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By: Larry Shaffer
God bless America!
The Thorn, part two
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
“because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations (Paul had just told of being transported to heaven and hearing the Lord utter words described as inexpressible), for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-to keep me from exalting myself,“ 12:7
As I have read, reflected and studied this passage over the last couple of day, some of my previous assumptions have been diverted. I had assumed the thorn in the flesh meant a painful disease of some sort and that the disease/ailment was the messenger of Satan. I don’t think so now.
First, the problem was pride. This is a problem of the “flesh”. When Paul uses the word flesh, he usually means “our tendency toward sin,” not our physical body. So, God gave him this thorn (the word literally means a stake) to kill or diminish his fleshly tendency toward pride. I mean, after all, let’s face it, the man had been to heaven and had interacted directly with God. God gave him this revelation, I believe, to sustain him through a life of service to Christ that carried with it suffering, pain and opposition of such that few have endured since.
We know heaven is to be glorious but we believe it completely by faith. Paul knew first hand and that experience kept him going through unspeakable suffering and opposition. Paul could say with complete truthfulness that he had personally encountered Jesus in a way that no other man alive had experienced. That could and did tempt him to be proud.
The purpose of the thorn
Twice in the verse just quoted, Paul says the thorn was given “to keep me from exalting myself”. Secondly, I don’t believe the thorn is a disease or ailment because it is a “messenger” of Satan. Messenger is literally the word ‘angel’ which refers to a personality-whether angelic or human.
So, get this: God uses a Satan-influenced personality to torment Paul for the purpose of diminishing Paul’s fleshly tendency toward pride because of the surpassing greatness of Paul’s experience and encounter with heaven. What Satan meant for evil, God used for God. The person who openly opposed Paul, like a thorn in his flesh, kept him humble.
Who is the messenger of Satan? One can’t know for certain. But the context, to me, indicates it was the ring leader of the false teachers in Corinth. Paul isn’t holding back any punches by inferring that the new false leader in the Corinthian church was actually a man who was a messenger of Satan. This messenger inspired an attack on Paul’s legitimacy as an apostle and upon his character, integrity and his message. It was personal. Deeply personal. But the deeper pain to Paul was not so much that he was being attacked by the false teachers but that his precious followers, whom he loved dearly, were being led astray.
Paul’s writing indicates that these people in Corinth were as dear to him as any other church that he had founded. There were other churches that he had spent much less time with who were thriving in their faith and doing well. On the other hand, this group in Corinth, who were like family to him, previously loyal and faithful and devoted, had turned on him and away from the true gospel.
Those closest to us can bring us the most joy and consequently, the most pain. Paul was humbled to the core that this Satan-influenced false teacher had captured the hearts and devotions of his beloved. This was devastating to him. However, it was all happening as part of God’s gracious and loving plan, to keep Paul from exalting himself.
In this case, God uses Satan to inflict pain upon Paul in order to limit his pride, humble him and ultimately drive Paul to be fully dependent upon the grace of a God (and not on himself). Yes, God does sometimes use Satan. He turns what Satan plans for evil into good for His own purposes. Paul continues in verse 8,
“concerning this (the thorn) I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He said to me, ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.'” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Lord, this is a humbling message. I hate trials, pain and difficulties. Help me to ‘humble myself under Your mighty hand’ — as I would rather humble myself so that you aren’t compelled to humble me through trials. Nevertheless, in all things, Your will not mine. Amen.