2 Corinthians


8. Paul defends his ministry, 10:1-12:21

vi] Paul's thorn in the flesh


Paul now explains how God has given him a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from being conceited.


i] Context: See 11:1-15.


ii] Background: See 1:1-7.


iii] Structure: Paul's thorn in the flesh:

The gift of the thorn, v7;

The answer to prayer - grace, not healing, v8-9.

The conclusion of Paul's Fool's Speech, v10.


iv] Interpretation:

If Paul was to boast of his strength, he has much to be proud of, but his boast is of his weakness. In 12:7-10 Paul speaks of his weakness and identifies it as the source of his power. There is no better path in life than to identify with Christ's weakness, for a life aligned to the humiliation of Christ's death is a life aligned to the power of his resurrection. So, Paul boasts of his own humiliation, rather than his glory (particularly, his mystical visions referred to in 12:2-4). For Paul, his humiliation powerfully witnesses to the authenticity of his apostleship. It is this witness that should quieten his spiritual critics in the Corinthian church; they glory in their "gifts", while Paul glories in his "thorn". Of course, Paul has much to boast of, for in v1-6 he tells us of a man who was caught up into heaven and who witnessed and heard things he is unable to speak of. Such a man could boast and that man is Paul, but he refrains from boasting so that theology does the convicting, rather than signs and wonders.


What is Paul's thorn? Theories abound as to the exact nature of Paul's "thorn." Commentators work over the many theories, but all can be distilled down to three:

*A psychological issue of some kind, possibly related to temptation or grief;

*The constant opposition to the gospel experienced by Paul: secular, Jewish and from within the Christian church;

*Some physical disability, disease or illness, cf., Gal.1:8, 4:13f, 1Thess.2:18.

Most commentators opt for the third option, a health related issue. Suggestions include an eyesight malady of some sort; the recurrence of malaria; some outward debilitating physical ailment. Thrall suggests recurring migraines, given that the verb kolafizw, "to beat", can well express acute throbbing pain.


v] Exposition: A simple exposition of this passage may be found in the linked pew-level Sermon Notes.


The infliction of the thorn, v7-10: i] The gift of the thorn, v7. Therefore, in order that I should not be conceited, I was given a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, in order that he might buffet me, (in order that I not become) lest I become conceited. To give balance to his vision of paradise, Paul was inflicted with "a stake for the flesh". This "splinter", this "sharpened wooden shaft", this "thorn" in the flesh, humiliated him. Paul calls his thorn a "messenger (angel) of Satan". He sees it as demonic in origin, not something sent by God. Although Satan does his thing, God's will is not thwarted and so "the thorn" is used for ultimate good, Heb.12:10.

th/ uperbolh/ (h) dat. "because of these surpassingly great" - [and] by the excess, quality. Instrumental dative expressing cause, "because of / on the basis of"; "because of the abundance of the revelations", NAB. The word can be qualitative as in the NIV, "extraordinary", or it can be quantitative, "excess". Qualitative seems best. Note that the phrase "surpassingly great revelations" is most likely the conclusion of the sentence beginning in v6b. Paul refrains from boasting about anything so that people will not think more of him than can be determined by his teaching and the evidence of his life, "and that goes for (even) the wondrous revelations" which he has just alluded to. "And indeed, for fear that these surpassing revelations should make me proud, I was given a sting to distress my outward nature", Knox.

twn apokaluyewn (iV ewV) gen. "revelations" - of the revelations. The genitive may be taken as adjectival, possessive, "because of the revelations' exceptional nature", although usually it is treated as attributed, "surpassing revelations", as NIV. The revelations Paul is referring to are recorded in v1-4. His out of body experience was of paradise / the third heaven; "life in the presence of God became a momentary reality for him in an ecstatic condition which he experienced while here on earth", Thrall.

dio "-" - therefore. The new paragraph begins by drawing a logical conclusion; "therefore". Therefore, the reason Paul is not going to get into boasting is as follows.

iJna mh + subj. "in order" - so that, in order that not = lest. Three purpose clauses follow in v7. To undermine any conceit Paul may have had regarding his spiritual qualifications he was given by God a "thorn" in his flesh, a visit from a satanic messenger, in order to buffet him, in order that he might not be conceited. Note the NIV does not have the third clause which repeats the sense of the first. "In order that I not be conceited, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of satan, in order that he might beat me, in order that I should not be conceited."

uJperairwmai (uJperairw) subj. mid. "conceited" - i should be lifted up, too exalted. In the middle voice "exalt oneself", "become conceited" ....

moi dat. pro"I [was given]" - [there was given] to me [a thorn]. Dative of indirect object. "Thorn" is probably the sense of skoloy, but Bruce goes for "splinter", while some others argue for "stake", in the sense that Paul is impaled and therefore immobilized. The "thorn" doesn't seem to immobilize Paul, but rather removes any opportunity for him to be placed on a pedestal. As noted above, some particular ailment seems likely: poor eyesight, cf. Gal.4:13-15, epilepsy (Lightfoot), malaria (Ramsay), poor nerves. "I was given a physical handicap", Phillips.

th/ sarki (x koV) dat. "in my flesh" - in the flesh. Often referring to one's lower nature, but here most likely referring to the physical body. The dative may be a dative of interest, "for my flesh", explanatory of the personal pronoun, "given to me, that is, to my flesh", or locative, "in my flesh." Locative is preferred by most commentators.

