Paul's Thorn in the Flesh Research Paper

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Paul's Thorn In The Flesh

Studying the Bible, it becomes apparent that Jesus handpicked a number of his disciples to continue to spread his message after Jesus ascended to heaven. In addition to the men who followed Jesus before his death and resurrection, the leaders of the movement known as "The Way" included the Apostle Paul. Saul of Tarsus had been one of Jesus' most vocal detractors during Jesus lifetime and was skeptical of Jesus' claims that he was the Messiah. However, when Saul encountered a resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road, Saul's disbelief disappeared. He converted to what is now known as Christianity and began to travel and share Christ's teachings.

Paul was unique from the other apostles in another significant way; he was the only one who received a thorn in the flesh. What this thorn was is never explicitly stated in the Bible, though it seems to have been a physical ailment that caused Paul some level of discomfort. This may lead some to question why God would punish one of Jesus' most ardent followers with a thorn in the flesh? According to Scripture, Paul was given this thorn to keep him humble because meekness is a virtue of Christ. However, Scripture is not clear about whether God gave Paul the thorn in his flesh, or allowed Satan to place the thorn. In fact, Scripture is sufficiently vague to leave people with lingering questions about the thorn in Paul's side: (1) if it was a means a of keeping Paul humble, why would Paul pray three times to God to have this thorn removed; (2) if the intent was to keep him from exalting himself, why were no other disciples afflicted; (3) was this an act of Satan or of God? The thorn in Paul's flesh was a means of keeping Paul humble and bringing him closer to Christ; Paul's prayers to have the thorn removed demonstrate human weakness and the need for Christ; he, alone, received the thorn because of his unique relationship to Christ prior to Christ's death and resurrection; and regardless of who placed the thorn in Paul's side, it was an act of God because God had the power to remove the affliction and did not.

In order to understand anything about Paul, particularly the impact of the thorn in Paul's flesh, it is important to look at who Paul was prior to his conversion to Christianity. Paul was different from the other apostles in a meaningful way; not only was he not a follower of Jesus during Jesus' lifetime, he was actually an active opponent of Jesus. That is not to say that Paul was not a religious man; he was a religious man, but his religious beliefs were not the same as those espoused by Jesus. Therefore, in order to understand Paul, one must first understand Saul. Saul was a devout Jew and his religion was important to him; even after he became an apostle, he pointed out that he was a descendant of Abraham, perhaps separating himself from non-Jewish converts to early Christianity (Hawthorne et al. 1993, Kindle Electronic Edition).

Saul of Tarsus was a Jew living in Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ. He was a Pharisee, which was a sect of Jews who were devoted to the strict observation of Jewish laws. During his lifetime, Jesus had a number of disagreements with the Pharisees, often arguing about the meaning of God's law (Matthew 15:1-20). Jesus appeared to believe that the Pharisees had lost the intent of God's law by becoming so concerned with following the detailed letter of that law. Saul is one of the members of the vocal opposition against Christ, and, in that capacity, engages in behavior that is unsavory and goes against the nature of God's law, such as being present for the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58-60). Saul understood that the new religion, now known as Christianity, was beginning to spread and decided he would travel to Damascus, where he would bind the disciples and bring them back to Jerusalem. However, on his way to Damascus, Saul encountered a brilliant and blinding light and the voice of Jesus asking Saul why he persecuted him. Saul asked Jesus what he should do and Jesus told him to enter the city. Once in the city, Saul, who was at least temporarily blind, prayed for three days. God send another disciple, Ananias to help Saul, who laid his hands on Saul, told him that Jesus had sent him, and cured Saul of his blindness. Saul rose and was baptized and became the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-18; Acts 22:1-16).

Looking at Paul's historic behavior, not only towards Jesus but also towards his early followers, it is easy to understand the function of the thorn in Paul's side. It was intended as a means of keeping Paul humble and bringing him closer to Christ. Most of Jesus' apostles had a good relationship with Christ established prior to his death, but Paul did not. In fact, he was a detractor from Christ and had engaged in serious opposition of the new message. In that way, he may need the reminder that he is merely made of flesh, and, as such, is weak. Moreover, Paul seems to view his ability to keep his faith despite a number of physical challenges, including the thorn in his flesh, as measure of his superiority, at least over those who pretend to be apostles of Christ. In his Fool's Speech, Paul attempts to demonstrate why he is superior to the false apostles. "After insisting on his equality with them as a Hebrew, a son of Abraham, and an Israelite, he proceeds, through a catalogue of sufferings climaxing with the 'thorn in the flesh," to point to his 'weaknesses' by which he claims superiority over them (Barnett 1997, p.455).

Paul uses the idea of weakness as a model in his ministry. "With the 'thorn' unremoved, Paul exercises his ministry in humility and patience, lacking power of his own, utterly dependent on the Lord, who himself was powerless at Golgotha. God's power is made perfect in weakness" (Barnett 1997, p.44). For Paul, his weakness becomes a symbol of his submission to God.

"Paul's discussion of the meaning of his apostleship centers around one major theme: the weakness of the apostle leads to the power of the gospel" (Powers 2001, p.94). Through his submission to God, he received this affliction, and, during the course of his ministry, he accepted hardships that came with the ministry as part of that submission. In fact, of the Apostles, Paul's ministry is unique in that he seemed to replicate the death of Christ more than the life of Christ, and his letters continually suggest that one must submit to God and be weak in order to gain strength through Christ. There is other evidence of his submission and weakness in his ministry. For example, Paul refuses to take any money for preaching, but works in menial jobs to support himself in order to engage in his ministry.

The model of weakness and suffering as a means to grace and/or salvation continues to exert a strong influence in the modern Christian church. Many Christians believes that there is value in suffering, particularly in the experience of physical pain. For example, many people in the church objected to the introduction of pain control in labor, suggesting that the physical pain of labor served a spiritual purpose (Russell 1996, p.562). While such a response could be dismissed as misogynistic, the desire to withhold pain relief from people is not limited to females in childbirth. Instead, "the response of some in the Church to human suffering in terminal illness has been to value the redemptive nature of suffering -- that is, the positive role of suffering in "soul making" -- and appear to promote suffering" (Russell 1996, p.562). In other words, some Christians continue to embrace the model of weakness and suffering that Paul established.

Although Paul recognizes that the thorn in his flesh is a means that he uses to bring himself as a closer to God, he also sees the thorn as an affliction. He believes that the thorn was given to him as an elevation from Satan, though whether it was given him by Satan or by God is not clear. Regardless of its source, Paul acknowledges that Christ has given him the grace to endure the thorn. "He could not have the thorn removed, but had to endure it, and Christ gave him the grace to do so" (Dawson 2008, p.196). Paul believes that it is through this weakness that he is permitted to experience grace.

The fact that Paul openly recognizes his weakness helps explain why he would pray to have the thorn removed. While it is not clear what the thorn is, it is clear that it is not a congenital condition, but one that he developed later in life. However, both the reason for Paul's prayers about…

Sources Used in Document:


Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians:The New International Commentary

on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997.

Dawson, Audrey. Healing, Weakness and Power: Perspectives on Healing in Writings of Mark, Luke and Paul. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2008.

Deane-Drummond, Celia. Brave New World?: Theology, Ethics, and the Human Genome.

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