- February 20, 2017 at 7:54 pm #128605
A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
For years the Lord has been done a terrible disservice over the issue of Paul’s complaint about the thorn in his flesh, and it’s time to set the record straight. If you’ve been taught that “My Grace is sufficient for you” was the Lord’s excuse for not healing Paul, then pay close attention. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then get ready for a great example of how folks distort the meaning of Scripture—either to satisfy their pre-conceived notions or justify their lack of faith.
Jack’s note from 2008: (This is an update of an article I first published in 1999. I’ve received several emails lately questioning the views I expressed in my study entitled O You Of Little Faith. In each of them, a misinterpretation of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was used to support the theory that God sometimes refuses to heal us when we ask. Sadly, this misinterpretation is all too common among Christians today. I’ve updated and expanded the article and offer it in response to these questions. Be blessed.)
My Grace Is Sufficient For You
To get the context, let’s read Paul’s words from 2 Corinthians 12:7-9.
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Before we look at the problem, let’s review the popular interpretation. According to some, Paul’s eyesight was permanently damaged when he was blinded on the Damascus Road. Supposedly, this caused a disease of the eye common to the day, especially around Damascus. Its name was ophthalmia, and the visible symptom was a stream of pus running out of the eyes and down the face. It was nearly as repugnant as leprosy. The popular interpretation holds that this is the thorn in his flesh Paul was referring to when he asked the Lord for healing three times and was refused.
The “lesson” of this interpretation is that even the great Paul wasn’t healed when he asked and that the Lord had actually given him this disease to help him overcome his pride. We’re to understand that God gives us disease (and misfortune as well) to help us overcome our sins and that we shouldn’t ask for healing from something the Lord gave us for that purpose. If we do ask and don’t get healed, it’s because the Lord is dealing with us. All this is wrapped up in the Father’s love, saying that He’s working for our good in spite of our selfish desires.
So what’s wrong with that view? Well, aside from the fact that the Lord handled our sin problem at the cross and now sees us as being without any imperfection (2 Cor. 5:21), and that it comes perilously close to the Eastern notion of karma, the context makes it ridiculous, and the translation is flawed.
What’s The Context?
Just imagine you’re the Creator of the universe. Out of your boundless love, you’ve given the life of your Son to redeem your creation from its bondage to sin, and you’ve gone to great lengths to recruit someone to go around telling people about it so they can be saved. You want this person to prove that you’re much greater than all their pagan gods so you bring him right up to your very throne and show him things no other man has ever seen so He can speak with authority. (2 Cor. 12:2-4) And you empower him to heal them from their diseases (Acts 19:11-12) and even raise some of them from the dead (Acts 20:7-12).
But every time he speaks of your wonderful love and miraculous power, he has to stand there with pus running out of both eyes and explain that you gave him this disease and won’t heal him because you’re afraid he’ll become too proud. Would he have a credibility problem? I’d say so.
Now let’s learn what the passage really says. The word for thorn literally means a pointed stake and recalls a situation in Judges 2 when the Israelites failed to rid the land of all its previous inhabitants as God had commanded (Deut. 20:16-18). Because of their failure to obey Him, The Angel of the Lord declared that these people would become perpetual enemies to oppose the Israelites physically and distract them spiritually. He then coined the phrase “thorn in your sides” to symbolize their physical and spiritual opposition. From that day to this, these people have inflicted incredible physical abuse upon God’s people.
The word torment actually means to rap with the fist, or buffet. It also comes from a root meaning to physically punish.
In both these words, there’s a clear implication of physical attack. So the real story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh goes more like this. Everywhere Paul went he was physically abused. Hear his own account from 2 Cor. 11:23-26:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.”
Is He Dead Yet?
I urge you to study these events carefully in Acts. For example, in Philippi, Paul and Silas were stripped and severely beaten with rods. The flesh on their backs was bruised and bleeding, and the pain was incredible, but they were taken to prison without medical attention, their hands and feet secured in stocks, forcing them to sit in an upright position, making sleep virtually impossible even if the pain would have allowed it.