Satana (aV) gen. proper "of Satan" - [a messenger] of satan. The genitive proper is best classified as ablative, expressing source / origin; "from Satan." The thorn is evil, something to weaken and buffet him, yet in God's hands it has a good purpose.

iJna subj. "to [torment]" - that [he might buffet, batter, strike or beat with the fist [me lest i should be exalted]. "To batter me", Barclay; "harass", Phillips; "rack me", Moffatt; "buffet", REB.


ii] The answer to prayer - grace, not healing, v8-9. Concerning this, I prayed to the Lord three times to take it away from me. Paul tells us that three times he asked that the "thorn" be taken away from him. This implies that on three occasions he was overwhelmed by the problem.

uJper + gen. "-" - as to. Expressing reference / respect; "with respect to / with regard to / concerning this."

toutou "-" - this thorn in the flesh. The "this" refers to the "messenger of Satan" since the verb "take it away" is used in the NT of persons. None-the-less, the "messenger of Satan" is in apposition to (adding to or explaining) "thorn in the flesh", so Paul is asking for the thorn ("it") to be taken away.

triV "three times" - [i called upon the lord] three times. Why three times? There are numerous suggestions: urgency, symbolism (note the many threes in the Bible), three separate attacks of the malady. The incident serves as an example of unanswered prayer made initially without the benefit of God's revealed will, which will is later revealed.

parekalesa (parakalew) aor. "pleaded with" - i called upon, asked, entreated. "Pleaded with" is very strong; a word like "sought" is far better than "begged", CEV. "Three times over I prayed the Lord to relieve me", Moffatt.

iJna + subj. "to" - that [it might withdraw, depart]. Introducing a dependent statement of indirect speech expressing what Paul asked of the Lord.

ap (apo) + gen. "from" - from [me]. Expressing separation, away from. Typical repetition of a prepositional prefix, here from the verb afisthmi (apo + iJsthmi).


In v9a Paul tells us that his infliction, Satan's messenger, was transformed into a triumph of grace - a vindication of the Lord's gracious power. He tells us that he received a powerful word from the Lord, namely, that God's eternal sovereign grace transcends adversity. The operation of God's powerful grace is most clearly seen when viewed from human inadequacy, particularly when that inadequacy seemingly undermines gospel ministry. As far as Paul is concerned, his inadequacy verifies the authenticity of his apostleship. In the rest of the verse Paul makes a simple point: the above being the case, he welcomes inadequacy, trouble, etc. for it is in weakness that Christ's power is most readily evident. So, as far as Paul is concerned, it's bring on the weakness. Like the shekinah glory radiating forth from the midst of the temple, God's sovereign grace is most evident in the life of his people when they are inadequate, rather than strong. In weakness the indwelling Spirit is operative, and this because we are bound to rely on him more than we would in good times. For this reason, Paul can "boast all the more gladly" about his weakness.

eirhken (legw) perf. "he said" - [and] he has said. The perfect tense indicates a past action (the communication of God's revealed will on the issue of Paul's "thorn") with present ramifications (he no longer prays for the removal of the thorn due to God's revealed will on the matter). Does this have something to say to the exercise of the healing ministry in today's church?

moi dat. pro. "to me" - to me. Dative of indirect object.

hJ cariV (iV itoV) "grace" - [my] grace. In the NT the word primarily refers to the covenant mercy of God, but of course this mercy expresses itself in numerous ways. For example, Paul even uses the word in relation to God's appointing him as an apostle, a man who once persecuted the church. In relation to the present passage, "grace" assures us that no trouble can take us from Christ, Rom.8:38. Here we could translate "grace" with a word like "kindness", but something like "unbounded mercy" probably best carries the sense. "Grace", in the sense of God's unmerited favor toward us in Christ for now and eternity, is a concept well able to carry us through the barbs of life.

arkei (arkew) pres. "is sufficient" - is adequate, sufficient, enough. Some suggest that the word here carries a "stoic" sense of resignation, but Paul is not resigned to his situation, in the sense of rolling over and giving up. For him it is onward and upward, despite his "thorn". "My grace is all you need", Barclay.

soi dat. pro. "for you" - Dative of interest, advantage, as NIV.

gar "for" - because. Introducing a causal clause explaining why God's grace is sufficient.

