What About Paul’s “Thorn in the Flesh?”
Divine healing has been the rightful domain of the Church for two thousand years. But in the centuries following the death of Jesus, healing became a rare thing. Over time, some church leaders adopted the view that healing had ended in the first century or soon afterward when the New Testament Scriptures were completed. Supporters of this view argue that it was at this point that healing was no longer needed to verify the preaching of the gospel and that the practice of healing had ceased. This view became known as cessationism and became a dominant view in the church.
The argument against healing can’t be made from the plain teaching of Scripture itself. You can scour the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation and not find a single verse plainly teaching that healing would ever cease. The best a cessationist can do is to argue against healing by inference—that is by inferring into a passage a meaning that is not obvious to the reader. The most commonly heard objection to healing is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Let’s look at Paul’s commentary on this issue:
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.
2 Cor. 12:7
Cessationists argue that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was a form of sickness that he asked God to remove and God refused to do it. From this, they argue that God may want us to be sick for one reason or another.
There are several problems with this line of reasoning. The first is that sickness is not discussed plainly in this passage. If one believes that Paul was discussing sickness, it must be inferred into the text because the plain rendering does not give that meaning. The second problem is that the obvious subject of the chapter is persecution—not sickness. In this passage, Paul illustrates his teaching on persecution with a personal example, focusing for a moment on the persecution he suffered for the revelation he received from God. He stated that in order to keep him from being exalted too highly, God allowed Satan to send a messenger to harass him. Notice; there is no mention of sickness.
When you examine the Greek text, there is no indication that the messenger Paul referred to was a form of sickness. The Greek word for “messenger” in this passage is aggelos, which is usually translated “angel.” The obvious meaning would be that Satan sent a fallen angel (or perhaps a demon) to harass Paul, which God permitted to keep him humble. There is no reason to believe this passage supports the idea that God would not heal him of sickness.
The other argument used against healing is the observation that sickness was present among early church leaders such as Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. Cessationists point to the presence of sickness as evidence that healing began to decline and eventually ceased, causing believers to live with sickness as the “apostolic age” came to a close. Let’s look at the sickness of Epaphroditus, which Paul mentioned in his letter to the Philippians:
Yet I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and fellow soldier, but your messenger and the one who ministered to my need; since he was longing for you all, and was distressed because you had heard that he was sick.
For indeed he was sick almost unto death; but God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I sent him the more eagerly, that when you see him again you may rejoice, and I may be less sorrowful.
Phil . 2:25-28
It is true that Epaphroditus suffered sickness, even to the point of near-death. But if we want to know whether healing had ceased, we must determine if he was healed. After describing his sickness in verse 27, Paul sayid, “but God had mercy on him.”
What did Paul mean? It’s impossible to say with certainty, but the tone suggests an unexpected outcome. Paul writes, “Epaphroditus was sick… but God had mercy on him.” The natural conclusion one would come to was that after a serious battle with illness, Epaphroditus was healed. Paul then writes that he sent Epaphroditus so that the believers in Philippi might rejoice upon seeing him. Would Paul send a friend who was nearly dead thinking that it would cause them to rejoice?
A more logical explanation would be that after Epaphroditus was healed, Paul was able to send him, knowing that when they saw him healed, they would rejoice. Rather than suggesting that healing had ceased, this passage confirms that healing was still in operation. Now let’s look at Timothy’s illness and Paul’s prescription for it:
No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for your stomach’s sake and your frequent infirmities.
1 Tim. 5:23
In this brief passage, Paul noted that Timothy’s infirmities were a result of drinking only water. We don’t know the reason why the water he drank made him sick. It’s possible that it was contaminated, giving him some type of bacterial infection. Paul’s antidote was to have him drink a little wine. The infirmities were not severe enough that they required healing. Paul confidently explained that the illness would resolve if he refrained from drinking only water. This passage in no way indicates that God would not heal Timothy. It’s merely the case of an older and wiser man instructing a younger one to take some practical steps to avoid becoming sick.
The New Testament does not show a decrease in the effectiveness of healing as critics suppose. The disciples were still healing all who were sick and demon-possessed as recorded in the book of Acts:
And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. Also, a multitude gathered from the surrounding cities to Jerusalem, bringing sick people and those who were tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
This is an excerpt from my book Divine Healing Made Simple.