“To keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me.”
2 Corinthians 12:7
God sometimes uses trials to humble believers.
Professional athletics, as a whole, makes up one of the least humble sectors in modern American society. Players with multi–million dollar salaries and extravagant benefits have replaced those who played because they loved their sport and had great community loyalty.
One such noble model from the past was Lou Gehrig, the Hall of Fame first baseman with the New York Yankees, whose career ended in 1939 after he was stricken with a rare and always fatal neuromuscular disease. Throughout his ordeal, Gehrig conducted himself with dignity and humility, all of which culminated on July 4, 1939, before a capacity crowd at Yankee Stadium, with millions more listening on the radio. He concluded his special remarks on “Lou Gehrig Day” with this amazing statement: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He died approximately two years later.
Shouldn’t those who seek to serve and glorify God react in similar fashion if confronted by the same kind of trial? They will if they remember that He sometimes sends trials to humble His children and remind them they are not to be overconfident in their own spiritual strength (Rom. 12:3).
Today’s verse tells us God allowed Paul to be plagued by some sort of chronic, painful problem, “a messenger of Satan.” This likely refers to a man who led the opposition to Paul at the church in Corinth. When we are greatly blessed spiritually—Paul saw the risen Christ several times and was even taken up into the third heaven—the Lord sometimes allows “a thorn in the flesh” to afflict us, that we might remain humble. Whenever we are besieged by such trials and come to the point where all strength seems gone, God’s Word reminds us, as it did Paul, “ ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I [Paul] will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Suggestions for Prayer: Ask the Lord to remind you throughout the day of your humble dependence on Him, whether or not you are going through a trial.
For Further Study: Read James 4:6–10 and 1 Peter 5:5–7. What do these passages say is the key to genuine humility?
God Uses Suffering to Make Believers Humble
Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! (12:7)
The evidence of Paul’s success in ministry was the power of the gospel to transform lives that led to the churches he founded and built up. They were a monument to his faithfulness and to God’s power working through him. To see any of those churches being led astray by false teachers was a painful, humbling experience for Paul, yet one that he needed. Twice in verse 7 he emphasized that God allowed his thorn in the flesh to keep him from exalting himself. Though he was the noblest Christian of all, Paul was not impervious to the normal struggles of life. Certainly, because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations he had experienced (Acts records six visions apart from the one related in this passage; he also received the gospel he preached by revelation [Gal. 1:11–12; cf. Eph. 3:3]), pride was a constant temptation. Therefore, to keep him humble, Paul was given … a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him.
The identity of that thorn in the flesh has been much debated. Paul did not describe it in detail, indicating that the Corinthians knew what it was. Most commentators assume it was a physical ailment, such as migraines, ophthalmia, malaria, epilepsy, gallstones, gout, rheumatism, an intestinal disorder, or even a speech impediment. That such a wide range of possibilities has been put forth indicates a lack of specific support in Scripture for any of them. (Even if Paul’s words in Gal. 6:11, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand,” indicate an eye problem, there is nothing in that verse that connects it with the apostle’s thorn in the flesh.) Skolops (thorn) could be better translated “stake,” graphically indicating the intensity of the suffering it caused Paul; it was not a small thorn but a large stake.
The apostle acknowledged that the thorn in the flesh ultimately was given to him from God. (See Job 1 and 2, where God permitted Satan to afflict Job for His own purposes; cf. Gen. 50:20.) The phrase in the flesh could also be rendered “for” or “because of the flesh.” Flesh should be understood here not in a physical sense, but in a moral sense as a reference to Paul’s unredeemed humanness (cf. Rom. 6:19; 7:5, 18, 25; 8:4–9). The Lord allowed Paul’s intense suffering to impale his otherwise proud flesh; to humble the one who had so many revelations.
It is best to understand Paul’s thorn as a demonic messenger of Satan sent to torment him by using the deceivers to seduce the Corinthians into a rebellion against him. At least four lines of evidence support that interpretation. First, in the overwhelming majority of its uses in the New Testament (including every other occurrence in Paul’s writings), angelos (messenger) refers to angels. An angel sent from Satan would, of course, be a demon. Second, the verb translated torment always refers to harsh treatment from someone (Matt. 26:67; Mark 14:65; 1 Cor. 4:11; 1 Peter 2:20). Third, the Old Testament sometimes refers metaphorically to opponents as thorns (e.g., Num. 33:55; Josh. 23:13; Judg. 2:3; Ezek. 28:24). Finally, the verb translated leave in verse 8 is always used in the New Testament to speak of someone departing. Likely, then, the demonic messenger was tormenting Paul by being the indwelling spirit in the leading false apostle (cf. 2 Cor. 11:13–15; 1 Tim. 4:1). Again, this is consistent with Paul’s testimony that his severest suffering came from his concern for the church (11:28–29).
