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In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7).

What was the thorn in Paul’s flesh? What was it for? Who gave it to Paul? And why does Paul identify the thorn as “a messenger of Satan” that harasses him and keeps him “from becoming conceited” (2 Cor 12:7)? This article seeks to answer each of these questions.

What was that Thorn in Paul’s flesh?

The word thorn refers to a stake metaphorically lodged in Paul’s flesh. Since the thorn functions, metaphorically, commentators attempt to explain the metaphor. For example, Murray J. Harris summarizes three ways that people identify Paul’s thorn (2 Corinthians, 532-3). Some see it as anxiety, others as an opponent in ministry, and last some believe it to be a physical malady.

Commentators suggest all sorts of physical maladies. I have even heard it argued that Paul was partially blind, as a consequence of his Damascus Road experience (cf. Gal 4:15). One common opinion is that Paul names the “super-apostles” as his opponents, and therefore the thorn could refer to them (Michael Gorman, Apostle, 386). As for anxiety, that seems a tad too speculative but understandable given Paul’s ministry. The thorn could thus refer to anxiety, a malady, or even a specific opponent.

Despite the varied opinions, commentators shy away from making specific conclusions about Paul’s thorn. Harris concludes, “But paucity of information and the obscurity of Paul’s language have frustrated all attempts to solve this enigmatic problem” (533). Frederick Danker agrees and likewise concludes that Paul’s thorn is “an eternal mystery” (2 Corinthians, 193). Colin Kruse similarly points to “insufficient data to decide the matter” (2 Corinthians, 266). Modern commentators agree that Paul’s thorn is unidentifiable, at least with any certainty.

Since Paul does not specify exactly what the thorn is, interpreters offer opinions but lack certainty. Although I agree that Paul does not provide all the particulars of his thorn in the flesh, he nevertheless identifies the thorn directly as “a messenger of Satan.” To understand what that might mean, we need to answer three further questions: what was the thorn for, who gave it to Paul, and who or what is the messenger of Satan?

What was the Thorn for, and who gave it to Paul?

Paul identifies the thorn’s purpose twice in one verse as “to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor 12:7). Paul had been given “revelations,” and apart from this thorn, Paul explains, he would have been conceited. In turn, this answers the question of who gave it to Paul.

Satan would not give Paul a thorn in the flesh for the purpose of squashing pride. Further, Jesus himself verbally tells Paul that he will not remove the thorn because “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).

And as Murray Harris explains, the use of passive verbs in 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 4 refer to God (2 Corinthians, 532). So likewise, God is the implied agent who gives Paul the thorn when he says, “a thorn was given me in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7).

If God gave Paul the thorn in the flesh, we might wonder how he can also call the thorn “a messenger of Satan”?

What is the Messenger of Satan?

The word messenger in Greek is angelos from which we get the word angel. And when Paul says, “a thorn was given me in the flesh,” he immediately calls it, “a messenger of Satan.” Therefore, an angel from Satan seems to be Paul’s thorn. And yet, God gave Paul the thorn.

This sounds strange until we make the foundational observation that the word angel describes the function of a spirit (to be a messenger), but not the nature of a spirit (Isidore of Seville, Sententiae, I.10.1).

All angels are spirits, but not all spirits are messengers. And the Bible teaches that God uses good and evil spirits to execute his will on earth. Or as Gregory the Great (AD 540–604) says, “Satan unknowingly serves the purposes of God’s hidden justice” (Moralia, 2.20.38).

In particular, the Bible teaches that God permits evil spirits to execute his justice. In 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah relays a vision in which the prophet saw God on his throne with good and evil spirits around him. The LORD asks his throne room, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” (1 Kings 22:20).

A spirit volunteers and the LORD asks by what means the spirit will entice Ahab (1 Kings 22:21–22). In answer, the spirit explains, “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets” (1 Kings 22:22).

The LORD confirms the plan and says, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so” (1 Kings 22:22). The prophet Micaiah reasonably concludes, “the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you” (1 Kings 22:23).

The Bible teaches that God permits evil spirits to execute his justice

More famously, God permits Satan to harass Job in the Book of Job. In fact, God first mentions Job to Satan in their conversation (Job 1:8). As an implied challenge, Satan accepts it and accuses Job of serving God because of his blessings (Job 1:9-11).

The LORD, after bringing up Job to Satan and hearing Satan’s challenge, permits him to harm Job, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand” (Job 1:12; see also Job 2:6).

While God permitted Satan to harass Job, Job understands that his suffering ultimately comes from God: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). Job did not say, as Augustine (AD 354–430) notes, “The Lord gave, and the devil took away” (Psalm 77, §28).

In a similar way, 1 Samuel explains that the LORD was angry at Israel. For that reason, the LORD “incited David against them” by saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah” (1 Sam 24:1). Yet 1 Chronicles 21:1 explains, “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel.”

Did the LORD or Satan stand against Israel and incite David to take a census? The answer by this point should be clear: God permits evil spirits to accomplish his will.

Additionally, as Psalm 78:49 says, God’s wrath against Egypt in the plagues occurred through “a company of destroying angels” and he thus “made a path for his anger” (Ps 78:50). The phrase “destroying angels” literally translates “evil angels” (מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים) which is exactly how the Greek Old Testament (ἀγγέλων πονηρῶν) and Latin vulgate (angelos malos) translate the phrase. Further, all three versions (Hebrew, Latin, and Greek) speak of God sending these evil messengers.

