Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

"Martyrdom of St. Paul", from an 188...
Image via Wikipedia

Opponents of the view that healing is in the atonement often point to Paul’s thorn in the flesh. According to their interpretation, Paul’s affliction was some sort of chronic physical problem that he repeatedly begged God to remove. In order to keep Paul humble, God refused his prayer to heal him. The reasoning follows that if the great apostle Paul’s prayer got rejected, how can Christians possibly expect God to always heal them?

I really feel like this objection is quite weak, as it is based on some very sloppy exegesis. Let’s look at the passage in question:

Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So because of Christ, I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (HCSB)

The context of these verses makes this passage more clear.  In the earlier chapter Paul is discussing false apostles whom Paul feared were leading the Corinthian church astray. These teachers were questioning Paul’s authority. Reluctant to defend himself, Paul tells of his hardships, pointing to proof of his commitment to Jesus in comparison to some of these false teachers.

But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

Conspicuously absent in these passages is the mention of sickness and disease. Many bible scholars believe that this thorn was actually demonic messenger who stirred up persecution everywhere Paul went, not to mention many heresies from within. The term “thorn in the flesh” is a metaphor similar to the expression “pain in the neck” in our modern vernacular. In the bible, the metaphor is never used in connection with illness. For example, see Numbers 33:55,

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.

(See also Judges 2:3, Joshua 23:13 and Ezekiel 28:24.) This was the view of the ancient church father John Chrysostom, who said:

“And so by the “messenger of Satan,” he means…those who contended with and fought against him, those that cast him into a prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death); for they did Satan’s business.” (Homilies 26)

Following Paul’s conversion, Christ said that Paul is “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” This wasn’t just Jesus “picking on Paul”, as Christ warned his disciples that they “will be hated by all because of My name”. (Mk. 13:13)  But Paul did lay a large part of the foundation for Christian doctrine, and he preached the gospel to much of the known world. His impact is immeasurable, so naturally he greatly opposed by Satan. While it was men who persecuted him, Paul teaches us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but spiritual forces who oppose the gospel. (Eph. 6:12, see also 1 Thess. 2:18)

Given that demonic spirits and human beings can presently freely choose to oppose the gospel if they so wish, God could not take this “thorn” away that was stirring up trouble and thus tormenting Paul. For when Paul was weak and weary from the persecutions and trials, then he was strong through the grace of God, demonstrating the “marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles”, which we know includes healing (2 Cor. 12:12, see also Acts 19:11-12, 28:8, Rom. 15:19). This humbling lesson that he learned is clear from the outset of this epistle, as Paul began by saying that he “felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead…” (2 Cor. 1:9)

Some have also connected Galatians 4:13-14 with these passages in order to explain that Paul’s disease was eye-related. However, we learn from Acts 14 that Paul was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead in Lystra, a city in Galatia. It is noteworthy that this stoning took place in conjunction with Paul healing a man from the town who was born lame.  (see Acts 14:7-20) This miraculous healing brought undesirable attention from Satan, who worked through the mob that nearly killed Paul.  It is not at all implausible to think that Paul’s eyes, as well as other parts of his head and body were still bruised and swollen when he had preached to those addressed in the epistle. At the end of his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul speaks of his scars that he bore in his body attesting to the fact he belonged to Christ. So this was not some sort of illness in his eyes, but the scars of persecution that Paul bore in his body.

Christ said that the tares would stay with the wheat until the last day, and not until then. Jesus took our sicknesses and bore our diseases, but not our persecutions. It is incongruous with the ministry of Jesus —  who healed everyone who approached him asking for healing — to turn away one of his greatest servants; a humble man who continued Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles, a ministry which included divine healing.

Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 3

Medieval book illustration of Christ Exorcisin...
Image via Wikipedia

Healing and Christus Victor

Through the gospels we see Christ dealing with sickness and disease in the same matter he dealt with demonic spirits. We know this because Jesus uses the same harsh Greek word ἐπετίμησεν (epetimēsen) to rebuke sickness as He uses to rebuke evil spirits.

In Luke 4:35 we read “...Jesus rebuked him (the spirit in the man), saying, “Be silent and come out of him!”. Four passages later we read “…and he (Jesus) stood over her (Simon’s mother-in-law) and rebuked the fever, and it left her”

Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere did Jesus tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He honestly told his followers to expect to experience hardship. But the hardship he constantly referred to was persecution, not illness. In Luke 10:8-9 we read Jesus commissioning his disciples to “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.” The coming of God’s kingdom, in some measure at least, entails deliverance from evil spirits and healing from physical disease.

When we read about Jesus healing the crippled woman in Luke 13:11-17, Jesus asked his critics “should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

We also read in Acts 10:38 a summary of Jesus’ ministry from the apostle Peter. That summary was about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” I think it’s important to note the connection between “doing good” and “healing”.  We see that before being healed, the sick were  “under the power of the devil” . The Greek literally reads καταδυναστευομένους (katadunasteuo). Translated, the word means “I overpower, quell, treat harshly”. Therefore, disease is a satanic evil to resist, not acquiesce to.  It is not a blessing, but harsh treatment meant to overpower us.

