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Paul's "thorn." What does "in the flesh" mean?

(Garth D. Wiebe, May 2012, reformatted and updated Feb. 2016, additional αρκει and αγγελος σαταν comments May 2017)

Here's the short version (I'll prove it in the long version):

Here's the long version:

No, of course the "thorn" itself isn't some divinely ordained sickness, as if Paul was stricken by God, or had some sickness that he couldn't do anything about, because God wanted him sick, or some such ridiculous thing. That's shallow, excuse-based thinking, and others have already adequately addressed this false notion elsewhere. This post assumes that the reader has already gotten past that kind of false teaching.

But, let's wipe the slate clean and start at the beginning again.

Is the "thorn" literal? Of course not. If it were, Paul would have pulled it out with a pair of tweezers.

In the Old Testament, "thorns" were people who would cause the Israelites problems. In 2 Cor 12, the "thorn" is identified as a "messenger" (αγγελος, Strong's G32, "aggelos," the word normally translated "angel") identified as/with Satan," (i.e. a demon) which is the New Testament "spirit being" equivalent of the Old Testament's natural people who caused the Israelites problems. Those people were the Israelite's "demons," so to speak, attacking them, enticing them, causing them to stumble, leading them astray, getting them to worship other gods, and so on. They were supposed to evict them, but they didn't, so they became thorns to them (see Num 33:55, Jos 23:12-13, for example).

Now, keep this in mind: The Israelites were supposed to evict the people being referred to as "thorns."

Now let me ask the question again: Is the "thorn" literal? Of course not. If it were, Paul would have pulled it out with a pair of tweezers.

So, why on earth would anyone think that the "in the flesh" that goes with it is literal? In fact, what's the first thing you think about, concerning the Christian faith, when someone utters the phrase "in the flesh"?

"In the flesh" is a phrase used over and over again in the New Testament, especially by Paul. And, it almost always does not refer to literal flesh. It refers to what some modern translations just take the leap and render "the sin nature," also sometimes referred to as our carnal self, the nature that we are supposed to not live according to, and are supposed to put to death, the old human nature that produces all kinds of bad fruit. We are supposed to live by the Spirit.

Now, some of you will be saying that the whole phrase "thorn in the flesh" is just a figure of speech, like a "pain in the neck" or "pain in the butt" of American colloquialism. Yes, perhaps it could also be a figure of speech, but I do not believe that we are required to understand ancient colloquialisms to understand the Bible, nor do I believe that the inspired writers of scripture would be so casual as to talk in mere colloquial terms that we would not understand without an extra-biblical companion colloquial decoder of some sort (which itself would have to be inspired and included). Yet, even in the colloquial meanings, the "in the neck" is not a literal "neck," and "in the butt" is not a literal "butt." So, to be consistent, "in the flesh" would not be literal "flesh," either.

I will proceed on the assumption that he simply meant what he said, even if there was an additional colloquial meaning.

Now, let's put this back into the big context. From about 2 Cor 10 on, the apostle Paul warns of false apostles (who boast about themselves) and he compares them to himself. He goes into a rant of facetious bragging (showing that he had plenty to brag about if he wanted to, while saying he would be a "fool" to seriously do so) in 2 Cor 11, talking about all the things he could call his "qualifications" and what he has been through and seen. But by 2 Cor 12 he is talking about his weaknesses, boasting in them instead.

One such "weakness" he "boasts" about is this "thorn in the flesh" that he got at some point of time in the past.

Now, understanding that the "thorn" is a demon/Satan and "in the flesh" is his carnal nature, everything should start to make sense. Satan cannot touch us unless he gets us to be "in the flesh." That is his playground. Otherwise, if we are "in the spirit" and "hidden in Christ," we are untouchable.

Paul was not perfect (read what he bemoans about himself in Rom 7:14-25). He made mistakes. Only Jesus lived a perfect life. So, at some point of time in the past, Paul had some demon affect him while he was "in the flesh."

Then, what did the great Apostle Paul do? He begged God to take the demon/Satan away!

The word used for the way Paul prayed to God to take it away is παρακαλεω (Strong's G3870, "parakaleo," combining παρα, Strong's G3844, "para," which means "near," and καλεω, Strong's G2564, "kaleo," which means call or bid), used over a hundred times in the New Testament, which means to call near, entreat, implore, or beseech, but used only twice in connection with God, one of them being in 2 Cor 12:8, where the apostle Paul entreated the Lord three times to take the "thorn" away. And, it was to no avail!

Why was it to no avail? Because we are supposed to command demons to leave, not beg God to take them away! Jesus says to his disciples, "...cast out demons..." (Matt 10:8)

"I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." (Luke 10:19)
Paul was "in the flesh" when he was begging God, just like he was "in the flesh" when he was giving place to the affliction of a demon to begin with.

