2 Corinthians 12:7: “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure”.
1. The work of this messenger of Satan resulted in Paul developing the spiritual characteristic of humility. The Satan stopped Paul from being proud. Pride is produced by the devil - 1 Timothy 3: 6-7. So we have the situation where Satan stops the work of Satan. Again, this does not make sense under the traditional interpretation of Satan. Mark 7: 20-23 says that pride is a result of our evil heart. Thus the trial brought on Paul by a person acting as a Satan to him stopped his evil desires - another use of the word “Satan” - from leading him into the sin of pride.
2. We have seen in the Debate that “Satan” can be used to describe a man (e.g. Matt. 16:23) and that the word for messenger/angel can also apply to men (e.g. Matt.11:10; Lk. 7:24; James 2:25). “Satan” may also refer to the Jewish system, and thus the messenger of Satan is most likely a man acting on behalf of the Jews.
3. The passage can be translated “a messenger, an adversary...”.
4. Everywhere in Paul's writings, as well as in Revelation, 'satan' always has the definite article- apart from here. Likewise, this is the only time Paul uses the form satan rather than his usual satanas. One reason for that could be that Paul is alluding to or quoting from known Jewish literature or ideas which mentioned a "messenger of satan". Another possibility is that he refers here to an Angel-satan- for the Greek word translated "messenger" is also that for Angel. In this case, he saw himself as Job, suffering affliction from an Angel-adversary, in order to bring about his spiritual perfection. I have noted the similarities between Job and Paul elsewhere (1).
1. “The messenger of Satan” is probably the same as the ministers of Satan referred to in 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, which we have interpreted as the Judaizers in the early church who were discrediting Paul and seeking to undermine Christianity. The buffeting done by this “messenger of Satan” is defined in v. 10: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions...” (i.e. in my thorn in the flesh which God will not take away). Note the parallel between the thorn and those things it caused. The reproaches refer to the Jewish ministers of Satan saying things like, “his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible” (2 Cor.10:10), as previously explained. The necessities and persecutions quite clearly refer to the constant waves of persecutions he received by the Jews which the book of Acts describe. This would fit the language of “buffeting” - implying physical discomfort that he experienced periodically. The infirmities would refer to the ill health which his persecutions by the Jews no doubt resulted in - being beaten until he appeared dead (Acts 14:19) must have done permanent damage, as would receiving “forty stripes save one” five times and thrice being “beaten with rods” because of the Jews (2 Cor.11:24-25). Thus the passage probably refers to an organized program of persecution of Paul by the Jews which began after the vision of 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, from which time he dates his experience of the thorn in the flesh. It was from this time that Paul’s zealous preaching to the Gentiles no doubt stimulated the Jews to more violent opposition to him. Their complaint against him was often that he was adulterating the Jewish religion by allowing Gentiles the chance of salvation by what he preached.
2. There is the implication that one particular “messenger” of the Jewish Satan organized the persecution of Paul - Alexander (2 Tim. 4:14-15; 1 Tim. 1: 20). The link between the messenger of Satan in 2 Corinthians 12:7 and those of 2 Corinthians 11: 13-15 indicates that this person was a member of the ecclesia also. Whilst the prophecy about “the man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 has clear reference to the Papacy, a primary application of it may well be to this individual being in the temple (i.e. to church - 1 Tim. 3:15) of God, “whose coming is after the working of (the Jewish) Satan” (2 Thess. 2: 9). This person could do miracles - same as v. 9 - and the Jewish Christians in the early church who brought the ideas of Judaism into the church could also do them (Heb. 6: 4-6). These Jews thus crucified Christ a second time (Heb. 6: 6) - the Jews having done it once already. This man of sin is “the son of perdition” (2 Thess. 2: 3), a phrase used to describe Judas (Jn. 17:12). This suggests an allusion back to Judas, and indicates that the man of sin might also be a Jew, who was within the ecclesia, as Judas was, but who betrayed Christ because he wanted the aims of Judaism to be fulfilled rather than those of Christ. The “day of Christ” referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2: 2-3, before which time the man of sin must be developed, was primarily the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 - which again indicates a primary Jewish fulfillment of the “man of sin”. Notice that organized Jewish opposition to Paul’s preaching was very intense at Thessalonica - Acts 17: 5-13.
3. “A thorn in the flesh”. The word for “thorn” can mean a “stake” - as was used for crucifying. This was to buffet Paul, as Christ was buffeted at the crucifixion (Matt. 26:67). Like Christ in His last hours, Paul prayed for the buffeting of Satan to be removed (2 Cor. 12: 8 cp. Lk. 22: 42). Paul “besought the Lord thrice” for this and so did Jesus in the Garden (Matt. 26:39, 42, 44). Also like Christ, Paul’s prayer for release was not granted, ultimately for his spiritual good. Thus it is implied that because of Paul’s sufferings at the hands of the Jewish Satan throughout his life, his whole life was “crucified with Christ” in that he experienced constantly the sufferings Christ had in His last few hours. This is exactly what we see in Acts 26:18 (see “Suggested Explanations” No. 3 on that passage).
4. There are several other references to the idea of a “thorn in the flesh” in the Old Testament. Numbers 33:55; Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3; and Ezekiel 28:24, all use this figure of speech to describe the nations surrounding Israel who were eventually the reason for their rejection and their failure to fully inherit the kingdom - Israel failed to destroy them during their initial conquest of the land as they were commanded. These nations are the Arab nations, and the Arabs are figurative of apostate Israel who still trusted in the Law (see “The Jewish Satan” for more details on how Hagar and Ishmael, the Arab ancestors, are connected with apostate Israel ). Thus it is understandable that Paul should use this figure of a thorn in the flesh to describe the apostate Jews who were persecuting him. The figure of the thorns in the flesh is always used in the Old Testament in the context of something that hinders the chances of God’s people of entering the kingdom. Thus this thorn of Jewish opposition to Paul was a big temptation to keep Paul out of the Kingdom. Paul implies that for him to stop making the effort to preach was an especial temptation that would keep him from the Kingdom (1 Cor. 9:16; Eph. 6:20; Col. 4: 4; Acts 18: 9), therefore at the end of his life he could thankfully say that he had finished his ministry of preaching (Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4: 7). He was tempted not to preach because of the Jewish opposition - the Jewish thorn in the flesh. So the Old Testament figure of a thorn in the flesh tempting a man not to be in the kingdom was being used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 12: 7.
5. Joshua 23:13 describes the nations as “thorns” to Israel - “nails in your heel” in the Septuagint version. This is alluding back to Genesis 3:15, where the seed of the serpent was to bruise the seed of the woman in the heel. Thus the “thorns in the flesh” are linked with the seed of the serpent. Romans 16: 17-20 describes the Judaizers as a Satan who would be shortly bruised under the feet of the Christians, again using the language of genesis 3:15 (see 2-4 “The Jewish Satan” for more on this). Therefore it is fitting for Paul to call the “messenger” of the Jewish Satan a “thorn in the flesh”.
(1) See my Bible Lives Section 3-3-8.