Sometimes people question whether sickness might in fact be God’s will because He declined to remove the ‘thorn in the flesh’ from the Apostle Paul. If it was God’s will for Paul to be sick, should we not be prepared to suffer also? In considering this question, the first thing is to put Paul’s ministry in context.
Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles. He moved in a supernatural ministry of miracles and signs, as it says in Acts 15:12 “Then all the multitude kept silent and listened to Barnabas and Paul declaring how many miracles and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles.” And in 2 Cor 12:12 we read, “Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds.”
According to Acts 19:11-12, Paul also had extraordinary powers of healing. “Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them.” And, when he was shipwrecked on his way to Rome, he first survived a poisonous snakebite, then he healed every sick person on the island (Acts 28: 8-9 ).
In addition to his own supernatural gifts, Paul taught about the gifts of supernatural healing given to the church: “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills” (1 Cor 12:7-11).
There is no question that Paul knew the power of the Holy Spirit to heal. However, he did get sick himself. Gal 4:13-14 says, “You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as [Messiah] Jesus.”
He also referred to Timothy and Epaphroditis being sick (Phil 2:26 and 2 Tim 4:20). However all of the conditions appear to have been healed. There is no reference to any disease that was not cured, or any statement that sickness was God’s will for people. Paul prayed just the opposite, that we would be preserved, blameless in spirit, soul and body, for the coming of the Lord (I Thess 5:23).
Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh
Although Paul moved in the power of the Holy Spirit, his life was not easy. In many of the places he visited, the crowds were stirred into hysterical rage against him. He was beaten and imprisoned several times. In one town, he was stoned and left for dead. He was shipwrecked 3 times. Some scholars believe that it was a demonic agent in the crowd who stirred up such violence, and that this was Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan sent to buffet him.’
“I know a man in [Messiah] who fourteen years ago… was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter… 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. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” 2 Cor 12:2-10
This passage describing Paul’s thorn in the flesh follows a long description of the great persecutions and suffering that Paul endured during his missionary work. It is humbling to read these verses in 1 Corinthians 11 and to consider all the abuse that Paul experienced as he served God to found our church. Some scholars connect these persecutions to the suffering of Job, also caused by a demonic agent (Job 2:26). In fact, the term, messenger of Satan, is the Greek word angelos. It is used more than 80 times in the Bible and always refers to a spirit being. In addition, the term ‘buffet’ is highly suggestive of physical beatings.
Whether beatings or illness, the fact that Paul suffered while in God’s service does not mean that God does not want to heal everyone. One of the greatest healers of the twentieth century was Smith Wigglesworth. This great man traveled the world, dramatically manifesting God’s power against every kind of disease and disability. Foremost in his teaching was the right of every believer to be healed through faith. However, he himself suffered kidney stones for several months that left him writhing in pain and passing blood. All day he would heal others. At night he would wrestle for his own healing.
Kenneth Hagin, another great healer, writes about his own battles to lay hold of healing. Laying hold of healing by faith is not always an easy task.
God does not promise us a life free from suffering. He does promise us that in Messiah we overcome every form of evil. As for Paul’s thorn in the flesh, we should all have such wonderful supernatural experiences that we need a thorn of our own to keep us humble!
Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.