Here’s passage that’s often quoted (usually out of context) and is just as often misunderstood:
2 Corinthians 12:5-10
7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.
First, let’s give this a little context. 2 Corinthians is dated approximately at about AD 55-58, most likely historically placing it in Acts chapter 20, in Macedonia (northern Greece). Here are some highlights of the difficulties that happened in Paul’s ministry up to that point (listed in sequence; the years depending on the dating scheme used could be off by 1-2 years):
~ 48 A.D.
province: Galatia / city: Antioch (of Pisidia)
50 But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.
province: Galatia / city: Iconium
1 At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. 2 But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the other Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers.
The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. 5 There was a plot afoot among both Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. 6 But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, 7 where they continued to preach the gospel.
province: Galatia / cities: Lystra and Derbe
19 Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. 20 But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe.
province: Macedonia / city: Philippi
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
province: Macedonia / city: Thessalonica
5 But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.
province: Macedonia / city: Berea
13 But when the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, some of them went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. 14 The believers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea.
province: Achaia / city: Corinth
12 While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. 13 “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”
Are you seeing the pattern here?
Now, let’s read our main passage in its immediate context.
2 Corinthians 12:5-10
5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. […] 7 And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
v. 7 simply states that every time Paul’s teachings start develop influence (“abundance”) in the area (“lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations”), something stops it. As we saw above, that something were the religious zealots who were trying to stop him through violence.
In v. 3, he thorn in the flesh is defined as the “messenger of satan”. If the messenger is “of satan”, then the entity who sent the messenger is satan. That should be self-evident. If you see a UPS courier, you know for sure they work for the UPS, and not for FedEx. However, when it comes to this passage, some of us tend to think that FedEx dispatched the UPS guy. Nope, satan and God are not on the same team. Not even close. Also, note how God is not mentioned anywhere in that verb. Also, note how religious, and not secular, people are mentioned as satan’s agents. That right there will throw off someone’s theology.
The verb “to buffet” in Greek means “to strike repeatedly”, “to treat with violence”. Considering the historical background, the meaning of this verse is now starting to come together, isn’t it? God is trying to spread the good news through Paul, but as soon as Paul and the message he is preaching starts developing influence, he is forced out of the area through religious violence.
(View part 2)