God’s supreme justice makes good use even of bad creatures – Augustine

While commenting on this psalm, Augustine explains, “by God’s judgment such things happen through the agency of bad angels in this wicked world.” He continues, “God’s supreme justice makes good use even of bad creatures” (Psalm 77, §28).

In short, God uses good and evil spirits to execute his will. In this sense, “Satan unknowingly serves the purposes of God’s hidden justice” (Moralia, 2.20.38).

With this biblical background, the angel of Satan likely refers to an evil spirit whose function or office is to be a messenger (the literal meaning of angel).

The Messenger is an Evil Spirit

Satan’s angel or messenger is an evil spirit that is of Satan (thus, it is evil), and God permitted it to be sent just as he sent the evil spirit in Micaiah’s vision or allowed Satan to harm Job. Again, God did so in a similar way as he judged Israel by using Satan to incite David’s census. Or as Psalm 78 says, God made a way for his wrath through evil angels during the plagues in Exodus (Ps 78:49–50).

Like Job, Paul knew the messenger of Satan was ultimately from God: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me” (2 Cor 12:8).

While it is not my purpose here, I should note that Christian theology affirms that God only does good (Ps 119:68), and that these evil spirits act by their free choice at the level of second-order causality. As Gregory the Great notes of these evil spirits: “although pursuing their own malicious purposes, [the evil spirit] submits to his decision and discretion” (2.20.38).

Lest I get too carried away with the Bible’s teaching on these matters, I want to get to the point. God permitted Satan to harass Paul with a Satanic or evil spirit.

How? The same way the devil regularly attacks God’s children by tempting us in our flesh.

The Thorn Involves Satanic Temptation in Paul’s Flesh

When Paul says, “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited,” I take him straightforwardly to mean an evil spirit in Paul’s flesh harasses him.

When Paul speaks of flesh, he specifies that in the flesh is where desires and passions lie, the very things that lead to sin. Paul speaks of “the flesh with its passions and desires” in Galatians 5:24.

While Christians crucify these passions in the flesh, it is clear that believers sometimes can sin because, as Paul says, “I am of the flesh” (Rom 7:14). And because he is of the flesh, he has passions and desires of the flesh. Paul admits that his mind battles a power in his “members” by which he means his person, his flesh. He speaks of being “captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Rom 7:23).

This battle that Paul faces, that we all face before glory, leads him to admit, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom 7:18). And as Paul notes we live in “in the flesh” and have “sinful passions” (Rom 7:5). This is important to realize since, as Paul also says, “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit” (Gal 5:17).

Passions and desires lie with the flesh. And how then does sin get to us? One way is that our bodies are tempted to lust by a forbidden desire, or our appetites pursue gluttony by overindulging. We allow passions and desires, rooted in the flesh, to have their way.

As often is the case, the theological minds of the past can help us to understand what the Bible says. And in this case, Isidore of Seville (AD 560–636) gives deep insight into the nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh by associating it with the desires and passions of the flesh:

“The stimuli of the flesh that came upon Paul through the provocation of the angel of Satan (cf. 2 Cor 12:7) were from the law of sin that lives in the members of a human being’s body (cf. Rom 7:19-23) because of the inevitability of lustful desire. When a person expels this resisting urge from within himself, he is perfected, and freed from the weakness of this lustful delight, he receives the virtue of this glorious contest (cf. 2 Cor 12:9)” (Sententiae, II.39.11)

Isidore’s point is that Satan’s angel through the senses of the body—sight, smell, touch, etc.—tempted Paul. Lustful desire lies in the flesh. Demons tempt people through bodily senses and desires. And while Isidore does not precisely identify the exact way that Satan’s messenger in the flesh attempted to exploit the flesh’s desires and passions, he concludes that this is what Paul dealt with.

Conclusion

Paul identifies his thorn in the flesh as a messenger from Satan to keep him from being conceited. I do not believe this thorn refers to a physical malady or anxiety per se. It involves an evil spirit God permitted to tempt Paul in the flesh, that is, through his desires of the flesh. Specifically, these trials prevented Paul from being conceited, and they, as it were, kept him humble.

The super-apostles in Corinth may play into the total picture. But as commentators note, Paul says very little about the specifics. Yet he says more than most assume. The more ancient Christian interpreter, Isidore of Seville, rightly sees the Satanic messenger as tempting Paul in the flesh.

This evil spirit’s assault keeps Paul from conceit. It could be that Paul’s desire for power and prestige—his pride—is the thorn, the particular desire the messenger of Satan tries to exploit. The text simply does not tell us precisely what it is. It does, however, tell us that the thorn is (or is closely associated with) a messenger of Satan in the flesh.

Given what Paul says about the flesh and what the Bible says about God’s providence over evil spirits, we can piece together something of what Paul struggled with. An evil spirit attempted to provoke the desires of his flesh. But he resisted by the grace of Jesus.

Through this weakness, Jesus told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Paul concludes: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  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 Cor 12:9–10).

What Satan meant for evil, the thorn in Paul’s flesh, Jesus meant for good. Through weakness, Paul was made strong. And through weakness, by the grace of Jesus, we too are made strong. That is what Paul’s thorn teaches us.

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