Pulling Paul's Thorn
The All-Sufficiency of God's Grace

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

THERE are many Christians who believe that God afflicts His people with health problems and this is the prime verse they use to present that teaching. They are well-meaning and seek to offer encouragement to those who are sick, but there are some important things they have not understood about this text, and that is:


The nature of Paul’s thorn

A common teaching says that God gave Paul a sickness to keep him from becoming proud. Today, it is often identified as a malady of the eyes, based on passages such as Galatians 4:13-15:

You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first … I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.

Historically, however, interpreters have differed widely over the identification of this thorn, even as to whether it was a sickness at all. Even those who decided it was a malady were divided about what sort it might have been.

Let’s take a closer look. First, notice that Paul explicitly describes this “thorn” as a “messenger of satan.” So, whatever this thorn may have been, we know that it came from satan. God did not afflict Paul to punish him, humble him or teach him a lesson. In fact, God did not give it to him at all. On the other hand, the devil had ample reason for wanting to bring Paul down and destroy his influence because of the many revelations Paul received from the Lord.

Second, Paul does not call this “thorn” a sickness. Rather, he specifically identifies it as “a messenger of satan.” The underlying Greek word for “messenger” is angellos which, as you can probably guess, is where we get the word “angel.” This word appears over180 times in the Bible, and in every instance, it refers to a personal being. Not once is it used to refer to a thing, much less to a sickness or disease.

Third, “thorn in the flesh” is nowhere else found in the Bible to be referring to sickness or disease. In Numbers 33:55, the Lord warned Israel, “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your flesh, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell.” Joshua reiterates, “They shall be snares and traps to you, and scourges on your sides and thorns in your eyes” (Joshua 23:13). In Judges 2:3 we read, “They shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.”

The figure of “thorns in the flesh” is used only to refer to adversarial persons. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” which he identified as a “messenger of satan,” most likely referred to demonically influenced persecutors. This should come as no surprise to us, for Jesus promised that there would be persecutions, and Peter warned that our adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

Paul does speak about infirmities (weaknesses) in 2 Corinthians 12:10, along with the reproaches, needs, persecutions, and distresses he endured for Christ’s sake. These were not sicknesses, however, but attacks from the enemy.

The nature of God’s grace

Though Paul pleaded with the Lord three times that this thorn in the flesh might depart from him, God answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

Many preachers and teachers have treated the grace of God in this passage as little more than a kindly disposition. But this kind of “grace” does little to solve the problem. It is a coping mechanism to help you learn how to live with the problem, to bear up pleasantly under it while the messenger of satan is beating you about your head and shoulders. It is portrayed as victory, but it looks very much like defeat.

The grace of God is much more than a simple, kindly disposition of God toward us. It is not an idle wish for our well-being, not a coping mechanism, not a divine apathy that allows you to acquiesce to the abuse of the enemy. That would not even begin to be sufficient for anybody. No, the grace of God is backed with all the power and force of heaven — the divine power that created the universe. Grace is God’s readiness to move heaven and earth on your behalf. It is a divine empowerment that enables you to defeat the enemy altogether.

The nature of sufficiency

God said, “My grace is sufficient for you.” His grace is enough to meet the need. In fact, it is more than enough. Paul spoke earlier in this epistle about the grace of God and its sufficiency to meet every need:

And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

Abundance is having every need fully met with plenty extra. It is more than enough. When God says that His grace is sufficient, He does not mean that it will help you learn to live with lack and muddle through defeat. No, His grace is much greater than that. It comes to meet every need, solve every problem and enable you to live in victory — with plenty of resources left over to bless others.

You see, the real problem was that Paul was trying to get God to do something He had already done, to grant something He had already provided. Paul already had the divine ability and authority of God to deal with this satanic messenger, and it was more than enough to defeat the enemy. Paul learned how to draw on that divine ability, which is why he could boldly declare,

Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me … for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

This was no longer about Paul and his own strength, this was about the mighty power and purpose of God. The Bible says, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifest, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). This same power of Christ was upon Paul to destroy the messenger of satan.

Yes, the devil has a plan for you, to derail and destroy you. He sends his messengers to inflict you with thorns. But Paul said, “We are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Corinthians 2:11), and you don’t have to put up with his tactics.

God has a bigger plan for you, and His grace is overwhelming in its abundance. It does not come to teach you how to live with the problem. It comes to obliterate the problem, meet every need, and totally destroy every work of the devil in your life. God has given you mighty armor so that you can stand against the devil’s wiles (Ephesians 6:11). He has given you the shield of faith to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one (Ephesians 6:16). The grace of God is more than sufficient for you so that you can walk in His abundance and victory.

© 2005 by Jeff Doles.
All rights reserved.

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“JEFF DOLES is a Christian author, blogger and Bible teacher. His books include The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth: Keys to the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Matthew and Praying With Fire: Change Your World with the Powerful Prayers of the Apostles. He and his wife, Suzanne, are the founders of Walking Barefoot Ministries. Visit their website at www.walkingbarefoot.com.”

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