hJ dunamiV (iV ewV) "my power" - the = my power, authority. It seems best to assume that "power" is a synonym for "grace". If this is the case, then "power" here is the power of God's unmerited favor, his covenant mercy, operative through the risen Christ, a power to eternally save.

teleitai (telew) pres. pas. "is made perfect" - is completed, perfected. Both meanings are possible, but "completed" is better than "perfected", given that the revelation does not deal with moral issues. "My power is strongest when you are weak", CEV.

en + dat. "in" - Local, expressing space / sphere; "within the circumstances of weakness."

asqeneia/ (a) "weakness" - weakness, sickness. "Weakness" is imaged in the crucifixion of Christ, just as power is imaged in the resurrection of Christ. Paul often speaks of his weakness in terms of persecution.

oun "therefore" - Inferential; drawing a logical conclusion.

mallon adv. "all the more" - [i will boast] more / rather. Possibly used to strengthen "gladly" - "much more gladly", but "rather" seems better. Paul boasts of his suffering "rather" than visions and esoteric manifestations (understood).

hJdista (hJdew) sup. adv. "gladly" - gladly [in the weakness of me]. Superlative, "most gladly." Given this revelation, Paul will all the more gladly boast of his weakness, rather than get into asking the Lord to take the thorn away.

iJna + subj. "so that" - that. This hina clause is subject to some debate. It does seem best to take it as introducing a consecutive clause expressing result. None-the-less, it is often treated as a final clause expressing purpose. If a purpose clause, does Paul affirm his weakness in order that he can access the grace / power of God already abiding in him through his faith in Christ, or does he affirm his weakness in order that he will receive the gift of, or a greater portion of, God's grace / power? The second possible meaning certainly does not sit with Pauline theology since it leads to mysticism. Bultmann and others, who argue for the revelatory function of weakness, of divine encounter in surrender, of power drawn from weakness, are more into flagellation than revelation. The verb "rest on" is best understood as "abide", in the same sense as God in Christ dwells among us. This idea images the shekinah glory, God's radiant presence in the temple. So, Paul's identification with the suffering Christ, expressed physically in his own suffering (the thorn), serves, as a consequence / result, to accentuate the grace / power of God that already abides in him, which suffering authenticates his apostleship. "Therefore, I have cheerfully made up my mind to be proud of my weaknesses, because they mean (result in) a deeper experience of the power of Christ", Phillips.

tou Cristou (oV) gen. "Christ's [power]" - [the power] of christ. The NIV takes the genitive as adjectival, possessive, but possibly verbal, subjective, "the power exercised by Christ", or ablative, source / origin, "the power emanating from Christ."

ep (epi) + acc. "on [me]" - [might rest] upon [me]. Spacial; "on, upon"; possibly "over", as in a shelter over.


iii] The conclusion to Paul's Fool's Speech, v10. Because the sovereign grace of God is made complete in weakness, Paul is therefore well pleased with weakness. This is not self indulgence in suffering for merit's sake; it is not revelling in persecution to gain status in the sight of God. Paul is simply aware that Christ's grace is more evident in times of trouble. As Chrysostom put it, "How great is the advantage of affliction, for now..... we have filled the church with countless evils, but when we are persecuted we are more sober minded and more earnest and more ready for church attendance and for hearing." There is strength in weakness, for when we are weak, then are we more aware of God's all-powerful grace.

dio "that is why" - therefore. Inferential, drawing a logical conclusion.

uJper + gen. "for [Christ's] sake" - for, on behalf of [christ]. More likely expressing representation than benefit, but better leaning toward reference / respect; "on account of Christ", Berkeley.

eudokw (eudokew) pres. "I delight ....." - i take pleasure. "So conscious is Paul of the all-sufficient grace of Christ, that he takes pleasure in any affliction he is called upon to endure", Tasker.

en + dat. "in" - in [weaknesses], in [insults], in [hardships], in [persecutions and distresses]. Local, expressing space / sphere; "in the situation of / circumstances of ..."

gar "for" - because. Introducing a causal clause explaining why Paul delights in the difficult circumstances he often finds himself, because .... Weakness, as above, is imaged in the weakness of Christ, a weakness particularly evident in the cross. For Paul, this weakness is focused on the "thorn", as well as the troubles of ministry (which may be the "thorn"!). Yet, the weakness is not the troubles themselves, but rather humility, a brokenness before God that accepts the human condition of loss while at the same time looking to the surpassing grace of God to eternally transcend that loss.

otan + subj. "when [I am weak]" - whenever [i am weak]. This temporal particle + the subjunctive forms an indefinite temporal clause; "whenever" .

dunatoV adj. "strong" - [then i am] powerful, strong. Predicate nominative. "Powerful" in the sense of God's might, ie., his sovereign grace operative in human frailty. "For my very weakness makes me strong in him", Phillips.


2 Corinthians Introduction



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