What Was Paul’s ‘Thorn in the Flesh’?

Concerning Paul’s thorn in the flesh, different Bible scholars have various views in attempting to identify this thorn. Variation of interpretation among men of God is common in many areas of the Scriptures. In some areas God just simply did not choose to reveal His total truth. We may never know the answer until we get to Heaven. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says:

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

While there is no specific Scripture that alludes to any other physical impairment of Paul, there are several passages that suggest poor eyesight. Galatians 4:15 says, “… for I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.”

Why would Paul have used this unusual statement had he not had a need where his eyes were concerned? Then in Galatians 6:11 Paul says, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” Normally, a scribe (a secretary) wrote Paul’s letters to the churches. This passage in Galatians 6, coupled with the fact that Paul nearly always used scribes, possibly suggests that he had sight difficulty.

Then in Acts 28:1-3 we have an account of Paul gathering firewood. As he picked up various pieces, he saw what looked like a bit of firewood, but when he laid it on the fire it turned out to be a viper (serpent) that was stiff from the cold. We could easily conclude that his eyesight was poor here.

H. A. Ironside, in his lectures on the Book of Acts (p. 538), says the following concerning Paul before the Council, as described in Acts 23:2-5: “…You may consider I am a bit imaginative about this, but I think Paul had defective vision. Several things in the Scripture have led me to that conclusion. I believe as he stood there before the council, he was not able to recognize those at some distance from him.” Apparently Paul did not even realize (v. 3) that he was speaking to the high priest. Verse 5 goes on to say, “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest…”

Dr. W. A. Criswell, in Criswell’s Study Bible, p. 1374 (commentary to vs. 7-9) says as follows: “The nature of the thorn in the flesh is not revealed. If it had been revealed, those with a different problem would have tended to assume that the spiritual lesson here was not for them. God’s silences are significant. However, there are some indications that Paul’s eyesight may have been the source of his problem. Consider the rather unusual utterances of Paul re-corded in Acts 23:2-5; Galatians 4:15, 6:11.

Does God always heal in response to a prayer of faith? The case of Paul is unquestionable evidence against such a hypothesis. Three times Paul besought God to remove the disability. God’s answer is that His grace is sufficient and further, that God’s strength is made perfect through the veil of human weakness.”

So you see, in these areas where there are varying interpretations, we should study what God has given very care-fully and ask God to give us wisdom and insight in forming an opinion.

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Dr. Elmer Towns is a college and seminary professor, an author of popular and scholarly works (the editor of two encyclopedias), a popular seminar lecturer, and dedicated worker in Sunday school, and has developed over 20 resource packets for leadership education.His personal education includes a B.S. from Northwestern College in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a M.A. from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary also in Dallas, a MRE from Garrett Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois, and a D.Min. from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.He is co-founder of Liberty University, with Jerry Falwell, in 1971, and was the only full-time teacher in the first year of Liberty’s existence. Today, the University has over 11,400 students on campus with 39,000 in the Distance Learning Program (now Liberty University Online), and he is the Dean of the School of Religion.Dr. Towns has given theological lectures and taught intensive seminars at over 50 theological seminaries in America and abroad. He holds visiting professorship rank in five seminaries. He has written over 2,000 reference and/or popular articles and received six honorary doctoral degrees. Four doctoral dissertations have analyzed his contribution to religious education and evangelism.

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