It Doesn’t Matter What Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh Was

Strength through Weakness

To the readers of 2 Corinthians, the opening verses of chapter 12 may sound as if Paul has finally gotten his head screwed on straight. At last, after a litany of hardships in which the apostle finds some strange satisfaction, he relates a truly boast-worthy experience. Paul himself was evidently caught up into the heavenly world and given a glimpse of divine resplendence that no known words can adequately describe (2 Cor. 12:1–6). This he now describes to the glory-hungry Corinthians.

Yet as soon as these hopes for a more sensible measurement of apostolic legitimacy are raised, they are dashed. For Paul relays this inexpressible experience only as prolegomenon to an attendant difficulty: a “thorn in the flesh.” We today might picture a small rosebush thorn, but the term used (skolops) could designate objects as large as a stake on which one was impaled. The thorn generated more than mere annoyance; it generated agony corresponding to the glory of what Paul had seen in the highest heaven. Though the thorn was (presumably) introduced into Paul’s life fourteen years prior, 2 Corinthians 12:8–10 gives every indication that it is a present reality still and thus represents a prolonged, sustained pain. But what was the thorn? Speculation does us no good. We do not know. And that is just as well, lest those whose afflictions are of a different nature than Paul’s feel unable to apply his teaching to their own experiences. Probably Paul is intentionally vague, not only for maximal application but also to prevent spotlighting his own life any more than necessary. Paul’s point is not the content of the thorn but its intent.1

Ministry in the New Realm

Dane Ortlund

In Ministry in the New Realm, bestselling author Dane Ortlund explores 2 Corinthians to reveal the deeply paradoxical nature of the Christian life—how Christ ushered in the new realm where power is intertwined with weakness.

And what is that intent? Paul’s humility: “to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7). The verb (hyperairomai) means to be lifted up. The thorn’s purpose is to deflate the certainty that Paul would quietly become puffed up over his indescribable experience of heaven. And who wouldn’t, without a thorn to burst that bubble? And so the Lord lovingly, gently, sovereignly afflicts his dear apostle. Or did he? Doesn’t the text ascribe the thorn to Satan or one of his emissaries? Indeed. The thorn was given to “harass” Paul—surely the work of the devil. Yet surrounding this desire to harass is a purpose to humble Paul, mentioned twice, once at the beginning of 2 Corinthians 12:7 and once at the end. The sandwiching of Satan’s purpose within God’s reflects the greater reality: the sandwiching of Satan’s work and power within God’s. In a mysterious overlay of divine sovereignty and evil, even satanic activity falls within the scope of God’s sovereign purposes. God is not the author of evil in such a way that renders him morally culpable. He is incapable of doing anything that is morally tainted. Yet even the most evil act of human history was ordained by God (Acts 2:23; Acts 4:28). So, too, with lesser evils.

So Paul does in 2 Corinthians 12:8 what any of us would do. He asks for the thorn to be removed. Just as the “third” heaven likely refers to the heaven of heavens, the heart of heaven, so “three times” likely means Paul pleaded with the Lord to exhaustion. He didn’t make the request more than twice but fewer than four times; rather, it was a complete, comprehensive, full request. He did not ask timidly or passingly. The very verb he uses, “I pleaded” (using parakaleō), not simply “I asked,” already makes this clear. That Paul pleads with the Lord to have the thorn removed is further proof that the Lord is the one providentially behind the giving of the thorn.

Our lowness and incapacities, which we naturally fear and flee, is precisely where God loves to dwell.

Paul saw two ways forward. The Lord could (1) remove the thorn, and Paul could get on with life and ministry; or (2) leave the thorn, and Paul would be forever crippled and slowed in life and ministry. The Lord responded with yet a third option: leave the thorn, but give Paul grace (2 Cor. 12:9). And the net result for Paul’s life and ministry would be to accomplish by divine power what he could never have attained otherwise. This is God’s secret strategy for his people. This is the surprising way into power from on high.

God’s “grace” in 2 Corinthians 12:9 is not primarily objective, forgiving grace (as in, say, Rom. 3:24). Rather, Paul is using “grace” more broadly as shorthand for the presence of God—sustaining, empowering, calming, supporting, comforting, emboldening, satisfying. “My grace is sufficient for you” means “I am sufficient for you.” Why then use the word “grace”? Because the Lord wants to reassure Paul that he need not earn or deserve God’s presence. It is of grace. This grace is further clarified by the next clause: “for my power is made perfect in weakness.” This grace channels divine power. The presence of God will sustain Paul; the power of God will strengthen him. What we must not miss is that it is not Paul’s strength but God’s. Paul’s contribution is weakness. But this is not a concession; it is precisely what God delights to work with. This is the mystery, the wonder, the glory, of new realm Christianity united to a crucified Lord: our weakness attracts, not repels, God’s own power. Our lowness and incapacities, which we naturally fear and flee, is precisely where God loves to dwell.

As a result, Paul’s pursuits are flipped upside down. He had been given a revelation of heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:1–6, but he has been given a revelation of how heaven intersects with fallen sinners in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10—namely, through human weakness. The first revelation brought him way up high; the second, way down low (perhaps Paul had his heavenly vision and his thorn in the flesh in mind when he said in Romans 8 that neither “height nor depth” can “separate us from the love of God in Christ” [Rom. 8:39]). And this second revelation has inverted his source of boasting. Instead of building his identity on his areas of strength, he builds his identity on the very weakness the world and the flesh abjure. Competence is not where God’s power lies. Frailty is. Feebleness. For there, God’s grace ignites. There God himself dwells. Indeed, Paul uses ancient language to speak of God’s power resting upon him (2 Cor. 12:9). The verb for “rest” (episkēnoō) is built on the root word for tabernacle, the portable temple in which alone God’s presence dwelt in times of old. But while God’s power was once cordoned off from all weak and defiled sinners, now it is precisely the weakness of sinners that draws in the power of God. Once more we see Paul quietly indicating that the new age has dawned in Christ. And in this new age, God’s power does not operate the way we expect.


  1. This paragraph and the next several are adapted from Dane Ortlund, 2 Corinthians, in Romans–Galatians, vol. 10 of ESV Expository Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 547–50. Used by permission.

This article is adapted from Ministry in the New Realm: A Theology of 2 Corinthians by Dane C. Ortlund.

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