The story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is given in the twelfth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians. He begins his account of this experience with a statement of his great and abounding privileges in the Christian life. The visions and revelations of the Lord he has had, he says, have lifted him up to a third heaven of rapture and delight. But, he goes on at once, “lest I should be exalted above measure”—a phrase he repeats, no doubt in order to emphasize its importance—“there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.” That is to say, Paul was given this thorn in the flesh in order to save him from that most ugly and devastating and deadly of sins, spiritual pride.
What was this thorn in the flesh? Paul does not identify it. Probably he left it vague quite deliberately. For one thing, Paul was never a man to chatter about his troubles; he had no desire to magnify his difficulties so as to make himself out to be a hero, and thus win sympathy; he did not have any martyr complex. For another thing, by leaving it indefinite, his experience could be of value and help to all who might have any sort of burden to endure.
The question of just what this thorn of Paul’s was, however, has continued to excite the curiosity and to call out the ingenuity of students of the Bible ever since the Apostle’s words became part of Holy Scripture. Three main types of interpretation have been suggested. First, some Roman Catholic expositors, especially those with monkish leanings, have thought Paul was referring to carnal desire, bodily temptation, the solicitations of the flesh. This explanation has perhaps been suggested by the Latin Vulgate translation, ...1
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