In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul said, “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” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
What do the thorns represent?
Scholars over the centuries have theorized about the identity of the “thorn.” At a surface level, one might postulate the thorn represents a physical ailment. Yet given Paul’s impressive handling of physical ailments, that may not be the best answer. Paul did not complain about the many severe floggings he received. In fact, Luke reported that after being stripped and beaten with rods, Paul and Silas sat in their prison “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:22-25). Accordingly, it seems that the ailment may have been of a different type.
To figure out the Bible, pastors direct us to the Bible. When we examine the way “thorns” are used in the Bible, we see a variety of passages indicating that thorns are sinful people who are considered messengers of Satan. Thorns are symbolic of sins. This is consistent with the crown of thorns used during Jesus’ crucifixion. The crown of thorns could be symbolic of taking on the sins of the world (John 19; Luke 23; Mark 15; Matthew 27).
What did Jesus say about the thorns?
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus tells us this: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13).
“He put another parable [of the tares] before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.’ And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’ (Matthew 13:24-30).
What does the Old Testament say about the thorns?
In the Old Testament, we further have a number of explanatory passages. Numbers 33:55 says, “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall come about that those whom you let remain of them will become as pricks in your eyes and as thorns in your sides, and they will trouble you in the land in which you live.”
“For if you ever go back and cling to the rest of these nations, these which remain among you, and intermarry with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, know with certainty that the LORD your God will not continue to drive these nations out from before you; but they will be a snare and a trap to you, and a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good land which the LORD your God has given you (Joshua 23:12-13).
Hosea 9:6: “For behold, they will go because of destruction; Egypt will gather them up, Memphis will bury them. Weeds will take over their treasures of silver; Thorns will be in their tents.”
What is the best guess about the thorns in Paul’s side?
As we have seen in the above Bible quotations, the thorn in Paul’s side was a messenger of Satan who was a sinful and ungodly person. It is likely he was being pursued by naysayers and scoffers all throughout his decades of sharing the Gospel and sometimes such pursuits may have been a bit overwhelming.
In Acts 13:40-41, Paul repeats the words of the Prophets. “ Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about:
“‘Look, you scoffers,
be astounded and perish;
for I am doing a work in your days,
a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’”
Paul continues in Acts 13:49-52: “And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”
In the passage at the outset, let us note that Paul had the insight to see that the thorn had a purpose. Its purpose was to keep him in check, to keep him humble, and to keep him alert.
Do we still witness thorns today?
Peter (2:3) referred to scoffers. He said, “knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.”
Jude 1:8 also warned us. “They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.”
A few public examples of thorns come to mind. The paparazzi who pursue celebrities with their cameras are one type. They hope to make money by catching celebrities in embarrassing or compromising positions. News channels or politicians with different political agendas often compete with each other, hoping to expose the other for “fake news” or a lack of truth in reporting. Bullies in schools are possibly the worst type. They often prey upon the weak or people who make them green with envy. Finally, we see a type in social media as Christians who actively share the Good News. Nonbelievers may regularly appear in their timelines hoping to discredit messages put out by the believers and to mock them.
I have experienced the latter situation and I’ve called on God many times to assist. But I must recall the words of God when he spoke with Paul. His said his grace is enough and his power is made perfect in weakness. Accordingly, I should appreciate the fact that those who appear on my timeline do keep me in check, humble, and alert.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
Thank you for your time.