What is spiritual power? What is the mark of the person who possesses it? Will the spiritually powerful person be known primarily for his or her dynamic personal presence, endless ecstatic experiences, and profound mystical visions? Or should we look for something else as evidence of spiritual power?
Surprisingly, true spiritual power is found where one would least expect it – in weakness. The cross of Christ is the ultimate proof of this. Jesus, the Messiah, triumphed over all the powers of this world through the weakness of the cross. In a position of utter weakness – pinned like an insect to an ancient Roman torture device – Jesus fully demonstrated his self-emptying humility and self-giving love. Through his passion – the powerful weakness of his personal suffering – Jesus completely and irreversibly disarmed the powers of evil. Neither sin, death, nor the devil and all his demons could stand against the power of God’s weakness in Christ.
The Apostle Paul embraced this message. As a follower of Christ, Paul came to see how the cross redefined spiritual power. Paul embraced the paradoxical truth that only weakness adequately manifested the power of God and intentionally patterned his life and ministry after Jesus’ model. For this reason, he described his ministry to the Corinthians in this way: “I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3).”
God’s kind of power – power in weakness – makes no sense apart from the cross. The fading powers of this world are much more impressive to those who make light of the cross. In Paul’s day (as in ours) false teachers took advantage of the public’s disinterest in weakness and preference for power. These self-appointed “super-apostles” called Paul’s apostolic authority into question because of his perceived weakness. For them, spiritual power was demonstrated by personal charisma, commanding rhetoric, and sensational displays of spiritual power. In their opinion, Paul possessed none of these marks of spiritual power and authority. They said:
- “Paul may seem intimidating in his letters, but in the flesh he is a weak little man.” (2 Cor. 10:1)
- “His personal presence is unimpressive, and his speech is contemptible.” (2 Cor. 10:10)
- “If he possesses spiritual power, why doesn’t he heal himself? He’s had a recurring illness for some time.” (2 Cor. 12:7)
According to the super-apostles, Paul was pathetically weak and unimpressive, in no way befitting an apostle of Christ. Therefore, they questioned his spirituality. Even worse, they challenged his apostolic authority.
The Necessity of Boasting (1a)
Paul was uncomfortable “tooting his own horn.” He knew that self-confident boasting is the stuff of fools, not the way of Christ: “I am not speaking as the Lord would” (2 Cor. 11:17). However, as much as he disliked doing so, Paul found it necessary to answer his critics. By undermining Paul, they were attempting to exalt themselves (11:12b-15), and in the process, exploit the church. Therefore, with great reluctance, and for the good of the church, Paul set out to prove that he was “not in the least inferior to the super-apostles” (11:5; 12:11).
Paul’s attackers criticized him in three areas. They criticized Paul’s personal presence (his appearance and speech, 10:10; 11:6), his acts of power (11:17ff.), and his lack of ecstatic visions (12:1).
Paul addressed each accusation. In regard to speech, he admits that he may not be the best speaker, but he certainly knows what he was talking about: “But even if I am unskilled in speech, yet I am not so in knowledge; in fact, in every way we have made this evident to you in all things” (11:6). His content is true even though his delivery is only average. However, his poor delivery is not an impediment to the glorious message of the gospel, but instead, underscores the very power of the message itself. Paul had always been committed to preaching the cross without Greek rhetorical embellishments in order that God’s power would be evident and not simply his own power of persuasion (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Paul’s unusual response to the accusations that his works of power were unimpressive both demonstrated Paul’s radical faithfulness and his accusers’ misguided triumphalism. What acts of power does Paul choose to highlight in order to authentic his apostolic status? He does not give a record of his great preaching crusades, nor does he list the vast number of his converts. He does not present an impressive statement of his educational credentials or offer a sample of his prolific writings. Instead, he lists imprisonments, persecutions, dangers, and loss as proof of his apostolic authority.
In regard to visions, Paul admits that he has had them, although he doesn’t like to talk about them (12:1-5). However, in light of his critics’ demands, Paul reluctantly recounts his vision of being caught up into Paradise – something he had not previously disclosed (12: 1b-6).
