How the Bible Interprets Itself
Used Before

Living Abundantly 
According to God's Word Series

Read Time: 7 Minutes

There are times when we read the word and the meaning is still not evident when we have examined it in light of it's biblical meaning, checked to see if it is in harmony with other verses on the same subject, looked for narrative development and reviewed the context of the verse. There is one more important research principle we must use. Where has the word or phrase been used before? God will define His Word in the first use and subsequent uses will elaborate on it.

A good example of checking the previous usage of a word or phrase would be the subject of Paul's thorn in the flesh.

II Corinthians 12
:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, 
    there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, 
        the messenger of Satan 
    to buffet me, 
    lest I should be exalted above measure.
:8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, 
    that it might depart from me.
:9 And he said unto me, 
        My grace is sufficient for thee: 
            for my strength is made perfect in weakness. 
    Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, 
    that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
:10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, 
        in reproaches, 
        in necessities, 
        in persecutions, 
        in distresses for Christ's sake: 
    for when I am weak, 
    then am I strong. 

It is not clear what the "thorn in the flesh" was, it is not literal but figurative, it is a messenger of Satan to buffet Paul. We also recognize that it is from Satan and not God. "Messenger" is the Greek word angelos which is translated angel and messenger in the KJV. This always refers to individuals. It has been said that Paul's thorn in the flesh was a certain sickness that he had. It doesn't say that here. We must look at the Word to see if this phrase is more clearly defined. 

Also, there are three figures of speech used in these verses that I want to call your attention to first. "Thorn in the flesh" is the figure of speech Hypocatastasis; "a declaration that implies the resemblance of representation; or comparison by implication" (Bullinger, 744). Paul didn't literally have a thorn in his flesh. Something else is implied here. This is a figure of speech, pay attention, this is important. God emphasizes importance by using figures of speech. Consequently we need to know what Paul's thorn in the flesh was.

We can get a deeper understanding of the impact a thorn in the flesh would have by knowing the ways of the people in the Bible lands. People in the rural areas walk barefoot and sometimes pick up thorns in their feet. Typically they will allow the thorn to remain and the body will encompass it with a thick layer of skin and after a few weeks it can be cut out. They have determined that it is better to leave the thorn in then take it out, taking it out opens up the wound to contamination and infection. The person would limp around all that time and obviously not be as efficient and strong with the thorn in his foot. So, the thorn in the flesh that Paul references is persistent and compromising.

The next figure is anaphora; "the repeating of the same word at the beginning of successive clauses: thus adding weight and emphasis to statements and arguments by calling special attention to them" (Bullinger, 199). Paul lists the infirmities in verse 10 and they have the word "in" in front of them causing a slight pause so the list isn't run through but each item is considered important. Because of the grace of God Paul takes pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake because he knows he will be delivered. He will see God work. He doesn't take pleasure in them for their own sake but in knowing God delivers.

The third figure of speech is oxymoron; "a wise saying that seems foolish" (Bullinger, 816). This pertains to the statement in verse 10 "for when I am weak, then am I strong." It is God's mighty power that gives us strength for when we are weak God is our strength. Does this statement "for when I am weak, then am I strong" capture your attention more than just saying God is our strength? It sure does.

We must understand Paul's "thorn in the flesh," the phrase is not used again in the New Testament but similar phrases are seen in the Old Testament. Let us look at the first use.

Numbers 33
:55 But if ye will not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you; 
    then it shall come to pass, 
        that those which ye let remain of them 
            shall be
pricks in your eyes, 
            and thorns in your sides, 
            and shall vex you in the land wherein ye dwell.

The people in the land are pricks in the eyes of the Children of Israel and thorns in their sides which means they will vex you in the land that they dwell. If you had a thorn in your side is it in your flesh?  It is people that is their "thorn in the flesh" and they will vex Israel. 

Here is another collaborating record. According to the context, God had given the Children of Israel rest from their enemies and gave them a rich inheritance. These words are a warning from God via Joshua at the end of Joshua's life. If the Israelites accept the other nations and their gods and make marriages with them the following will be the consequence:

Joshua 23
:13 Know for a certainty 
    that the LORD your God will no more drive out any of these nations from before you; 
    but they shall be snares and traps unto you, 
        and scourges in your sides, 
        and thorns in your eyes, 
    until ye perish from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you.

Again, people are the thorns. 

In Paul's ministry he was always confronted by people in opposition to his ministry. 

II Corinthians 11
:24 Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.

What are the Jews?  People.

:25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, 
    once was I stoned, 
    thrice I suffered shipwreck, 
    a night and a day I have been in the deep;

Who beats people? Who stones people? People.

:26 In journeyings often, 
perils of waters, 
perils of robbers, 
perils by mine own countrymen, 
perils by the heathen, 
perils in the city, 
perils in the wilderness, 
perils in the sea, 
perils among false brethren;

What are the perils of robbers, countrymen, heathen and false brethren? What is in the city that caused Paul peril?  People.

Also what is the cause of reproaches,  persecutions, and distresses for Christ's sake that is mentioned in the figure of speech in verse II Corinthians 12:10? People!

Paul's thorn in the flesh was not sin or sickness! People were Paul's thorn in the flesh. When some say the great Apostle Paul had a thorn in the flesh, a sickness that he had to bear, and they suppose they could bear their sickness as well in service of the Lord they need to be taught the truth of God's wonderful Word. First of all God wishes above all things that we should be in health and to prosper (III John 2) and that by Christ's stripes we were healed (I Peter 2:24) and should not be sick and secondly God is light and in Him is no darkness at all (I John 1:5). So why would He want you sick? Can you be an effective minister of God's people if you are suffering. Is it a manifestation of God's love for you to be sick? No, we are victors and more than conquerors. If God can take care of the birds of the field how much more can He take care of his children?

Come on people. We suffer because we have an adversary and we are not perfect but we have a delivering God and Jesus Christ has already paid the price. Satan is defeated. Stand up and declare your deliverance. Read the accounts of healing and deliverance in Acts. Learn the principals of healing and be healed.

Paul's thorn in the flesh is defined when God first used the figure of speech in Numbers 33 and it is further defined in Joshua 23. The Word of God is clear. In II Corinthians 12:7 the messenger from Satan which was sent to buffet Paul was the people who had the intention of hindering the movement of God's Word.

God Bless You Abundantly



Bullinger, E. W. Figures of Speech Used in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979.