But at midnight they were heard singing hymns of praise, and the doors of the prison broke open, freeing them. They went to the home of the jailer, who washed and fed them. The miracles he had seen caused his whole family to be saved that night. The next morning when they were officially released, they walked 30 miles to Amphipolis having received no medical treatment and having had no recovery time, not even a night’s sleep. (Acts 16:22-40) The Lord had healed them.
But an earlier incident in Lystra is perhaps the most dramatic. A group of angry Jews from Antioch and Iconium had followed Paul to Lystra. When they caught up with him, they took up stones and stoned him. (Acts 14:19-20) Remember, stoning was the Jewish method of execution. It consisted of immobilizing a person, sometimes by burying him up to his waist, and then hurling rocks at his head and upper body until he died.
Believing they had been successful and that Paul was dead, they dragged his body outside the city and left it there for the wild dogs to eat. But the believers gathered around him and prayed. Paul got up and went back into the city with them. The next day he walked 25 miles to Derbe. It’s like walking home from your execution; it just doesn’t happen.
These are incredible examples of God’s miraculous power. Contrary to the popular interpretation, Paul was physically healed by the grace of God over and over again. He was rescued from the open sea and even raised from the dead. It was a great testimony of God’s strength perfected in Paul’s weakness.
The idea that God doesn’t heal people anymore can’t be supported by this or any other scripture. The real lesson here is that while God refused to eliminate the resistance to Paul’s ministry, He promised to see him through it successfully if Paul would walk in faith down the path God had set before him. Imagine the faith Paul must have had, going into those towns knowing his enemies were waiting and would try to stop him again. But each time it happened, and each time God healed him, his faith was strengthened, God’s glory was increased, and the Gospel was spread.
In the conquest of the Promised Land, God could have simply struck all of Israel’s enemies dead, but instead, He required Israel to fight, telling them in advance that they would achieve victory. The only defeat they suffered was when they disobeyed, and as soon as they confessed He gave them that victory too. (Joshua 7-8)
Jesus said that in this world we will have trials, but to take heart because He has overcome the world. (John 16:33) What He meant by that is He may not choose to deliver you from the trials you face in this world, but He will never leave you or forsake you as you go through them, and given the chance, He will miraculously restore you to show forth His glory. The only reason Paul performed greater miracles than we do is because he had bigger faith. The only reason he had bigger faith is because he fought bigger battles. Selah 10-18-08
fair use for educational and discussion purposes
I am convinced of this, that the One who began a good action among you will bring it to completion by the Day of the Messiah Jesus. Philippians 1:6February 21, 2017 at 1:46 pm #128635
Indeed a great teaching on the apprehension of Lord’s grace and mercies. How wonderful it is when the Spirit bids us to effectuate one of the many promises of God, as we are sometimes led.
But as I study the whole council of God’s word I am always reminded of His sovereignty, and the approximate 3000 promises that his word offers. As such it seems impossible to hold the Lord to simple faith formulas?!
Were not his disciples and saints of every generation ordained unto martyrdom? Were we not all asked to carry our unique and individual cross? Did not the Lord render the curse upon all of mankind for the failure of two? Does He not still enforce and maintain generational curses?
Are not trials, tribulations and tests some of the arrows of His quiver?! Did He not set an angel with a flaming sword to bar re-entrance into the Garden, while declaring that it is appointed once unto every man to die the first death? Has God then intended for kingdom now and a Garden existence in this dispensation? Or must we wait for the millennial reign that mimics the Garden experience?
All in all, we must still acknowledge and reconcile God’s justice and mercies. As the psalmist and many have prayed that God would be merciful in His judgments!
Indeed his grace is sufficient both in blessing and curse! We must also remember that our creator God is both lamb and lion!
I am reminded of a recent testimony that I heard of originating I believe from Ethiopia. Where a young 12 yr old girl was kidnapped by seven men demanding she become wife to one of them. When she refused, in their rage they beat her bloody. At which point three lions approached and scared off the men, and stood guard over the young girl. Some time later when family and authorities came upon the scene, the lions quietly retreated.