Note that Paul never says that it was the right thing for him to do to beg God to take the demon/Satan away. He simply recalls what in fact he did at that point. He's boasting about a weakness, remember?

So, how does God respond? "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness." Literally, word by word, (2 Cor 12:9)

God's "grace" is sufficient, because Jesus paid the price in his body. God's "power" is perfected in our weakness, when we by faith count our own "in the flesh" ability as nothing and rely on the power of God through the Holy Spirit. We need to die to the flesh and walk in the Spirit! Paul was admitting to a moment of weakness that he had given into at some point in the past.

Paul was demonized (affected by a demon/Satan) because he was "in the flesh." He could have even gotten physically sick as a result (he doesn't say). There is a message for us: Paul begged God to take the demon away, repeatedly. It did not work. That is because God's grace is sufficient for us to do that. When we die to self, walk in the Spirit (not in the flesh) as sons, we have authority. Paul should have cast that demon away. He did not.

This is an important point to get, because a "sacred cow" of traditional teaching is that God was saying "No, I won't" because of some "sovereignty of God" doctrine that claims that it was God's will for Paul to be afflicted (with some physical sickness, they like to say), and that there was nothing that Paul was going to be able to do about it, because they say that it was "God's will" for him to be afflicted ("sick").

But, that's not what God said. He said "My grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in your weakness." So, there is "power" there. What is the "power" capable of doing? Evicting the demon and putting an end to the affliction! By God's grace, which is sufficient!

One more point that is worth making is concerning the word "sufficient," which is Greek αρκει (Strong's G714, "arkeo"), in this case a verb, present tense, literally "is sufficing." This can can convey a sense of being a bit more active or aggressive than just English "suffice," such as to "ward off, keep off, defend, assist, be strong enough." See the LSJ entry 15542.

Paul then says "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Again, if you still didn't get this, the point is about how Paul admitted a past moment of weakness that should have or could have been overcome if he had relied on the grace of God being sufficient, instead of allowing the devil to work him over "in the flesh." God's grace (unmerited favor) provides power as a grace-effect.

Note that it does not say that Paul still had this "thorn in the flesh" anymore at that time of his writing. Perhaps one might assume that he did, by verse 10's "weaknesses" being in the present tense. But it does not say that this is specifically that "thorn in the flesh" any more; he has been talking about "weaknesses" in a more general sense for a long time, multiple times, as I will also soon show.

So, this brings us to the question of how he got "in the flesh" and got affected by a demon. The answer is right there in the scripture, as well: Literally, word by word, (2 Cor 12:7)

The implication is that he was thinking more highly of himself than he ought (because of the "surpassingly great revelations"). He did that, and he got affected somehow by a demon. Satan kept him from being lifted up. By contrast, it is written, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up." (1 Pet 5:6, James 4:10, ref. Prov 3:34)

This is important to the greater context of what he is saying about the false apostles, also. The false apostles in 2 Cor boast and brag about themselves, thinking more highly of themselves than they ought, and without repentance, leading to the preaching of "another Jesus/spirit/gospel" (2 Cor 11:4) Paul boasts about God's grace being sufficient to him, even once when he thought more highly of himself. The false apostles lifted themselves up through self-boasting; the apostle Paul boasts about how he was not lifted up but brought down and then was reminded of God's grace and God's power which could lift him up, so he can now "boast" in his "weaknesses" and "God's power" that makes him strong, instead of boasting in his own abilities "in the flesh." The false apostles are eloquently refuted and condemned.

Now it all makes sense! We still don't know the effect of the demon upon Paul, but we know that it was at a point of weakness on his part. And, given the situation, for all we know, the demon could have made Paul physically sick. Demons do do that, among other things. Whether or not he got physically afflicted from it is besides the point. The solution is to get out of the flesh, into the spirit, take authority, and act like a son of God. (Begging God is not the solution.)

And again, it doesn't say that it was still there. He had all sorts of problems at various times: "Weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, difficulties" (2 Cor 12:10), and all the stuff he talked about in his 2 Cor 11 rant.

Again, Paul's "boasting" in/about his "weakness" is to boast in the Lord, for, (2 Cor 12:10)

We are strong, not in our own strength, but in the strength of the Lord, being "in Christ" and "in the spirit". And, that would be a mark of an apostle, whereas the mark of a false apostle would be to be strong in his own strength, boasting in that, while being lacking "in Christ" and "in the spirit."

At this point, it is helpful to recognize where the word "weakness" and "infirmity" occurs in 2 Corinthians, because it is one and the same Greek word.