We read in 1 John 3:8 that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil”. The word destroy here is λύω, (luó) which is translated  “loose, untie, release, set at naught, contravene.” If sickness is Satan’s work, then one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate is to release us from it.

Healing is the presence of the Kingdom of God coming to the earth. Sickness, we understand, is Satan working to overpower those whom God made in his image. In Colossians 1:13-14 we read “He (God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”. Therefore, we’ve been delivered from Satan’s dominion over our lives through Christ’s redemption, and that includes the tyranny of sickness.

One may raise a scientific objection to this scriptural argument. Of course, we have natural explanations for illness that the Bible attributes to evil spirits. This is true. Sickness and disease, on one level, is simply nature taking its course. But there is no intrinsic contradiction with attributing infirmities to spirits on the one hand while also explaining them in natural terms on the other. Death itself is a “natural” process, yet we also see in scripture that the devil is “the one who has the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) This suggests that the laws of nature as we know them are satanically influenced to some degree. This may sound strange, but we have no trouble saying that we as human beings have ability to use our free will to effect the natural order of things for good or bad. Why is it incomprehensible that spirit beings can do the same?

We see through this series of posts that there is no good scriptural basis to believe that we have to suffer with illness when Christ has already suffered on our behalf. Healing is in the atonement because Satan’s power over the believer has been annulled through the atonement. There is nothing that glorifies God by being under the burden of disease. An overcoming faith, however, does glorify God.  The gospel is about much more than “redeeming souls.”  It’s a holistic gospel that includes healing of our physical bodies, in anticipation of total redemption in the age to come.

I believe the burden of proof that healing is not included in the atonement lies with the objector. Most arguments against this view simply beg the question for a view of meticulous providence; that is the view that God is controlling everything in the world, even evil. On such a view, the will of God is never thwarted. It assumes people are sick because God always gets what He wants, so therefore He must want people to be sick. While this view is popular in western Christendom, I believe its starting points rests upon a distorted understanding of the nature of God’s sovereignty.

In future posts I will defend this view against some of the various objections that have been raised and hopefully I’ll be able to expose them as inadequate on the basis of scripture.

Related articles

Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 2

Christ Heals a Man Paralyzed by the Gout. Mark...
Image via Wikipedia

Physical Infirmity As Punishment

In modern times, we do not equate being sick with being sinful. We don’t make someone feel like they’ve done something wrong for coming down with the flu or having cancer, and rightfully so.  Objectors to the view that healing is part of the atonement like to press this issue. They argue that if sickness is not a sin, how can it incur a penalty? Not only do I think this is this missing the point, I believe that it is looking at the bible anachronistically.

In the ancient near east, we see a worldview that connects sin and illness as revealed throughout scripture.  When Jesus’ disciples asked about a blind man “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:1-3) Jesus corrected their faulty theology that personal, specific sin is always the cause for illness. However, we do read where in John 5:14 he told the healed paralytic to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you”.

When the paralyzed man who was bore by his four friends was let in through the roof, Jesus told the man that he forgave his sins. This strikes us as a strange reaction because the man was clearly seeking healing. When the Pharisees charged Jesus of blasphemy for saying he had such authority, Jesus showed them that he had the power to forgive sins by healing the man. The Psalmist declared that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” (Ps. 103:3). In the epistle of James we read “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” (Js. 5:14-16). When Israel complained to Moses for the umpteenth time, venomous snakes came into the camp as a judgment. The people quickly repented, and God instructed Moses to put a serpent upon a pole. As the people gazed at the pole, they were healed. (Num. 21:1-9)  We find this thinking throughout the Psalms as well:

LORD my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.   Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime

Forgiveness and healing oftentimes go together in the bible.

Healing and the Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Most Christians would agree that ultimately all human sickness is a result of sin, in that the fall introduced not only sin but also corruption and death into the human race. When Jesus was enduring the terrible beating at the hands of the Roman guard, it is hardly a controversial theological statement to say that he was taking the beating that we all deserved for our rebellion.

I argue that sickness is itself a beating; a flogging. When Jesus told the woman with the issue of blood “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” – the Greek word here used for disease is μάστιγος (mastix), which is also translated flogging or scourging. (See also Mk. 3:10 and Lk. 7:21) Christians would not deny that without Christ people will suffer eternal destruction because they believe “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death“. (Rom. 3:23, 6:23) For a Christian to stay consistent, I believe they must say that Christ bore all of our the punishment we deserved, which would include sickness and disease, not just eternal separation from God.

On what grounds do I say this? In Exodus 15:26 we read where God promised Israel that He would be their healer on the condition that they kept his covenant.

“If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

Later we read in Deuteronomy 28:15-48, 59, 61 that Israel’s disobedience to God’s law resulted in specific curses that were not just spiritual, but were rather physical in nature, naming specific diseases that would come upon them for forsaking God’s covenant. We later read in Galatians 3:13-14 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” I believe this was God lifting his hand of protection and allowing them to feel the force of the demonic corruption of nature. If his people wanted to pursue the devil, they could have the devil.