Paul’s Vision (1b-6)
Paul’s vision occurred 14 years prior to writing 2 Corinthians (2). His vision was so vivid and consuming he still remains unsure about whether or not he was bodily translated to heaven. In his vision Paul saw and heard “inexpressible words, which is man is not permitted to speak” (4). This is one reason for his reluctance in speaking of his vision.
Paul’s vision was real. Of this, Paul is not in doubt (6a). But Paul refuses to establish his apostolic authority on the basis of this vision alone. Indeed, in the recounting of his vision, he purposefully distances himself from the experience by speaking about it in the third person (2, 5, 7).
Paul’s reluctance teaches us something about the relative importance of sensational spiritual experiences. Ecstatic visions are not normal Christian experience. Paul had one such experience in fourteen years and he was reluctant to speak of it in public. He only brings it up because he is forced to do so. Overall, “he attaches no importance to it with reference to either his Christian existence or his apostolic life.” For Paul, the experience of his vision is not nearly as important as his experience with the thorn. For, as we shall see, it is the thorn, more than the vision, which is the proof of God’s power at work in Paul’s life.
The Thorn (7)
The Greek word, skolops, translated as thorn refers to a pointed object. More particularly, it can refer either to a stake or a splinter. Perhaps Paul is attempting to portray how the thorn is like a stake pegging him to the ground. Perhaps he is describing how the thorn, like a splinter, constantly irritates him. Maybe he wishes to combine the images so that we are left with “the notion of something sharp and painful which sticks deeply in the flesh and in the will of God defies extraction. The effect of its presence was to cripple Paul's enjoyment of life, and to frustrate his full efficiency by draining his energies.”
There seems to be no end to the various explanations offered to identify the thorn. Some of the suggestions include:
- An earache / headache
- Sensual temptation
- Nerve disorder
- Speech defect
- Chronic eye infection (Gal. 4:13-15; 6:11, 17)
- Recurrent malaria
What can we know for certain about the thorn? There are at least eight things we can conclude from the text:
1. It was an experience from which he prayed to be delivered: “I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me”(8). Whatever the thorn was, Paul did not view it as necessary to normal Christian living. It was not something that all Christians experienced. One could be a Christian without it, as indeed Paul himself had once been.
2. It was satanic. It was “a messenger of Satan to buffet me” (7). It came from the evil one and looked very much like one of the means used by the enemy to hinder the apostle's work. Paul certainly believed that he could serve the Lord more effectively without it.
3. It was given by God: “there was given to me a thorn in the flesh” (7). Amazingly, Paul could describe his thorn as both a gift of God and a messenger of Satan.
4. It was not something sinful: “I am well content with…” (10). At the end of our passage, Paul concludes that he is content with the continued presence of the thorn in his life. Therefore, the thorn could not have been a deficiency in his character (for then he would desire to grow out of it), nor could it have been some sinful propensity, such as a hot temper or lust. Paul could never be “well content” with this kind of moral or spiritual failure in his life. He would not dignify his sins in such a way. Instead, he purposefully and intentionally fought against his sins (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:24-27).
5. It was something visible and probably physical and obvious: “in the flesh” (7). Although Paul often uses the phrase “in the flesh” to describe human sinfulness, he also uses it to describe life in the body with all its attendant frailties and weaknesses. For example, in his letter to the Galatians he writes about a physical trial (which some associate with the thorn): “and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition (lit. ‘in my flesh’) you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself” (Gal. 4:14).
6. It was a chronic ailment: “I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me” (8). The fact that Paul prayed three times for release from the thorn implies that his suffering was chronic.
7. It caused some kind of weakness. Once Paul accepts the thorn he exclaims, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses” (9).
8. It was purposeful. In retrospect, Paul realizes the thorn was given “because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations… to keep me from exalting myself” (7). The thorn was intended to protect Paul from the spiritual pride that often accompanies being greatly used by God.
What then was the thorn? It was most likely a painful and chronic physical ailment. It harassed, annoyed, and irritated Paul – constantly digging at him like a thorn embedded in the flesh that he could not adequately grip in order to remove. Think of a worm writhing on a hook and you get the picture.