"Weakness" is from the word ασθενεια (Strong's G769, "astheneia") which is combination of α (Strong's G1, "a") which means "without," coupled with σθενος ("sthenos") which means "strength" or "vigor." The -ια suffix works just like the -ia suffix in English, generalizing it. This ασθενεια, "without strength-ness/vigor-ness," can be physical or non-physical, depending on the context. So, it can be translated "weakness" or "infirmity." Sickness or some other physical affliction would be one type of ασθενεια, but ασθενεια can mean physical or non-physical infirmity or weakness (un-firmness), not necessarily just sickness, and not necessarily even physical weakness/infirmity.

In just 2 Cor 10 through 13, we see ασθενεια thirteen times. The following is from the CLV (Concordant Literal Version) which opts sometimes to translate it as "weakness" and sometimes "infirmity," but it is the same Greek word:

"seeing that he is averring, 'His epistles, indeed are weighty and strong, yet his bodily presence is weak and his expression to be scorned." (2 Cor 10:10)

"By way of dishonor am I saying this, as that we are weakened. Now in whatever anyone is daring (in imprudence am I saying it), I also am daring" (2 Cor 11:21)

"Who is weak and I am not weak? Who is snared and I am not on fire?" (2 Cor 11:29)

"If I must boast, I will be boasting in that which is of my weakness" (2 Cor 11:30)

"Over such a one I shall be boasting; yet over myself I shall not be boasting, except in my infirmities." (2 Cor 12:5)

"And he has protested to me, 'Sufficient for you is my grace, for my power in infirmity is being perfected.'" (2 Cor 12:9)

"With the greatest relish, then will I rather be glorying in my infirmities, that the power of Christ should be tabernacling over me." (2 Cor 12:9)

"Wherefore I delight in infirmities, in outrages, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake." (2 Cor 12:10)

"For, whenever I may be weak, then I am powerful." (2 Cor 12:10)

"since you are seeking a test of Christ speaking in me, who is not weak for you, but powerful among you." (2 Cor 13:3)

"For even if he was crucified out of weakness, nevertheless he is living by the power of God." (2 Cor 13:4)

"For we also are weak together with him, but we shall be living together with him by the power of God for you." (2 Cor 13:4)

"For we are rejoicing whenever we may be weak, yet you may be powerful." (2 Cor 13:9)

Again, all instances in the above scriptures of "weakness" and "infirmity" are from one and the same Greek root word, and you can even legitimately go back and substitute "weakness" where the CLV that I quoted chooses to use "infirmity" in 2 Cor 12 verses 5, 9, and 10. In every one of these 13 instances above, the context shows that it is not talking about physical sickness.

Then, there is the phrase "in the flesh." There are more instances of "in the flesh" than can be practically listed here; the phrase is used over a hundred times in one way or another. What I will do is list only the places where the exact phrase τη σαρκι ("te sarki") occurs, meaning the two words together with the same grammatical inflection (dative case, literally "to the flesh"), τη immediately followed by σαρκι, just to really narrow it down and not give place to any challenge of misapplication:

"For, when we were in the flesh, the passions of sins, which were through the law, operated in our members to be bearing fruit to death" (Rom 7:5)

"For I am aware that good is not making its home in me (that is, in my flesh), for to will is lying beside me, yet to be effecting the ideal is not" (Rom 7:18)

"For what was impossible to the law, in which it was infirm [ασθενεια] through the flesh, did God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sin's flesh and concerning sin, He condemns sin in the flesh" (Rom 8:3)

"Consequently, then, brethren, debtors are we, not to the flesh, to be living in accord with flesh," (Rom 8:12)

"Yet if you ever should be marrying, also, you did not sin. And if the virgin should be marrying, she did not sin. Yet affliction in the flesh will such be having. Yet I am sparing you." (1 Cor 7:28)

"Wherefore also, lest I should be lifted up by the transcendance of the revelations, there was given to me a splinter in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, that he may be buffeting me, lest I may be lifted up." (2 Cor 12:7)

For you were called for freedom, brethren, only use not the freedom for an incentive to the flesh, but through love be slaving for one another." (Gal 5:13)

"(the enmity in His flesh), nullifying the law of precepts in decrees, that He should be creating the two, in Himself, into one new humanity, making peace;" (Eph 2:15)

"Yet to be staying in the flesh is more necessary because of you" (Phil 1:24)

"I am not rejoicing in my sufferings for you, and am filling up in my flesh, in His stead, the deficiences of the afflictions of Christ, for His body, which is the ecclesia" (Col 1:24)

"For even if, in flesh, I am absent, nevertheless, in spirit, I am with you, rejoicing and observing your order and the stability of your faith in Christ." (Col 2:5)

Notice that only the last three of eleven occurrences deviate from the meaning that I have ascribed to it in 2 Cor 12:7, and only two of those can be taken as literally "in the flesh" (i.e. physical body). In both of those two instances where it is obviously referring to his physical body, he is talking about where his physical body is located, not something that happened to it.

