Q: #8. What was Paul's "thorn in the flesh?"
A: This is spoken of in (2 Cor 12:7) when Paul says, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.” The preceding verses tell us that 14 years earlier (most likely when they stoned Paul in Lystra and dragged him out of the city believing he was dead in Acts 14:19-20) Paul had been caught up to the third heaven or paradise, and heard things he was not even allowed to discuss. In order to keep Paul from being proud of these revelations, he was given this “thorn.” Paul asked the Lord to remove it three times, and the Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:8-9).
We cannot know for certain what this “thorn” was, but we know that the Greek word used for “thorn” was “sholops,” which means a physical illness. Most Bible scholars seem to agree this physical illness was likely an affliction of the eyes. Why?
#1. (Gal 4:13-15) Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at first. (14) And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but ye received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. (15) Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear record, that, if it had been possible, YE WOULD HAVE PLUCKED OUT YOUR OWN EYES, AND HAVE GIVEN THEM TO ME. (Caps emphasis mine)
#2. Paul apparently had others writing for him at times, signing the end of the letter with his own hand to show he had dictated it (1 Cor 16:21)(2 Th 3:17)(Col 4:18), and when he did write, he used large letters (Gal 6:11).
#3. (Acts 23:1-5) The High Priest had Paul slapped while he was speaking, and Paul condemned him for ordering it. When Paul was told that he had spoken out against the High Priest, he apologized saying he didn’t know it was the High Priest. The High Priest dressed in distinctive clothing that was easily recognizable.
#4. In (Acts 28:1-3), Paul was gathering sticks to lay on a fire and apparently grabbed a snake thinking it was a stick, and when he threw it in the fire, it bit him. (It was poisonous, but amazingly, Paul was not hurt.)
#5. History tells us that the region of Laodicea was known for advancements in medicine, and one of the things it was most famous for was creating collyrium (an eye salve lotion which was applied to the eyes). It is interesting to note that Paul made a circular trip to go through Laodicea. It is also fascinating to see that in (Rev 3:18), when the Lord is speaking to the church of Laodicea, He says, “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; AND ANOINT THINE EYES WITH EYESALVE, THAT THOU MAYEST SEE). (caps emphasis mine)
While these things seem to show that Paul’s “thorn” was indeed an affliction of the eyes, others suggest it could have been malaria, epilepsy, or migraines. Some also believe Paul could have been suffering over his past persecution of Christians, or possibly he was caused emotional pain because of attacks against the church he helped to build. These last two, however, are quite unlikely because the Greek word shows it was a physical illness.