â€”2 Cor 12:7-10
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." Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Many Christians are familiar with this passage and you probably have your own interpretation of these verses. Letâ€™s examine this well-known passage again and study, according to Scripture, what these verses mean and how they apply to our lives.
What exactly was Paulâ€™s "thorn"? Many Christians interpret the thorn in Paulâ€™s side as some kind of physical illness that caused him suffering and hindered his work for the Lord. Letâ€™s evaluate this popular interpretation in light of Paulâ€™s character and his work for the Lord.
Paul had a deep understanding of Christâ€™s love (Rom 8:35-39), suffered numerous beatings for the gospel (2 Cor 11:25), and was even willing to die for the Lord (Acts 21:13). Once Paul was even stoned to the brink of death (Acts 14:19), and yet he still continued to preach the gospel. Would such a faithful servant truly ask the Lord to take away his physical illness? What kind of physical illness caused him more suffering than what he had already experienced?
To understand the meaning of the "thorn," we need to study the word in other parts of Scripture. In 2 Samuel 23:6, David uses thorns to describe his adversaries: "But the sons of rebellion shall all be as thorns thrust away, because they cannot be taken with hands." A psalmist also uses thorns to describe his adversaries: "All nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I will destroy them? They surrounded me like bees; they were quenched like a fire of thorns..." (Ps 118:10-13)
Paulâ€™s thorn was not a physical illness but most likely his adversaries. What kind of adversaries did Paul have? In Paulâ€™s second epistle to the Corinth church, he refers to these adversaries:
For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into apostles of Christ. And no wonder! For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works. (2 Cor 11:13-15)
In the Corinth church, there were false teachers who stirred up the people against Paul, attacking his character (2 Cor 10:10) and claiming that he was unqualified as an apostle of Christ (2 Cor 11:16-23). These deceitful workers obstructed Paulâ€™s ministry and caused him much spiritual suffering. These were the messengers of Satan, the thorn in Paulâ€™s flesh.
Paul pleaded with the Lord to take away his thorn, not one but three times, because of the obstruction to the Lordâ€™s work. The Lord did not do so but instead said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).
What is this "weakness"? Popular interpretation equates "weakness" with sinful desire or the work of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). If this is true, then does this mean we must remain in sin in order to achieve perfection? Should this be how we interpret "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor 12:10)? Of course not. Paul tells us, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?" (Rom 6:1-2).
In order to understand the meaning of "weakness" in this passage, we again need to study the word in other areas of Scripture. In 2 Corinthians 13:4, Paul writes, "For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God?" This passage states that Christ was crucified in "weakness," but this "weakness" surely does not refer to sin, because Jesus was without sin.
To understand the meaning of "weakness" in this passage, letâ€™s refer to another passage referring to Jesus' crucifixion. Paul writes in Philippians 2:8-9:
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.
This passage states that Jesus "humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death." God exalted Jesus because of His humility.
Putting these two passages together, we see that Jesus "humbled Himself" to the point of death and was "crucified in weakness." The "weakness" of Christ therefore refers to the humility of Christ. Using the same interpretation, then, the weakness in 2 Corinthians 12:9 is not the work of the flesh, but humility.
A Spiritual Battle
Paul is describing a spiritual battle in this passage. Satan used the false apostles of the Corinth church to attack Paul because Paul remained humble despite the abundance of revelations he received from God (2 Cor 12:7).
Paul recognized Satanâ€™s attack and asked the Lord to intervene and remove the thorn. However, instead of taking away the thorn, God answered him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." Paul then began to understand Godâ€™s purpose for the thorn: it helped Paul achieve perfection, making him even more humble and reliant on the Lord. Satan wanted to make Paul fall, but God turned this adversity into a blessing (Deut 23:5).
Many servants of God also experienced similar "thorns" in their flesh in the midst of spiritual battle. Jesus suffered a "thorn" in the form of Judas Iscariot, His own disciple that would betray Him (Jn 13:21-26). Jeremiahâ€™s thorn was his fellow countryman, who mocked his prophecies and desired him to fall (Jer 20:7-10). Jobâ€™s thorn was his three friends, whom he called "worthless physicians" and "miserable comforters" for persecuting instead of comforting him in his greatest hour of need (Job 2-31).
Like Paul, we too may encounter adversity and "thorns" in our flesh when we work for the Lord. Sometimes our adversaries are those outside of the body of Christ, but sometimes they are our own brethren, our friends, or even our family members.
It is often the most difficult to bear when we face opposition from those close to us. We should remember, though, that we are engaged in spiritual battle and our real enemy is not those who oppose us, but Satan himself. Paul tells us, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). However, if we do find brethren in sin, we should follow the Lordâ€™s teaching and encourage them to repent (Mt 18:15-20; Jas 5:19-20). This was also the main purpose that Paul wrote the second epistle to the Corinth church (2 Cor 12:14-13:6).
Within the body of Christ, we should seek unity and peace. Paul encourages us, "â€¦walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph 4:1-3).
According to the passage above, important ingredients to keeping unity and peace within the body of Christ are "lowliness and gentleness," or in other words, humility. Paul encourages us not to do anything out of selfish ambition or conceit, but "in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself" (Phil 2:1-4).
Problems often start when we start looking at others?faults and expect them to have the same gifts as we do. This causes contentions, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, etc. (2 Cor 12:20). We should recognize that everyone has different spiritual gifts, and each one of these gifts is for the edification of whole church (1 Cor 12:7).
Sometimes the opposition we face may not depart from us even after we have offered many fervent prayers, just as the Lord did not take away Paulâ€™s thorn. But we should not lose heart, and remember the purpose of the thorn: to make us even more humble and reliant on God. Godâ€™s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Therefore, we should take pleasure in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distress for His sake (2 Cor 12:9-10), and the power of Christ will rest upon us (1 Pet 4:12-14).