It is good that the exact identity of the thorn remains elusive. This allows us to more effectively integrate Paul’s experience with our own. In other words, we can more easily identify our thorn with his because the exact nature of Paul’s thorn remains obscure. “The very anonymity of this particular affliction has been… productive of far wider blessing… than it would have been the case had it been possible to identify… the specific nature of the disability.”
Whatever the identity of the thorn, we know one thing for certain: Paul did not initially realize that the thorn was for his good, as evidenced by his constant pleading to God for its removal.
Paul’s Plea (8)
What do you do when you suffer? Do you shrug your shoulders and stoically resign yourself to fate? Probably not. If you are like most people, you pray like you’ve never prayed before for an end to your suffering.
When Paul says that he prayed “three times” for the removal of the thorn, he is not referring to three prayers in one day. He is most likely referring to three distinct periods of time devoted to prayer (and probably fasting). This provides an indication of how desperately troubled Paul was. The thorn so deeply disturbed Paul that he regularly prayed for its removal. Paul could not see how his physical disability could glorify God. He could not reconcile his circumstances with God’s will. How could God possibly want this to be part of his experience? Understandably, Paul found it difficult to accept the thorn and was desperate that it be removed.
God’s will is utterly overwhelming at times. Acceptance did not come without a fight. Paul did not instinctively embrace the thorn as God’s will. In this, he is in good company. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the cup which the Father gave Jesus greatly troubled him and filled Him with deep distress (Mark 14:33). He responded by “offering up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death” (Heb. 5:7). Every step of the way, Jesus fought his way to acceptance, praying three times, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).
God’s Answer (9)
Paul’s request was simple. He wanted the thorn permanently removed. He prayed “that it might depart from me” (8).
God did not answer Paul’s prayer according to Paul’s desire. Instead, God’s answer to Paul’s request for relief from the thorn can be stated in one word: “No.” God’s “no” had nothing to do with a lack of faith on Paul’s part. Paul’s faith was great. Indeed, it was his great faith that provoked him to continually plead to God for the thorn’s removal.
But there is more to God’s response than a simple “no”. Along with God’s “no” came the reason for his “no”: “My grace is sufficient for you.” God’s “no” did not mean that God refused to do anything. It meant that God would act, but in a way that Paul had not considered.
God’s power would be revealed in and through Paul’s weakness. In God’s upside-down way of doing things, “power is perfected in weakness” (9). It is as if God said to Paul, “You think you'll be powerless because of this; but this is the only way you will truly be powerful. You think you won't be able to work for me if I don't take this away, but I know your work for me will be ended if I do take it away.”
Paul’s suffering kept him from pride and self-sufficiency. Sometimes, God’s grace can only be made known through crippling weakness. Believe it or not, there are some things more important than deliverance from immediate suffering. Put most starkly: Suffering is better than sin. A thorn is better than pride. God is more concerned for our holiness than our comfort and happiness. The most dangerous disease that can fill our soul is spiritual pride. If a thorn helps remove this, then the thorn, though intrinsically bad, has been used for good.
God’s “no” is motivated by his love and wisdom just as much as his “yes.” If suffering persists we must conclude with Paul that we may be more useful to God with our suffering rather than without it. “What [God] did do was to assure Paul that no hindrance would be suffered in his ministry as a result of [the thorn]; on the contrary, he would be all the more effective. Others would become Christians, not because they saw Paul as some impressive, dynamic, supernatural hero, but because the grace of God could be seen at work in him, despite his natural weakness.”
Even Christ was “made perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). Spurgeon said, “God had only one Son without sin, but he has no sons without suffering.” Our personal weaknesses make us more aware of our desperate need for grace than our personal strengths. “Grace is apprehended only in the awareness of our weakness. This is not, we emphasize, merely a warm ‘devotional thought’. It is at the very heart of the gospel and the argument of this letter.”
Paul may have lost much because of the thorn, but what he gained was worth losing all: Christ’s power and presence — the greatest desire of the believer. Paul’s weakness provided the perfect opportunity for the power of Christ to indwell him. Christ’s presence is known in suffering and weakness, not in pride and strength.
