Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

“And by the surpassing revelations, lest I not be made haughty, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger [Gr. “angelos”] of Satan to buffet me, lest I be made haughty. For this thing I besought the Lord three times, that it might depart from me. And He 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 overshadow me. Therefore I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am powerful.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Several years ago (in 1990), I had the opportunity of attending a Bible seminar hosted by well know (conservative) Bible scholar, Dr. John MacArthur, Jr., in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Dr. MacArthur’s passage was 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (quoted above). During the only talk that I was able to attend, Dr. MacArthur was careful to explain that in all of the instances where the word “angelos” is used in the Bible (somewhere in the order of 188 times, if I remember correctly), in each case, the word refers to a literal “messenger” of some type — i.e. an angel, and evil spirit (someone, or something (a being, that is), sent, or “deployed,” in order to carry a message). Dr. MacArthur’s suggestion was that this passage should not be interpreted any differently. Probably, the “messenger of Satan” that Paul was referring to was a person (or a demon) that was harassing him. I believe the situation was a temporary one. Of course, some people are persecuted, even killed, on account of their faith. Ultimately, we will see complete freedom and liberty in the next life, not this one (there will always be troubles for us here).

Whatever Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was (and I believe it was probably as Dr. MacArthur explained, a literal “messenger of Satan” or even evil spirit, for that matter), I think one thing is clear. The “answer” to Paul’s trouble lay not in Paul praying to God and God simply removing the “thorn in the flesh,” but, rather, in Paul’s wholehearted submission to God’s will. In other words, Paul had to be humble. Try as he may, and pray as he may, God was not willing to removed this person from Paul’s situation until Paul himself was willing to completely lay down his pride and submit to God (I am not trying to make myself out to be better than Paul here. I have my own “thorns in the flesh” to deal with).

If we examine this a little further, I think that we will see that this thought (that freedom comes through submission to God and wholeheartedly submitted to his will) is entirely consistent with James 4:7, which says, “Submit therefore to God, resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” The idea, then, is that submission to God must come first. The ability to get “truly free” comes second. This must always be the proper order, but, unfortunately, we sometimes get it mixed up! We desire to “get free” without wanting to be humble. God knows that a “free yet proud servant” is a dangerous thing to His kingdom, and Paul’s temptation, because of the “great and surpassing revelations” that he received, was to be just that.