2 Corinthians 12:7b-10
In last week’s study, we explored the New Testament references dealing with prayer for healing (from illness or disease). It was noted, somewhat surprisingly, how rare such references are. There is only one passage (James 5:13-18) which clearly directs believers to pray for healing, and essentially promises an answer to such prayer. However, to this must be added another passage, which, it would seem, provides an example where God does not answer a request for healing or deliverance from physical affliction. This is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” passage in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It is a passage that continues to be much debated, both in terms of its precise meaning and the wider implications related to prayer and the Christian life.
To begin with, we must look at 2 Cor 12:7b-10 within its overall context in the letter. It is part of the “catalog of hardships” in 11:21b-12:10, in which Paul details various sufferings he has endured as a minister of the Gospel. This, in turn, is part of a larger discussion in which he argues against certain ministers (from outside of his apostolic circle) who were exerting an undue influence on at least some in the Corinthian congregations. The particular line of argument runs through chapters 10-13, one of the harshest and most polemically tinged sections in all of Paul’s surviving letters. He compares himself with these ‘foreign’ ministers, in the hopes of restoring a damaged relationship with the Corinthians churches. Throughout the letter, Paul argues strongly that he deserves recognition as a leading minister and missionary (apostle) who played a central role in the very founding of the congregations, and in their subsequent early growth. The feeling on his part is that others have usurped his proper place in relation to the Christians of Corinth, and this is expressed, with special force and verve in chapters 10-13 where he attacks certain ‘false apostles’ (11:13) who have actively worked to undermine his relationship with the believers there.
One of the arguments used in chaps. 10-13 involves the suffering and hardship Paul has endured as an apostolic missionary (11:23b ff). He ties this to the faithfulness he has shown in his ministry work, with its resultant successes and accomplishments (vv. 21b-23a, etc). Modern readers will likely find Paul’s self-effacing comments here (in vv. 21b, 23a; 12:2, 5ff) most unconvincing, and rightly so; their purpose is largely rhetorical. Paul was genuinely proud of what he had endured (and accomplished) as a minister of the Gospel, and frequently speaks of “boasting” of this in his letters. However, the thought that he expresses in 12:5-10 is also genuine. Paul was fully aware that his ministerial accomplishments were primarily the result of the power of God (and Christ) working through him.
This brings us to the illustration in 12:7b-10. In verses 1-10, he contrasts the special blessing given to him (by God), in the form of unique divine visions (vv. 1-6), with a special affliction, also given to him by God (vv. 7-10). He frames this contrast in terms of the motifs of strength and weakness (a)sqe/neia). That God gave to him an affliction, as a counter to the blessing, is stated clearly in verse 7:
“…and in the overcasting [i.e. surpassing] (nature) of the uncoverings [i.e. revelations]. Through (this), (so) that I should not lift myself (up) over (others), a sharp (stick) [sko/loy] was given to me, in the flesh, a messenger of (the) Satan, so that he should ‘strike me on the ear’, so that I should not lift myself (up) over (what is proper).”
The key expression is sko/loy th=| sarki/, a “skólops in the flesh”. The relatively rare noun sko/loy (skólops) indicates an object, usually made of wood, with a rough, sharp, or jagged edge. It can refer to a pointed stake, a splinter, or the “thorn” of a plant—thus the common English rendering “thorn in the flesh”. This is the only occurrence of the word in the New Testament, and it is equally rare in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX Num 33:55; Hos 2:8 ; Ezek 28:24; Sirach 43:19). In Hos 2:8  and Ezek 28:24 the reference is to a thorny bush, while Num 33:55 refers to both ‘splinters’ in the eye and larger ‘thorns’ that prick the body.
Commentators have long debated just what Paul is describing through this expression. There have been three main lines of interpretation:
- That it refers to some kind of temptation to sin, often assumed to be of a carnal/sexual nature
- That it refers to a physical ailment
- That it is comparable to the earlier references of persecution mentioned earlier in the passage
In my view, the first and third options are both quite unlikely, for different reasons. While some commentators may wish to shield Paul from the idea that he was seriously tempted toward (carnal) sin, preserving him as a paragon of virtue, there is no reason to think that he did not experience temptations of this sort. It is simply that here the context does not suggest anything like temptation to sin. As far as identifying the sko/loy with some form of persecution, Paul had already dealt with that aspect of his hardship/suffering (in some detail) in vv. 23b-26. Here, he is clearly referring to a special sort of affliction, unique to him, that would correspond to the special blessing he had received in his person (in the form of revelatory visions).
The best explanation is that the sko/loy refers to some kind of persistent physical ailment, perhaps involving the eyes (which would provide a clear parallel with his visions). While we cannot entirely rule out a psychological or spiritual affliction, the characterization of the sko/loy as being located “in the flesh” suggests something physiological. This is fully in accord with the idea that the ailment is a “messenger of Satan”, since, according to the worldview of the time, ailments and illnesses of all sorts were generally attributed to the activity of evil/malevolent spirits. As previously noted, the healing miracles of Jesus (and the apostles) were closely connected with exorcism miracles—both going hand in hand. Here, the “messenger” is said to “hit (him) on the ears” (vb kolafi/zw), a Greek idiom that could be used figuratively for any sort of abuse or ill-treatment. In the Synoptic Passion narrative (Mk 14:65, par Matt 26:67), as also by Paul in 1 Cor 4:11, it is used in the more concrete (literal) sense of striking someone with the hands (i.e. boxing, punching, slapping) upon the face or head.