It is important to note that all the principles, formulas, how-to's, and techniques in the world could not remove Paul’s thorn. There was absolutely no known human remedy. Some things neither medication nor intercession can remove. The greatest faith, the biggest prayer chains, the best Christian counseling, the finest doctors – none of these could remove the thorn. In this present life we suffer from disorders which are not always removable — ill health, mental illness, disease. Thankfully, even these thorns can be means of grace.
Paul’s Conclusion (10)
God’s answer did not change Paul’s situation but it did change his attitude: “I am well content…” His frustration changed to acceptance. He no longer protested against the thorn but embraced it as a gift from God. More than simply “putting up with it,” he gloried in it! The thorn made him weak which, ultimately, made him spiritually strong. It made self-confidence and self-reliance impossible. It placed him in a situation where it was vividly clear that he could not face any duty in his own strength.
Paul accepted the thorn and broadened the principle to encompass all of the adversities he suffered as a servant of Christ: “I am well content with the thorn and with all that promotes weakness.” Robert L. Deffinbaugh writes,
Paul now sees the principle behind his problem. He understands that God’s grace is showered upon us, and His power is demonstrated through us when we are weak. It is not just this one, unnamed thorn in the flesh which makes Paul “weak”; it is every affliction and adversity in his life. Thus, Paul sees that every affliction, every adversity, is the occasion for a manifestation of God’s grace and power in and through us. Because of this, Paul now rejoices in every one of his weaknesses… Every affliction, every difficulty, is an occasion for God’s grace and power in our lives.
Paul’s “weakness” became the great, open secret of his spiritual power — and therefore his greatest boast. His weakness did not prevent him from ministering for God. On the contrary, it qualified him to minister for God, in His power.
In Paul’s response to his critics, he contrasts his experience of the thorn with his vision of paradise for a specific reason. He seeks to clearly demonstrate that it wasn’t the ecstatic heavenly vision that accounted for Paul's spiritual greatness and fruitfulness — it was his thorn! His apostolic authority was not rooted in human demonstrations of power but in divine manifestations of power in weakness.
Clearly, Paul minimizes the importance of his vision and maximizes the spiritual importance of his thorn. If it were up to us, we would reverse this. But this “would obscure the fact that it is to his gospel, and not to himself, that men should attend, and that he is a more effective witness to Christ crucified if he endures suffering and disgrace.” Paul witnessed most effectively for Christ, not in great visions, but in great suffering.
We are left with a paradox. Is the thorn bad? Yes. Is the thorn good? Yes. How can both statements be true? In the same way that the contradictory statements of “when I am weak, then I am strong” can be true (10). Which is it? “I am weak” or “I am strong.” How can both be true simultaneously?
Perhaps we can understand the text best by turning it on its head: “When I am strong, then I am weak.” It is our sense of spiritual inadequacy that causes us to depend on God. It is our deep awareness of deficiency that opens our lives to the fullness of God’s grace. Without a profound realization of our weakness, we can never know how desperately we need God’s grace.
The cross of Christ is the supreme example of “power-in-weakness.” At the cross we encounter great weakness and great strength. We see death that brings life; glory in the midst of suffering; triumph through failure.
When God gives (soften it to “allow” if you must) suffering it is for our good. If God denies our request, it is because he has a greater purpose in mind. God allowed Paul’s suffering for a greater good. Paul’s suffering was not good in and of itself – it was certainly a work of Satan. And yet, at the same time, it was a gift from God. Oddly, Paul draws no sharp line between Satan's work and God's will in this matter.
Suffering has the capacity to lead us toward or away from God. Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by demonstrating how the trials of life separate the wheat from the chaff. He speaks of two houses built by two different individuals: one by a wise person, the other, by a fool. Both houses look alike, until the storms of life arrive. Then, one house collapses and one is preserved. The simple lesson: True piety is not fully distinguished from its counterfeit until it comes to times of trial.
If God’s power is known in our weaknesses, then we must reconsider the sanctifying work of God in our lives. Perhaps God is doing something in us that we never would choose on our own: making us weak!
And what makes us feel weak? Well, it is being under attack, feeling inadequate to handle the pressures and the problems that we have. So if you feel that way it is not only the devil who makes you feel that way, it is God too. God makes us feel this to keep us from that which could render us useless in the work of spreading his Kingdom.
