enemy. In the book of James we find "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Jam. 4:7 NIV  We also find in Peter's first epistle "and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time. (1 Pet. 5:5b-6)

God's grace, or unmerited favor, was the only way for Paul to "shut the door" on the enemy and drive him out, but to do so he had to give up any vain imagination that he was special in God's eyes, because of his own merit. (ref. 2 Cor. 10:5) This is how we wage warfare in the spiritual realm (unseen world). When the Apostle Paul was obedient to do this, he took revenge on the enemy. (ref. 2 Cor. 10:6) It's obvious to me that this is what Paul did and found the victory because he closes out his account of the "thorn in his flesh" by saying, "therefore I take pleasure in infirmities (weaknesses), in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong."  2 Cor. 12:10 KJV

Speculation as to what Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was has arisen from such scriptures as found in Gal. 4:13-15. Here Paul says, "Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh, ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me." Another scripture is found in Gal. 6:11 and reads as follows: "Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand." Once again, this is speculation as to what the Apostle Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was - and as stated earlier the word weakness and the word infirmity are used interchangeably in this account.

When the Apostle Paul got back under grace, he "shut the door" to the enemy and kicked the squatter off his land (satan from Paul's body). Sickness is a part of the curse that Christ has redeemed us from (ref. Gal. 3:13) and healing and restoration are our inheritance to be claimed in the atonement. It's our right-and satan and his crew of demons have no right to it. So, any infirmity (weakness) that the Apostle Paul said he would boast in or glory in, was just to say he would never be proud looking to his accomplishments, etc, but that he would take strength, looking to Jesus and what Jesus would do even in Paul's weakness.

The Apostle Peter wrote in his first epistle, "But, and if, ye suffer for righteousness sake, happy are ye:" 1 Pet. 3:14a

Now, not many people open a door by being prideful over the abundance of the revelations given to them as did the Apostle Paul. But pride can come in-in many different ways and can cause us to think we are worthy in God's eyes because of our own merit. Receive God's unconditional love daily and you will be able to give it out to others as well as "shut the door" on the enemy, and by doing so you will be a true servant of righteousness. (ref. 2 Cor. 11:15)

The Apostle Paul provided an answer to the Corinthians for the false apostles who were boasting as the world does, as once again he stated, "For we commend not ourselves again unto you, but give you occasion to glory on our behalf, that ye may have somewhat to answer them which glory in appearance (what is seen), and not in heart." Let this be your answer as well.  God bless.