Paul states that this affliction was given to him (or allowed) by God so that he would not “lift himself (up) over” (vb u(perai/romai), which I have translated literally above. Paul uses it twice in the verse, and I have filled out the idiom two different ways: “lift myself (up) over (others)” and “lift myself (up) over (what is proper)”. In popular English idiom, we might say that the affliction serves to “keep (Paul) in his place”. He criticizes the ‘false apostles’ for vaunting and elevating themselves over others, and, in his polemic, studiously avoids doing the same thing himself, even as he lists out here his many gifts and accomplishments. Along with these accomplishments, however, was this humbling affliction, serious enough that Paul would ask the Lord repeatedly to have it removed:
“About this I called the Lord alongside three (times), so that it might stand away [i.e. be removed] from me” (v. 8)
Here “the Lord” (o( ku/rio$) would seem to refer to Jesus Christ, even though it was more customary to pray to God the Father, “through” Christ, or “in his name” (cf. 1:5, 20, etc). However, it would not have been unusual for early Christians to direct prayers and personal requests to Christ, especially in the case of Paul, who attested special communication with the risen Jesus (e.g., Gal 1:11-12, 16; 2:2, and here in 12:1-2ff). The verb parakale/w (“call alongside”) is not a regular verb for prayer in the New Testament, though clearly the sense here is of a prayer or petition to God (or to Christ). Apparently, Paul’s request was not answered, in the sense that the ailment was not removed; the answer that was given to him (by the Lord) is of a very different sort:
“And he said to me: ‘My favor [xa/ri$] is sufficient for you—for my power is made complete in your lack of strength [a)sqe/neia, i.e. weakness]’.” (v. 9a)
The verb a)rke/w denotes the idea of being content or satisfied with something—i.e., Paul must be content with the fact that he has this particular ailment, and that the favor of God (and Christ) continues to work through him in spite of this. Indeed, Paul’s weakness (lit. “lack of strength”) is itself a special kind of blessing, as it means that God’s own power (du/nami$) is manifest more clearly in Paul’s person, since it is not being communicated to others as a result of Paul’s own strength and ability. In its own way, this truth was a special revelation given to Paul, and communicated to all believers (in turn) through his writing. Indeed, it may be regarded as a far greater revelation than those heavenly visions vouchsafed to him earlier. Paul seems to recognize this fact, as he states in v. 9b:
“(With ut)most pleasure, then, will I rather exalt in my lack of strength [pl.], (so) that the power of (the) Anointed should set up (its) tent [i.e. dwell/rest] upon me.”
I translated the verb kauxa/omai in the more fundamental sense of “exalt”, though it is typically rendered as “boast”, and is part of Paul’s distinctive language of boasting. He often freely boasts/exalts in what he has accomplished as a minister of the Gospel (cf. above), but here, in light of his rhetoric and the line of argument he is using, he is much more cautious, emphasizing how he prefers to boast/exalt in his own weakness (“lack of strength”) since it brings out all the more clearly the power of Christ that is at work in him. The exact wording of the Lord’s message to him utilizes the important verb tele/w (“[make] complete”): “my power is made complete in your lack of strength”.
This may not be a welcome response for those requesting healing from God for certain physical ailments. And yet, it is important to emphasize again the relative lack of references in the New Testament regarding prayer for healing. Even in James 5:13-18, as also in 3 John 2, the emphasis is on prayer for the health and well-being of another believer, not for oneself. In one of the few instances where a believer does pray for relief from a physical ailment (apparently), here in our passage, the believer was not delivered from the suffering caused by the ailment. Even if Paul’s affliction, his sko/loy, was not dire or life-threatening, it was serious (and/or irritating) enough that he asked three times for it to be removed. It would seem that, after this, Paul ceased to ask for healing from his affliction, realizing that it served a greater purpose for him in God’s eyes. Note, for example, how Paul brings the illustration back into the wider discussion of his suffering as a minister of the Gospel, in verse 10, and the message of how all such affliction only serves to glorify the power of Christ that is at work in him (and in all faithful believers).
As we consider the wider application of this passage, in terms of prayer for healing, I would conclude with three main points:
- There is nothing wrong with believers praying for healing or for relief from physical ailments. The overall witness of the New Testament certainly allows for it under the wider heading of requests we would make to God “in Jesus’ name”. In addition, there is the example of James 5:13-18, with the promise that prayer in Jesus’ name, made in full trust of Christ, can and will bring healing.
- At the same time, request for physical health and healing should in no way take precedence as the focus of our prayers. Rather, giving honor to God and the work of His Kingdom—the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the Spirit—must be the primary emphasis in our prayer. This is confirmed by the Lord’s Prayer itself, and is supported by the New Testament witness at every turn.
- It is more important, especially for those gifted as ministers or leaders in Christian communities, to pray for the healing of others, rather than for oneself. This is fully in accord with the main principles of the Gospel, and emphasizes the self-sacrifice that is essential for the faithful servant of Christ. The one faithful to the call of ministry is willing, even pleased, to serve in the midst of suffering and hardship (which includes physical ailments and illness). While one may still pray for healing and relief personally, it is more important to recognize (with Paul) the revelation expressed in 2 Cor 12:9—that Christ’s own power is made complete in our weakness.