In conclusion, I've shown that it isn't a literal "thorn" in his literal "flesh," that "in the flesh" is normally used figuratively to refer to our carnal nature, especially by the apostle Paul, and that "weakness" and "infirmity" is one word, which can be either physical or not physical.

Let me address a couple of the alternative explanations that I have heard.

One teaching says that the "thorn" is "persecution."

"It was persecution" at least gets you to consider an alternative to the sacred cow of Paul's thorn supposedly being some bodily illness that God supposedly refused take away. "It was persecution" is a convenient alternative, because we are indeed guaranteed persecution.

But the explanation "it was persecution" is still just too shallow.

Why do I know it is not persecution? For one thing, persecution comes from men, not demons. No matter how demonized the persecutors may be, those are their demons, affecting them, not us. Paul was given a "messenger [angel - Greek αγγελος] Satan," not a man, and it was singular, not plural (a demon, not demons).

It also isn't persecution because in 2 Cor 12:10 it lists "persecutions" among a number of things that he "delights in." If he includes "persecutions" in that list, then he would have been straightforward enough to call the thorn "persecution" in the first place, if it was a matter of "persecution." But he didn't call it "persecution" but a "weakness" (ασθενεια), a word that is in the 2 Cor 12:10 list alongside "persecutions."

If it was "persecution" we'd expect the Bible to read something like this:

"Because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me persecution. I entreated the Lord three times to take it away, but he said 'My grace is sufficient for them...'"
Paul, as well as the other apostles, are never recorded to have asked for persecution to be taken away. They sang songs in prison (Acts 16:25), rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer (Acts 5:41), and on and on, all according to behavior that is rooted in Jesus' words:

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt 5:11-12)
That's Jesus' response to persecution, so that would be the apostle's response to persecution: To rejoice in it, not ask God to take it away.

I also want to emphasize that the way it is written, the thorn is referred to as αγγελος σαταν ("messenger Satan"). That is the proper name, "Satan." Now, the name "Satan" literally means "Adversary." There is a common noun, "adversary," such that it could have been written more generally as αγγελος σατανας ("messenger adversary"). If it had been written αγγελος σατανα ("messenger of [an] adversary"), genitive case, that would have been different, or αγγελος του σατανα ("messenger of the adversary). But that is not how it was written, even though the grammar was available to express it. Rather, it is written "messenger Satan."

Another explanation that I have heard considers the "thorn" to be a single demon following Paul around to incite trouble against him more generally, again, making the assumption that it was still doing so at the time of his writing.

I appreciate and totally agree with the point that there was demonic opposition in general, of course. I just see no reason to connect all those people and circumstances to Paul's "thorn in the flesh," and to connect them with one demon. In 2 Cor 11, Paul talks at length about all the difficulties he has been through. He's already done talking about all that. Paul had a whole chapter to say that it was all because of one demon. Now he is talking about something else. If he wanted to connect it with all that stuff in 2 Cor 11, he could have, but he didn't.

Was there a singular demon following him around? I can't prove that there wasn't, but again, Paul would have known this principle of dominion:

"I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." (Luke 10:19)
The thought that Paul would know that there was one demon directly responsible, and not take authority over that demon for an extended period of his life, is not consistent with the principle of our dominion in Christ over the devil and his works. In fact, it comes right down to the same problem: The status quo says that Paul had a sickness, Paul pleaded for God to take it away, and God supposedly said no. I do not see any fundamental difference between this and Paul having a demon following him around, Paul pleading with God to take it away, and God saying no. In the second case, you may have done away with "sickness," but you replaced it with something else that you should have dominion over: a demon following you around. My contention is that the "thorn in the flesh" was only an isolated incident that Paul learned a lesson from at that time, and not something that continued on in his life. The demon got the upper hand because, at one point of time, Paul got "in the flesh."

So, that's where I have issues with other teachings. I see the "transcendence of revelations," resulting in the "thorn," a demon, "buffeting" Paul, keeping him from being "lifted up," then Paul "entreats" God exactly "three times" to take it away, to which God responds "my grace is sufficient...power perfected in weakness..." and then Paul boasts in that. I don't see how the "transcendence of revelations" can be tied back into all his many difficulties that he was going through, even if they were rooted in demonic opposition.

And again, I am not taking the time here to even address the status quo teachings that use the "thorn in the flesh" passage to justify sickness as God-ordained. This post targets those who have gotten past that kind of bad theology and doctrine.

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