A thorn in my flesh

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2 Corinthians 12:1-21

Difficult people, chronic illness, vocal opposition, disability, bureaucrats in your way – all sorts of long-term problems might be called “a thorn in your flesh.”

Ever since the curse was pronounced in Eden, thorns have tormented us:

“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.”  (Genesis 3:17-18)

Notice that the thorns are “to thee.”  Like razor wire pointed at man, the thorns are directed at us.  They are designed to make life painful for us. The world is rigged for frustration and the thorns press into our flesh.

In particular, “thorns in your side” is an Old Testament euphemism for foreign enemies (e.g. Numbers 33:55; Judges 2:3).  Israel sits among  the surrounding nations like a lily among thorns (Song 2:2).  True prophets of the LORD are not to be put off by the thorns that encompass them (Ezekiel 2:6), they must continue to hold out the word of the LORD.  Unfortunately Israel does not heed those words.  Israel itself starts being fruitless and begins to produce thorns (Isaiah 5:1-6).  In the end thorns are good for nothing – they will be burned up (Isaiah 9:18; Hebrews 6:8).  Yet in the ultimate act of redemption, Christ wears thorns as a crown in order to exhaust the curse in Himself.  His resurrection future will be a time when thorns and briers are replaced by fruitful trees (Isaiah 55:13).

With this background we come to our phrase for today.  Paul is writing 2 Corinthians 12.  Here he continues his subversion of the boasting carried on by the false apostles. Where they boasted in their strength, Paul boasts in his weaknesses.  Where they recount their fabulous spiritual experiences, Paul is remarkably circumspect about his own.

Yet he does allow himself one oblique reference, here in 2 Corinthians 12. Doubtless Paul refers to himself here, but he distances himself from the experience so much that he recounts it in the third person:

“I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.  And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell:  God knoweth;)  How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.  Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.  For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth:  but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.  And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.”  (2 Corinthians 12:1-8)

Many have speculated about what this thorn might have been for Paul. Perhaps it was a physical infirmity, specifically his eyes (Galatians 4:13-15; cf. Numbers 33:55).  Perhaps it was a person or particular sect (note how Scripture describes human enemies as ‘thorns in your side’ – Judges 2:3; Numbers 33:55).  Perhaps it was a particularly strong and enduring spiritual attack (note how Paul calls it ‘the messenger of Satan.’)  But whatever it was, Paul was not able to be free of it.  In fact, no matter how he begged Jesus, Jesus would not remove it.

I wonder if our theology of suffering can handle that.  Are we able to cope with the fact that, often, Jesus does not remove thorns which torment and buffet us?

Sometimes people quote Isaiah 53:5 – “with his stripes we are healed” – and they say ‘All healing was purchased at the cross, therefore all healing is available now, we just need to believe for it.’  But of course that is faulty theology.  It is true that Christ’s cross and resurrection purchased all healing.  It also purchased a deathless eternity.  But we don’t enjoy that yet.  And Jesus is not committed to prolonging the old world – the cursed creation, doomed in Adam.  Jesus is committed to putting that to death and rising up a healed world on the other side of the grave.

Sometime Jesus may choose to heal as a token of that new creation life. But that’s not His ultimate commitment for this perishing age.  Jesus will not remove all our suffering.  And He will not continue to prolong our old lives in these Adamic bodies.  Praise God for that!  Our hope does not lie in mini-healings and mini-deliverances now.  Our hope is not for a present papering-over-the-cracks.  Our hope lies in cosmic resurrection when the thorns will be replaced by fir trees (Isaiah 55:13).

In the meantime thorns will buffet us.  We should pray, as Paul does, for deliverance from them.  Ask, seek and knock for such a healing .  But no matter what Christ’s answer, here is the heart of His word to you today:

“My grace is sufficient for thee:  for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Anyone can bear a miracle to the world as evidence of Christ’s grace.  Paul bears his suffering to the world.  And this is the perfect display of Christ’s strength.  When His grace sustains the sufferer, it is a remarkable show of divine power.  Not the power that teleports us out of trouble, but the power that sustains us through it.  Christ’s strength is a cross-shaped strength.

So Paul concludes…

“Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake:  for when I am weak, then am I strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

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