So then in many instances we are faced with extent and degree, both in blessing and in curse. As like Lazarus, though the miracle of resurrection was a great miracle, his death beforehand was not. Lest we forget Job or Jonah!
We the church have gone through seasons whereby those that were not protected or healed were accused of a lack of faith, yet the power for healing and miracles was given firstly and specifically to his disciples. We calling ourselves disciples have through the teaching of “extension” claim such powers as well. And when our faith is not rewarded in kind, we are left wondering. We can sometimes presume that we can wave our bibles before the living God and demand his promise be fulfilled in our lives! Sadly, many times presumption precedes our prayers. Now the church is renewed with much teaching that we simply lack understanding of the promises of God!
Again, are we not instructed that God will not honor when we pray amiss, nor lack in faith, or when we pray outside the will of God!
Part of God’s grace then seems to me to be the wisdom to differentiate between what the Lord allows, what he ordains, and what he alone finds acceptable in his sight! For other than this wisdom, no formulatic teaching can address every situation! But for when the Lord’s spirit leads us into his promises and leads our prayers or our desperation, all things are ordered of God.
Lastly we must consider when the Lord lifts his restraining hand and gives the enemy power over life and death!
Though His plans are many and complex, the only formula that stands all scrutiny is the formula of LOVE!
Respectfully, TRFebruary 21, 2017 at 2:45 pm #128636
I was always struck with this passage: ““Get up!” the Lord told him. “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
But Ananias answered, “Lord, many people have told me about this man and all the harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And now he is here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on Your name.”
“Go!” said the Lord. “This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings, and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name.”
I was struck by the boldness of Ananias who debated with the Lord and the Lord’s answer that He would show Saul how much he must suffer for His name. It reminded me a bit of when the disciples asked the Lord “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” And the Lord answered them with “Neither. This occurred so that God might be glorified.” Sometimes our temporary suffering is because of living in a fallen world. Sometimes it is to provide the framework for a witness to His glory, power and love. I figure since we all have to face tribulation in this world, we might as well make it work for His glory. Giving thanks in all things seems a good way to get there.
It also reminds me of a simple saying that’s impacted me recently. The Kingdom of God refers to that which is subject to His will and direction. In the Millennial Kingdom, everything will be subject to the King. In our current status of corrupt sinners with redeemed spirits it refers to everything we do at His direction and leading. Literally, the Kingdom of God is within us. In our Godly moments, not when we’re not growing wood, hay and stubble.
I am convinced of this, that the One who began a good action among you will bring it to completion by the Day of the Messiah Jesus. Philippians 1:6February 21, 2017 at 3:12 pm #128637
Well said brother. I have experienced the Lord’s provision and miracles even when I had not asked for them, and likewise when I have prayed, they were kept from me!
Knowing that we indeed understand in part and our vision is skewed I indeed will find fault with formula’s.
I did expect that an argument could be made with regards to Old vs New Testament dispensations, but even then, God shall still be sovereign.
Truly, I am also a believer of challenging the Lord. With my tithes, my faith, my obedience, and by His leading. But surely I will make every effort to refrain from being presumptuous before the Lord. Having been given a word about such, I also have been encouraged against grumbling.
There are indeed many ways available by which we can be pleasing before the Lord in order to offer a pleasing sacrifice of prayer. And many ways by which we can thwart His blessings.
Even though I am ignorant in so many ways, I do make efforts to seek out His heart. And there are then times I must simply accept His say so and trust Him.
Again, Job reveals the pitfalls of “prevailing” wisdom, as well as a lesson against presumption. Indeed with the word of God being so extensive, we attempt to implore proof text for nearly every doctrinal stance.
Let our lips praise Him, our spirits glorify Him, and our hearts draw near to Him. May we all glory in the Lord’s favor, for with His favor much ignorance is excused.
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