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Q: #603. When did Paul receive his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor 12:7)?

     A: Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is mentioned in (2 Cor 12:7-10). In the preceding verses (2 Cor 12:1-6), Paul tells us that for a brief period of time, God brought him to Heaven (he does not know whether he went bodily or not), where he “heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” To prevent him from being “exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations” (to keep him from being proud of what he had heard), he was given a “thorn in the flesh.” (I discuss what this “thorn” may have been here.)

     Paul clearly tells us in (2 Cor 12:2) “when” this occurred, “I know a man in Christ (speaking of himself) who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a one was caught up to the third heaven.”  

***Note: The “third heaven” is the place where the Lord, and all believers who have died are residing. I explain this more here.

     Keeping in mind that it was “fourteen years” from when Paul is saying this in 2nd Corinthians, we next need to determine when Paul wrote that in 2nd Corinthians. Most scholars believe it was written around 55 – 57 A.D.. Therefore, taking “fourteen years” off of this, we have Paul receiving his “revelations” from God around 41 – 43 A.D..

     Knowing these dates, we have the answer to our question. However, most people attempt to carry this farther, and want know if we can “see” this happening to Paul in the New Testament. The answer to this question is “no,” we cannot “CLEARLY see” this. However, there are several “guesses” as to when this might have happened to Paul. Here are two prominent ones:

#1. This happened when Jesus appeared to Paul on the “Road to Damascus,” and he became a Christian in (Acts 9:3-19). Problem: This occurred in about 34 A.D., well before 41 – 43 A.D.

#2. This happened when Paul was stoned in Lystra, and dragged out of the city because the people thought he was dead (Acts 14:19-20). Problem: This was early in Paul’s first missionary journey, which was from 46 – 48 A.D., well after 41 – 43 A.D.

     When we look at a timeline of Paul’s life, we see that shortly after His conversion in about 34 A.D., he went to Arabia for 3 years (Gal 1:17). Returning from Arabia in about 37 A.D., he goes back to Damascus, and begins to preach the Gospel “boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). However, soon after, he has to flee for his life (Acts 9:23-25)(2 Cor 11:32-33). He then goes to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-29)(Gal 1:18), where he has to flee for his life again soon after arriving (Acts 9:28-29). Leaving Jerusalem, he is sent to Caesarea, and then Tarsus (his home town) (Acts 9:30). Arriving in Tarsus, it is late 37, or early 38 A.D..

     From this time, until about 46 A.D., the New Testament is “silent” regarding Paul. In (Acts 11:25), we see Barnabas “departing for Tarsus to seek Saul.” (Soon afterwards, they will begin Paul’s first missionary journey.) Keeping the dates of this “silent” time in mind (38 A.D. to 46 A.D.), we see that this falls within the time frame where Paul said he received his “revelations” and “thorn” (41 – 43 A.D.). Therefore, since Scripture does not tell us anything about Paul during this time, we simply cannot know anything more about it.

     In closing, let me refute two other verses that have been put forward as possible references from Paul to this event:

(Acts 22:17): Problem: Too early (about 37 A.D.)

(Gal 1:11-12): Problem: Also too early. Plus, Paul says that the “revelation of Jesus Christ” he is speaking of in (Gal 1:11-12) is the “Gospel.” In (2 Cor 12:1-4), Paul says that the “revelations” given to him by Jesus “fourteen years” earlier were “not lawful for a man to utter.

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***Note: I think this quote from the “Barnes Commentary” regarding the purpose of Paul’s visit to the “third heaven” in (2 Cor 12:2) is helpful, and great:

     “There can be little danger of error in supposing that its object was to support him in those remarkable trials, and that God designed to impart to him such views of heaven and its glory, and of the certainty that he would soon be admitted there, as to support him in his sufferings, and make him willing to bear all that should be laid upon him. God often gives to his people some clear and elevated spiritual comforts before they enter into trials as well as while in them; he prepares them for them before they come. This vision Paul had kept secret for fourteen years. He had doubtless often thought of it; and the remembrance of that glorious hour was doubtless one of the reasons why he bore trials so patiently and was willing to endure so much.”

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