What Was Paul's Thorn? Why Does It Matter?

(Photo: Jez Timms)

(Photo: Jez Timms)

Let's investigate this topic of the "thorn in the flesh." It's a big issue when it comes to healing. If we believe the thorn means disease, sickness, or infirmity, it's pretty hard to pray confidently for healing. After all, how would we know if God wants to heal, or if He wants to teach us a lesson and keep us humble? Can God even be good if He is purposefully willing sickness on us? Good questions.


I will do my best to tackle this issue clearly, and not get too lengthy! But the topic is thick. Here's the primary passage we are looking at:


"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! 8 Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor. 12:7-10 NASB)


The word for thorn is "skolops" and it is the only time it is used in the New Testament. It means "a point, a prickle, a stake" according to the Strong's Greek Dictionary and NASB Dictionaries. The Strong's # is 4647 for those interested in geeking out on Greek.


There are a few cross-references for this word according to my trusty Key Word Study Bible. Let's take a look at some of them to discover the meaning of this word "thorn."


The first instance in the Old Testament is found in Num. 33:55 and it is referring to inhabitants of the land becoming "as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land in which you live." It's interesting that in this context, the thorn is not a thing or disease, it is a people group. God tells Moses to drive out the inhabitants of the land before they possess it. If they don't, these folks are going to be a pain in their sides!




There is also something called the "principle of first mention." Many Bible scholars believe that the first time a word is used in Scripture tends to set the precedent for the meaning of that word. There is some speculation on this idea. But it's one tool used to interpret Scripture correctly. (At least this is my understanding of this principle to date.) Again, it doesn't make this water-tight. It's just something to take note of. The first use of this word was speaking of inhabitants, people, persecutors that are going to cause trouble. It wasn't speaking of sickness and disease.


The second use of this word is found in Ezekiel 28:24. It says, "And there will be no more for the house of Israel a prickling brier or a painful thorn from any round about them who scorned them; then they will know that I am the Lord God." (NASB) This isn't talking about a sickness or infirmity. It's talking about Israel's enemies who have scorned them and been like a painful thorn to them. It's persecution.


The third use of this word is found in Hosea 2:6. It alludes to God building a wall against Israel, a hedge of thorns, in order to block Israel from continuing to play the harlot, acting unfaithfully. This use is a little more cryptic. But it definitely doesn't mean sickness or disease.


Okay. So what does all this mean? From what I can tell, the meaning of the word thorn isn't used for sickness, disease or infirmity. It has more of a persecution, enemy attack, annoying people connotation to it. Could I be wrong? Sure.But why aren't pastors at least teaching this as a possibility?


Sometimes we teach what we've been taught without investigating it for ourselves. I'm certainly guilty of this.


I was always taught that this thorn was sickness, disease, or some unknown physical disability that God gave to Paul on purpose. Yet, we don't see any instance where Jesus intentionally gave someone a sickness when they were seeking healing.


Not one instance. That is worth noting.


Let's go one layer deeper. The reason stated for this thorn being permitted by God is to keep Paul humble…because Paul had an exceedingly great revelation with God when he was "caught up to the third heaven." I realize this is weird. Even Paul wasn't sure whether it was in the body or just his spirit. But you and I? We haven't been caught up to the third heaven. Well, I haven't. I'm not in danger of becoming proud because God caught me up into Paradise where I heard "inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak." (2 Cor. 12:2-4)


What does this mean? Paul had an incredibly unique experience with God that gave him boasting props. And for some reason, God knew that unique experience and revelation might propel Paul into a spirit of pride or boasting. If you don't believe me, check out the whole chapter of 2 Cor. 12.


Do I understand what all of this means? Nope. But combining this interesting insight into the word thorn, with all of its prior uses, and what I know about Jesus from His recorded actions?


I don't think this thorn was sickness. That's my personal opinion.


Paul may have had an annoying heckler, a group of Jews trying to undermine his ministry or even kill him. But this doesn't seem to me like a clear-cut infirmity or disease or "blindness" as many preachers teach.


Here's what we do know:

1. The thorn was a messenger of Satan. It was a Satanic assault. Let's not forget who was doing the attacking. It was not God. It was Satan.

2. The thorn was painful and it made Paul weak.

3. Paul asked three times for God to make it "depart" from him.

4. God's answer was, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness."

5. Ultimately, the end result, was that this thorn made Paul more powerful in Christ, not less.


Paul then goes on to describe a few things in verse ten, "Therefore, I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties…" Many of these descriptions seem to point to people persecuting Paul.


And "weaknesses" by the way simply means weaknesses. There are six other Greek words Paul could have used that meant: "sickness, crippled, disease, invalid, and infirmity." The exact word used here is weakness. It's the same word used in 2 Cor. 13:4 when Paul describes Jesus being crucified in weakness. Jesus wasn't sick. He was beaten up, whipped, and tortured. That's quite different from being afflicted with disease.


If this is truly what the thorn was, that it was persecution from an enemy or even Satan himself, it matches with Jesus' teaching. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. 5:10 NASB)


For those who entreated Jesus for healing, Jesus never once gave them sickness instead. He never refused to heal either. He was always willing. However, He did say there would be persecutions. He told us we would be rewarded for our righteousness during persecution.


I'm just going to throw this bomb out there:

Maybe we should stop calling sickness our thorn. And maybe we should stop saying "God gave me this thorn." Perhaps we should realize our thorns are actually Satanic assaults. And the best thing we can do is put on the armor of God, and place exceedingly great trust in our God who cares deeply about our pain and weaknesses.


I don't know. Just maybe…



Rachel B.


Resources to note:

  • NASB Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible published by AMG Publishers, Chattanooga, TN. (Includes Strong's Dictionaries and Concordance)
  • Logos Bible Software.
  • The Healing Reawakening, Francis McNutt.
  • Books by Randy Clark. In particular, The Healing Breakthrough.
  • The Law of First Mention, an essay by Roel Velema on this principle. Link: http://roel.velemaweb.nl/velema/files/lofm.pdf.

(I only read some of this essay, but I've had a few conversations with pastors with extensive seminary training. This is where I first heard of this principle.)


PS - if you made it to the end of this post: Congratulations! I will aim to shorten these up in the future. But I just got a bee in my bonnet about this stuff right now. I feel like I've been robbed of the goodness of God...and it's time to reclaim it!