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What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh?
Apostle’s dramatic examples linked to humility remain mysterious
Does it matter what the apostle Paul was talking about when he wrote about his thorn in the flesh? Not really; we can understand the point he was making without knowing that detail. But Christians have speculated about the nature of the thorn ever since personal knowledge about Paul’s life faded away, so probably for around 1,900 years.
Strangely enough, the thorn in the flesh isn’t the only mystery of 2 Corinthians 12. In the same paragraph, Paul wrote about a “third heaven” without explanation, and while Paul’s readers presumably knew what he was talking about, we don’t.
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We’ll briefly speculate on these terms shortly, but let’s first look at the context so we can understand Paul’s message about humility:
I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven 14 years ago — whether in the body, I don’t know, or whether out of the body, I don’t know; God knows. I know such a man (whether in the body, or outside of the body, I don’t know; God knows), how he was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weaknesses. For if I would desire to boast, I will not be foolish; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, so that no man may think more of me than that which he sees in me or hears from me. By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me: a messenger of Satan to torment me, so that I would not become arrogant. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.
Paul, it seems, was the sort of character who easily could become full of himself. He was most obviously true to form in the time before his conversion, when he saw himself as righteous enough to persecute who were not as observant of Jewish law as he was. Humility is a virtue, but Paul would have none of it without divine help.
Paul’s message here, as it also was in his earlier letter to the church in Corinth, is that the gospel wasn’t about him, but about Christ. So while Paul didn’t like whatever suffering the thorn brought to him, he came to believe it was all for the good so that God’s power would become visible.
And what was that thorn? There have been those who take the words “messenger of Satan” literally, seeing the thorn as a satanic angel or demon of some sort. But most Christians have interpreted Paul figuratively, seeing the thorn as something doing Satan’s work by causing Paul to suffer:
Many have interpreted the words to refer to a physical issue of some sort. Perhaps it was a disease that was related to poor eyesight, as suggested in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It could have been a chronic health issue such as epilepsy or recurring pain — anything that would have kept from performing in the way he wanted to.
The thorn could have been a mental issue; near the beginning of his letter he writes of an affliction that “weighed [us] down exceedingly, beyond our power, so much that we despaired even of life,” a sign of depression.
A third possibility is a temptation of some sort.
And it might have been a enemy who wished to cause Paul harm, such as Alexander the coppersmith.
In other words, we barely have a clue.
Perhaps more interesting is what the “third heaven” of 12:2 refers to. Although Paul writes of “a man” who went there, it is likely that Paul is writing of himself in the third person as a way of distancing himself from the experience he writes about. Fourteen years before writing this would have been about the time of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
Some Christians, such as Latter-day Saints, have interpreted the the phrase to refer to one of three heavens. The main problem with this understanding is that we have no indication that the concept of three heavens was in existence during the time of the New Testament, much less as early as the sixth decade, when Paul is believed to have written this letter. In fact, there was no widespread Christian belief in even a heaven where people would go after death; early Christianity was more about bringing heaven to Earth than in taking Earth to heaven.
One common understanding is that the third heaven refers to a distant place where God dwells, with the first heaven being the sky and the second heaven being the objects we see in the sky, such as the stars. One problem with this interpretation, if Paul is referring to his epiphany on the road to Damascus, is that there is no indication in the other accounts that Paul left the road, whether bodily or in a vision.
In any case, details of the nature of the third heaven aren’t vital to understanding Paul’s point here: that “the man” heard words too sacred to pass on.
And hearing such words would be amazing enough for any of us that we’d be tempted to boast about how special we are, just as Paul was. Whatever the thorn was, whatever the third heaven refers to, Paul allowed it to prevent him from succumbing to the temptation of narcissism.
This commentary on 2 Corinthians is a part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Although this book is the second letter of Paul we have that was written to the believers in Corinth, the text of the two letters we have suggest that there were at least four letters that Paul wrote to the Corinthians. It is possible that what we know today as 1 Corinthians was the second letter and 2 Corinthians was the fourth.
The Greek text we have isn’t divided by paragraphs. But in most modern translations, the thorn in the flesh and the third heaven are close enough to each other to be part of the same paragraph.
See 2 Corinthians 11:16ff.
2 Timothy 4:14.