When you continue to read about the amazing privilege Paul had to enter into the very presence of God, the story turns out much different than you might expect. Instead of Paul using that experience as some springboard for greatness in ministry, God gave Paul an ailment he calls “a thorn in the flesh.” Notice what it says in 2 Cor. 12: 7-10,
“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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Instead of basking in the glory of his experience, Paul says he was given an infirmity to keep him humble. God knew that his experience was so grand that pride was inevitable if Paul did not have a something in his life to keep him humble. As a result, Paul’s prayers for deliverance from this ailment were not granted.
What was this thorn? There are many theories. Here are a few suggestions by scholars: it was his physical appearance, epilepsy, severe headaches, eye trouble, or recurring attacks of malaria. The problem is the text does not say. Whatever it was, it appears to have caused him great pain and weariness, but it did not prevent him from continuing in ministry. The word for “thorn” is also commonly translated as “stake.” Paul may have used this term to describe the intense pain he experienced. Barclay notes, “Sometimes criminals were impaled upon a sharp stake. It was a stake like that that Paul felt was twisting in his body.”
Whatever it was, it kept him dependent upon God and made him aware of his weakness rather than focus on his privileges. Paul learned that the best way to live life is dependent upon God.
Father, thank you again for the amazing life of Paul. What a great example of how to live life well. Thank you as well for your concern for Paul and the intentional intervention in his life that allowed him to be a great man of character even though the path included pain. Help me to trust you when life is hard and live dependently upon you as Paul modeled for all of us.
Following Jesus with you,