Pastor Ray Stedman continues:
When is the devil being beaten? Well, not when we feel great and confident, when it looks like wonderful things are happening, when the ministry is going well. (And I speak to all of us, because we are all in the ministry. We all have an area of responsibility given to us by God.) No. The devil is being defeated when we are feeling attacked and under the gun, when we feel weak and helpless and do not know what to do, when we are not sure how to respond, when in our perplexities and sense of weakness we come before the Lord and plead with him for strength to go on one more day, and for grace to help us stand.
The thorn was a permanent part of Paul's life. What is your thorn in the flesh? “It may well be that the one thing you have most wanted to be rid of, God wants you to have. It may be that the thing you think has kept you from a ministry is the key to your ministry.”
Perhaps in the end we should expect thorns. It makes sense that if we are going to follow our Lord by daily carrying our cross, then we are bound to get splinters.
Spiritual power is misunderstood in our day just as it was in Paul’s day. Contemporary advocates of the “prosperity gospel” promise health and wealth as God’s perfect will for all believers who possess sufficient faith to claim it. These teachers violently react against Paul’s acceptance of his thorn.
Forget Paul's Thorn! We know God has the power to heal. He translated us out of the power of darkness and into the kingdom of light...You know Jesus has the power to heal. In this chapter, I am absolutely intent on convincing you that not only does He have the power to heal you, it is His absolute and perfect will to heal you. We do not have to sift through Paul's thorn, Job's boils, or Timothy's sick stomach to try to understand the perfect will of God… It is time preachers stop trying to make excuses for their lack of faith and understanding of the Word of God.
But if the thorn – though evil in and of itself – is God’s “gift” to Paul for his spiritual good, then we need to reject such teaching. “We like to talk about ‘having the faith to be healed,’ but what about having the faith to be sick?”
Like Job, like Paul, like Jesus, we must ask regularly ask ourselves who we believe and why we believe.
Take away material prosperity; take away emotional highs; take away miracles and healing; take away fellowship with other believers; take away church; take away all opportunity for service; take away assurance of salvation; take away the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit... Yes! Take it all, all, far, far away. And what is left? Tragically, for many believers there would be nothing left. For does our faith really go that deep? Or do we, in the final analysis, have a cross-less Christianity? Unless the simple gospel has center-place in our faith, it has no place at all. Unless the cross is everything, it is nothing.
The mark of Christ is humility and weakness. This is how He lived and conquered. This is why He is exalted (Phil. 2:5-11). Paul personally bore the marks of his Lord in his body – marks that most likely came from his thorn (Gal. 6:17). More than the dynamic personal presence, endless ecstatic experiences, and profound mystical visions the super-apostles flaunted, it was Paul’s wounds of love that he offered as proof of his authenticity and authority.
 Romano Penna, Paul the Apostle: Wisdom and Folly of the Cross (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 243.
 Source Unknown.
One ancient person described the headaches caused by Malta fever as “like a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead.” Sir William Ramsey wrote: “such an attack is for the time absolutely incapacitating: he sufferer can only lie and feel himself a shaking and helpless weakling.” Symptoms include a fever accompanied by severe pain, nocturnal delirium, unsightly eruptions, and loss of hair. Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), 445.
 Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), 446.
 Source unknown.
 Roy Clements, The Strength of Weakness: How God Uses Our Flaws to Achieve His Goals (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1995), 199.
 Paul Barnett. Source unknown.
 Penna, Paul the Apostle, 243.
 Ray Stedman, Ecstasy and the Agony Sermon.
 Robert L. Deffinbaugh
 Rod Parsley, Repairers of the Breach (Results Publishing, 1992), 267-268.
 Mike Mason The Gospel According to Job: An Honest Look at Pain and Doubt from the Life of One Who Lost Everything (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994), 97.
 Ibid., 210. “The very fact that faith looks to a power beyond itself means that it is continually subject to loss of control. So if you’re looking to get control of all your problems, forget Christianity. If you’re looking for success, happiness, or freedom from pain, forget Christ. The way of Christ is the cross, and the cross spells weakness, poverty, failure, death.” (Mason, Gospel According to Job, 418)
 The marks would also include the scars from the numerous beatings and persecution he endured.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2004