Satan’s assault on Paul did not take place outside of God’s will. God is sovereign over all of His creation and will use even the forces of the kingdom of darkness to accomplish His righteous purposes (cf. Num. 22:2–24:25; 1 Kings 22:19–23; Luke 22:31–32). Paul was critical to God’s redemptive plan, and He would keep him humble by whatever means necessary, including using a demon. If this seems unusual, remember the accounts of Job (Job 1:6–12; 2:1–7) and Peter (Luke 22:31). In both cases God allowed Satan to bring devastating suffering on His saints to achieve their greater usefulness. This is a good reminder of the foolishness of those who try to tell Satan and demons what to do and where to go. If we could command demons, we might thwart the purposes of God with our faulty assumptions.
12:7 This whole section is a most accurate description of the life of a servant of Christ. It has its moments of deep humiliation, such as the event at Damascus. Then it has its mountain top experiences, such as Paul’s exhilarating revelation. But normally after a servant of the Lord has enjoyed one of these experiences, the Lord allows him to suffer some thorn in the flesh. That is what we have here.
We learn many priceless lessons from this verse. First, it is proof that even divine revelations of the Lord do not correct the flesh in us. Even after the apostle had listened to the language of Paradise, he still had the old nature, and was in danger of falling into the snare of pride. As R. J. Reid has said:
“A man in Christ” is safe in the presence of God as he listens to the untranslatable things spoken in paradise, but he needs “a thorn in the flesh” upon his return to earth, for the flesh in him would boast of his paradise experience.
What was Paul’s thorn in the flesh? All we can say for sure is that it was some bodily trial which God allowed to come into his life. No doubt the Lord purposely failed to specify exactly what the thorn was so that tried and tested saints down through the years might feel a closer kinship with the apostle as they suffer. Perhaps it was some form of eye disease, perhaps an earache, perhaps malaria, perhaps migraine headaches, perhaps something connected with Paul’s speech. Moorehead states: “The precise nature of it has been concealed perhaps that all afflicted ones may be encouraged and helped by Paul’s unnamed yet painful experience.”48 Our trials may be very different from Paul’s, but they should produce the same exercise and fruits.
The apostle describes the thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan to buffet him. In one sense it represented an effort on Satan’s part to hinder Paul in the work of the Lord. But God is greater than Satan, and He used the thorn to further the work of the Lord by keeping Paul humble. Successful service for Christ depends on a weak servant. The weaker he is, the more the power of Christ accompanies his preaching.
7 Others might be tempted, “because of these surpassingly great revelations” accorded to Paul, to form an estimate of him that outstripped the evidence (cf. v. 6b). But he himself was in no such danger. To keep him from becoming conceited (or overly elated; see Notes) there was given him a thorn in his flesh. Two inferences are fair: (1) The agent implied by edothē (“there was given,” GK 1443; cf. the “theological passives” in vv. 2, 4) is God. This is confirmed by the fact that the “thorn” (skolops, GK 5022; see Notes) was given to achieve a beneficial purpose—the prevention of spiritual conceit—and that Paul requested the Lord for the departure of the messenger (v. 8). (2) The “thorn” was given immediately or shortly after the vision described in vv. 2–4.
It is significant that in vv. 7–10 Paul speaks of himself in the first person (cf. vv. 2–5); his reputation was in no danger of being illegitimately enhanced (cf. v. 6) by describing the outcome of the vision!
The efforts that have been made to identify Paul’s “thorn” are legion. The recurring suggestions may be grouped under three broad headings: (1) spiritual or psychological anxiety (such as anguish over Israel’s stubborn unbelief [P. H. Menoud]); (2) opposition to his ministry or message (a single opponent [T. Y. Mullins] or opponents in general [M. L. Barré]); and (3) a physical malady, whether unspecified as to its nature (C. H. Dodd and I) or specified (such as malaria [W. M. Ramsay], Malta fever [W. M. Alexander], or migraine headaches [U. Heckel]). But paucity of information and the obscurity of Paul’s language have frustrated all attempts to solve this enigmatic problem. In fact, had Paul revealed what his skolops was, Christians of succeeding generations who lacked his particular affliction or disability would have tended to find his experience (vv. 8–10) irrelevant. As it is, countless believers have been helped by his reference to his “thorn.”
It is remarkable that Paul could regard his affliction as given by God and yet as “a messenger of Satan.” This may support the view that the affliction was some type of physical malady, because in 1 Corinthians 5:5 (cf. 1 Co 11:30; 1 Ti 1:20) Satan appears as God’s agent for the infliction of disciplinary illness (cf. Job 2:1–10). Certainly a recurrent and tormenting malady could be considered “a messenger of Satan,” for it might bring Paul within the shadow of death (cf. 2 Co 1:8–9) or hinder the advance of the gospel either by arousing the contempt of his hearers (cf. Gal 4:13–14) or by so incapacitating him that traveling plans were frustrated. Be that as it may, behind any and every machination of Satan Paul could discern the overarching providence of a God who perpetually creates good out of evil.
 MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2003). 2 Corinthians (pp. 400–401). Chicago: Moody Publishers.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1865). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
 Harris, M. J. (2008). 2 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 532–533). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.