The good news is that Christ took the curse we all deserved for all of man’s disobedience, which included not only hell to come but hell on earth.  Ask anyone with cancer, lupus, epilepsy, Ebola and the like if disease is not experiencing a living hell. To think that God would want any of his children to suffer under such dreaded diseases in light of His Son’s suffering for us I believe would be a miscarriage of justice. Why must we endure the beating of disease when Christ already suffered in our place?

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5

I argue therefore, that it is wrong to accept sickness and disease from the hand of Satan when the penalty for our sin has been fully paid. Moreover, Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere in scripture did Christ tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life and ministry. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He promised persecution, slander, and the possibility of martyrdom for his followers, but never sickness. All sickness is suffering, but not all suffering is sickness.

In my next post, I will close my positive case for healing being included in the atonement with a look at Christ’s victory over Satan.

Jesus’ attitude towards sickness

anonymous illustration of Jesus healing Peter'...
Image via Wikipedia

10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17, New International Version, ©2011)

Often – but not always – we see the gospel writers attribute physical infirmity to satanic influence.  It’s interesting to note that in the gospels we never see Jesus offer the sick a cliché.  Jesus did not call the illness the absence of the good, he did not appeal to mystery, nor did he attribute it being the natural working of God’s good creation.  Jesus didn’t tell the crowd that they were not in the place to understand God’s larger purpose. He did not tell the woman that her infirmity was being used by God to make her soul.

On the contrary, Jesus viewed this woman’s condition as unjust imprisonment that must she ought to be immediately be liberated from; regardless of how it might offend the synagogue leader’s legalistic interpretation of God’s law.

Theologians and philosophers have in different ways worked at forming a sound theodicy regarding natural evil. Defined, natural evil is evil for which no agent is morally responsible. In contrast, moral evil would be the result of any morally negative event caused by the intentional action caused by a person. The “free will defense” has largely answered most of the problems posed by the problem of moral evil.

Therefore, I find it highly interesting that the gospel writers document Jesus dealing with disease as form of spiritual warfare against demonic forces, not mere natural evil. This point is further brought out in Peter’s sermon to Cornelius’ house, we read “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)

While our modern sensibilities find the idea of an evil spirit corrupting nature implausible, I find it telling that when one’s child suffers from leukemia, or as in the case of the woman in Luke 13, their back is painfully deformed so they can’t do anything but live in a painful stoop, we describe these things as evil. These things really bother us, even to the point of anger at times. Typically we don’t call such a thing merely a misfortune, we see it as an injustice. It is not right that a person suffers terribly under excruciating pain.  Jesus thought that something ought to be done about it immediately. Our common experience is that people truly do suffer various injustices not that are not naturally caused by human beings. We feel anger towards these things as if something personal was at work. If tragic illnesses are merely a misfortune, then we have no reason to feel angry about the situation. Therefore, I think we’re justified trusting our common sense in saying that some injustices are not caused by mere natural processes. Rather there are injustices that have supernatural causes.

This seems to be the worldview advocated by the New Testament. As Greg Boyd argues, while even death is just a natural result by what we call natural processes, the devil is named the one who “holds the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) Death is called the “last enemy”. (1 Cor. 15:26) We see elsewhere in scripture that Satan is called “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) who “whole world is under the control” of. (1 Jn. 5:19)  Believers have been redeemed from this foe through the atonement. (Col. 1:13-14) This view was held by the early church fathers as shown by various quotes of Origen, Justin, Tertullian and Athenagoras.

If sickness is a perversion of the natural order Satan uses as a weapon against those whom God loves, then I think we are misguided to ascribe our sicknesses and infirmities to God’s will. (Caveat: obviously we don’t feel the sense of injustice when we make ourselves sick through neglect or over-indulgence, but we can throw ourselves on God’s mercy.) The Bible calls illness oppression, and like with the case of the woman, we ought to be loosed. God is not the oppressor, He’s the liberator. If Christ is the Head and we are the Body, then why would Christ work against his own body by making it sick?If Christ is the ultimate revelation of God, why do we see him so often healing in response to faith?

For unless we are theological determinists who believe that God is micromanaging everything – even causing the decisions of people and evil spirits – then I see no reason we should resign ourselves to the so-called inscrutable purpose of God when so-called natural evil strikes. Rather, I think we should do anything more than stand strong in faith, resisting the adversary with every method at our disposal. God is infinitely wise and knows how to bring good out of such evils brought about by free creatures.  We can also be assured that Satan’s free power to influence is finite and will eventually be fully ended while simultaneously enjoying a large degree of freedom from his works in the life that now is.  If we learn anything out of such trials, it ought to be learning to resist and rule over, not resigning. (1 Pet. 5:8-10, James 4:7, Luke 10:19, Rom. 5:17, Rev. 11:15, 20:10)