“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
– 2 Corinthians 12:7
Do you have a thorn in the flesh? A messenger of satan, sent to harass you? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, or maybe… you think you do. Whichever category you fall into, most likely at some point in your Christian life you’ve encountered a situation of such magnitude, that like many throughout the history of the Body have done, you’ve termed it as Paul did, “a thorn in the flesh.” In most cases, Christians refer to a recurring sin or temptation in this manner, or an easily repeated offence or situation that occurs between themselves and someone close to them.
In this case, we will focus on the later – a “thorn in the flesh” that happens to exist quite literally… in the flesh. Another person or group of persons with whom you seem to have no end of trouble.
This afternoon as I was listening to another preacher on the television speaking of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, I was reminded of the factor in the passage from 2 Corinthians 12 that most people seem to forget. Paul did not call his thorn a sin, a temptation, or any other inanimate, psychological, ethereal problem or issue, as most Christians are likely to do, but rather, he referred to this “thorn” as a “messenger”; a person, in other words. No whether this person was solely a spirit being (non-physical) or not, is not implied or specifically noted in this verse, but, it is safer (and more sensible) to assume that Paul’s afflicting messenger, was indeed a physical person, a human being that is, and that they harassed him throughout the course of his ministry.
Before we continue, as I like to do, let us apply a little logic exercise to this conclusion, so we can be pretty much assured of what we are dealing with.
Was Paul’s “messenger of satan” a demonic spirit?
- If it were, then why would Paul need to pray to the Lord three times to remove it?
(2 Corinthians 12:8)
- Certainly if it were an unclean spirit, Paul could just utilize his authority in Christ and drive it away. Not so?
- (And to those who would argue, “But but… this kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting!” – Paul did that… probably way more than you do :)).
Was Paul’s “messenger of satan” a sin?
- While it is tempting to call Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” a sin, there is really no precedent for this elsewhere. Though Paul does go on to say that he will rejoice in his weaknesses, (2 Corinthians 12:9b), note that he also said not to sin so that Grace may abound (Romans 6:1-2).
Was Paul’s “messenger of satan” a temptation?
- As was the case above, there is no precedent for this, as Paul does not refer to temptation in anthropomorphic (human) terms in other situation. The use of the term “messenger” indicates that whatever Paul was referring to was alive, and likely a person of some form, as only persons can be messengers, since only persons can speak.
Was Paul’s “messenger of satan” a human being?
Well, we’ve exhausted the other logical possibilities, so this one stands as the only clear option.
NB: It is possible that this “messenger” is actually not even a single “person”, but multiple “persons”, as Paul travelled extensively in his mission to preach the gospel to the gentiles as Christ had instructed him to do. Quite likely, he mentioned some of these people (for example, Alexander 2 Timothy 4:14).
- Could Paul rid himself of this messenger by utilizing his authority in Christ?
If it were a human being, simply rebuking them in the name of the Lord and commanding them to leave, would likely land Paul in a heated argument, not in relief (I’m not certain of the existence of mental institutions in those days, but if they existed, Paul could have likely landed in one of these as well 🙂).
- Why did Paul pray to God to remove the messenger, yet God did not?
There are two main reasons why Paul didn’t get the answer he was looking for:
- So that he would not become conceited due to the great revelations he was given.
- So that the power of Christ may rest in him.
How does this apply to us?
…that we would not become conceited:
Like Paul, we have been granted a great revelation – the gospel of Grace (and the fullness of Truth), which is Jesus Himself – laid out without reservation for us in His death, naked on the cross, and His burial (as a man – a human being) and resurrection (as a new species of God-Man – free from the grip of, and having the power over – death). Were it not for our own “thorns” in the flesh (literally), we, too, could easily become conceited. When a human being, living in this sinful flesh, comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus, yet still has a mind that requires constant (continual, perpetual) renewal, it is not only possibly, but easy, for this human being, in the seat of their mind, to become puffed up and vain in the knowledge that they have been reconnected to the very God of the universe.
I hear you… “SHOCKING! HOW DARE YOU SAY THIS?!” – but that same reaction some are likely to have at the above statement, is just one of the signs that yes, you still have need for something to keep you grounded (in your mind, that is).
“But – it’s a messenger of satan!!!“
Yeah. It is. I hear ya.
But even satan is subject to God’s power and will. God has set him boundaries for what he can do, even if he is influencing human beings (with their own free will) to do it for him. And remember, believers, all things work together for your GOOD. Shocking as that may sound, that means even satan (and his messengers), though he hates you and wants only the worst for you, is forced – by the hand of God, to be used to drive you in the right direction and bring out the image of Christ.
But… before anyone throws rocks at me (don’t worry, you can, I’ll just let God catch them)
…that the power of Christ may rest in you:
To many of us, this concept of weakness is seen… well, as a weakness. And we (by design) don’t like being weak. But, Christ’s strength is made perfect (that is, revealed most effectively) in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). This weakness is not a position of the lack of physical, mental, or spiritual strength. In fact, it is Paul himself who said “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” (Ephesians 6:10). There’s no greater strength than that!
So what does Paul mean when he says “weakness”? In weakness, Paul is referring to a position of the heart. He’s basically saying, when you bow your heart to the power of Christ, he can flood over you and do the work.
I picture it like this:
- You’re about the enter a heavy battle. Both yourself and your enemy are decked out to the teeth with armour of every kind. You’ve got your shield, you’ve got your sword, in fact, you’ve even got a gun! (A plasma rifle, to be precise). Most importantly, you’ve got your mouth – with a tongue of fire! One word, one sentence, one hefty insult, and your enemy could be floored in seconds.
- …and your enemy is ready for it. They too are armed with a sword, in fact, they’ve got two (one on either side). They’ve got a utility knife in a sheath, a pistol on either hip, a sniper rifle on their back (in case you try to run away), an assault rifle in their hands, and like you, they’ve got that tongue of fire, ready to spit. Of course, this enemy isn’t going anywhere (not with all that stuff), but if you move, they’ve got you.
- This is a stand off like no other – the first person to move is likely the first person to go down.
- …and that’s when you make a move. The most unexpected move of all. You bow down. Not just lean forward, you face-plant to the ground.
- Suddenly, no sooner than your face hits the ground – does your enemy disintegrate in a blinding blast of light.
Because all along, your army’s commander has been waiting for you to move so that He could use the ultimate secret weapon. To your enemy, and even to you, it may appear as weakness, and it may appear as though you’ve given up in complete fear and surrender.
But this isn’t weakness. This is true strength. This is standing in the Power Of Christ.
Remember, according to Ephesians 6 we wrestle not against flesh and blood…
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
– Ephesians 6:12
…so we should never war at the flesh and blood level. No matter who is used to deliver satan’s message, do your warring above satan’s level. Never attack or show aggression to those who you can see and interact with in the flesh.1