(By Nakkolackal V. L. Eapen, Austin)
The thorn is NOT literal, but figurative. Its precise meaning has been the subject of intense theological scrutiny and speculation for quite a long while. Outlined below is how the various theologians have MISINTERPRETED it as implying some form of ailment or sickness, Paul suffered from, which the Lord refused to heal.
1. A pain in the ear or head (Tertullian)
2. Carnal temptations (medieval commentators)
3. Impediment in speech (Mac Knight)
4. Malarial fever (Ramsay)
5. Partial blindness (Farrar & others) quoting Gal. 4:13-15 & 6:11
6. Epilepsy based on Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus etc.
The misinterpretation is NOT without its tragic consequence. Countless ailing Christians live in despair, thinking that they have NO chance of recovery when Paul, the great Apostle, has been denied healing NOT once, but thrice. They tend to be oblivious of the Healing Christ being the same yesterday and today and forever.
Hermeneutics is the branch of theology that deals with the principles of proper Biblical interpretation. One of its fundamental principles is that the Scripture is its own interpreter, and therefore, private speculative interpretation is entirely ruled out. When we search for the contextual figurative meaning of the word, ‘thorn’, or of the phrase, ‘thorn in the flesh’, the methodology is to see how and with what meaning that word or phrase is figuratively used elsewhere in the Bible. The findings are as follows:
“thorns in your sides” – In Num. 33:55 & In Judg. 2:3
“thorns in your eyes” – In Josh. 23:13
“thorns” – In Ezek. 2:6
“a thorn” – In Ezek. 28:24
In all the above verses, the word and the phrase are figuratively used to represent consistently, ‘fiercely hostile adversaries/opponents’ or ‘formidable enemies’ of God’s people. There is NO other metaphorical usage of the word or the phrase to mean ‘illness’ or ‘temptation’. Paul being well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, could not have written that, “A thorn was given me in the flesh,” to represent anything other than his persecutors who doggedly chased him like a shadow from town to town day after day.
In 2 Cor. 11:24-26 Paul narrates in his own moving words how he suffered the agony of the pricks of the thorn in his flesh day in, day out. “(24) Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. (25) Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; (26) on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren;”
The word ‘weaknesses/infirmities’ in 2 Cor. 12:10 comprise both the spiritual and the physical. But here only the physical weaknesses apply because of the ceaseless ‘buffetings’ from the ‘messenger of Satan’.
Paul legitimately expected of the Lord deliverance. But the Lord confided in Paul that it was on account of his ‘abundance of revelations’ that he was not delivered from the buffeting Satanic power. These buffetings were to be a thorn in his flesh to crucify the otherwise possible spiritual pride. However, the Lord’s abounding grace would strengthen Paul to withstand the wearisome persecution.
Some believers opine, “If a great steward of God’s grace like Paul had to suffer a thorn in the flesh, how much more should we?” Before posing that question, they need to ask themselves who they think they are. Paul had to suffer that thorn in the flesh because he was such a mighty servant of God! As compared to Paul, they are nothing more than spiritual pygmies and insignificant specks of dust. The question of their having to suffer more than Paul doesn’t arise AT ALL.
Before I conclude, let me throw light on the view propounded by St. Chrysostom: “And so by the ‘messenger of Satan’, he means, those who contended with and fought against him, those that cast him into a prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death; for they did Satan’s business.” (Homilies 26) It is more than obvious that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was NOT any form of SICKNESS, but the PERSECUTION he weathered or withstood.