PAUL’S "Splinter in the Flesh"
(A Scriptural Explanation)

By: L. Ray Smith

WHAT WAS PAUL’S "SPLINTER IN THE FLESH"?

The Apostle Paul tells us in II Cor. 12:7 that, "... there was given to me a splinter in the flesh..."

What was that "splinter?" Can we know?

Two categories have been suggested as the possible explanation: (1) A physical deficiency or disease, (2) A moral or spiritual weakness.

The Scriptural evidence usually given for the first category (that of a disease or physical deficiency) is:

Gal. 4:15 -- "For I am testifying to you, that, if possible, gouging out your eyes, you would give them to me."

Gal. 6:11 -- "Lo! With what size letters I write to you with my own hand!"

Clearly, these two verses show strong evidence that Paul had a problem with his eyesight.

Suggesting that someone might give their eyes to Paul and that Paul wrote with his own hand in large letters, obviously suggests that Paul had a deficiency in his eyesight. But, was this deficiency in his eyes, the "splinter in his flesh" mentioned in II Cor. 12:7?

Hardly! A deficiency in eyesight can not compare with many of Paul’s more severe trials: "By Jews five times I got forty save one. Thrice am I flogged with rods, Once am I stoned, thrice am I shipwrecked ..." Etc., etc. (II Cor. 11:24)

Romans, chapter seven, is generally used to show that Paul’s splinter in the flesh may have been a spiritual or moral sin:

Rom. 7:8 -- "Now Sin, getting an incentive through the precept, produces in me all manner of coveting."

Rom. 7:18-20 -- "For I am aware that good is not making its home in me (that is, in my flesh), for to will is lying beside me, yet to be effecting the ideal is not. For it is not the good that I will that I am doing, but the evil that I am not willing, this I am putting into practice."

It does seem possible to conclude from these verses that, although, Paul didn’t commit sins willingly, he was aware that there was, nonetheless, sin in his flesh. He plainly states, that, "Yet now it is no longer I who am effecting it, but Sin making its home in me" (Verse 17).

So is it possible that "Sin making its home in Paul" was his "splinter in the flesh?"

Hardly! Just as surely as Paul completely comprehended that we are never totally free from sin in our flesh, he also knew the solution to lingering sins--"GRACE" (Verse 25). I believe that Paul was a spiritual giant (I’m talking relatively, among men.) I doubt that John the Baptist, or Daniel, or even Joseph, were Paul’s superiors in any way.

But, is it conceivable that Paul had a moral sin that he couldn’t overcome? Possibly. But if he did, it was something only he was knowledgeable of. Could he have coveted power and recognition? Only he would have known of it. It certainly was nothing that showed up in his ministry to the nations.

It was Paul himself, that said: "Be not deceived. Neither paramours, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor catamites, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards; no revilers, no extortioners shall be enjoying the allotment of God’s kingdom" (I Cor. 6:9-10). Surely no one would suggest that Paul himself could be guilty of even one of the above sins, after giving this stern warning to one of the weakest assemblies in the Body of Christ.

When Paul told the Phillipians, "...that you may become blameless and artless, children of God, flawless, in the midst of a generation crooked and perverse..." I don’t think he added: "By the way, however, do as I say; not as I do." I am positive that Paul’s spiritual standards were at least as high as the standards he set for his followers, which, of course, were very high!

Else how could he command them through the years to be imitators of himself?

I Cor. 4:16 -- "I am entreating you, then, become imitators of me."

I Cor. 11:1 -- "Become imitators of me, according as I also am of Christ."

I Thes. 1:6 -- "And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in much affliction with joy of holy spirit, so that you became MODELS to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia."

Phil. 3:17 -- "Become imitators together of me, brethren, and be noting those who are walking thus, according as you have us for a MODEL ..."

Paul knew his walk was exemplary in every way, or he would not have entreated the saints so often to be imitators of him. I do not believe that Paul’s splinter in the flesh was a moral sin or spiritual shortcoming.

SUFFICIENT FOR YOU IS MY GRACE

When Paul entreated the Lord thrice that this splinter should withdraw from him, the Lord protested by saying, "Sufficient for you is My grace..." (II Cor. 12:9). It has been suggested that "grace always answers to sin." Many times that is the case; however, not always. Grace is not always used in Scripture as the "remedy for sin." The word "grace" appears over two hundred times in the Greek Scriptures. Many times "grace" is used in a wide variety of gifts, favors, and gratuities that are not directly related to sin.

A point can also be made of the fact that this splinter was not something that could be found in Paul (such as a sin,) but something that was rather "...GIVEN to me..." (Ver. 7). Paul doesn’t specifically say that it was given him by God, but then again, Who else? So since it was God who gave Paul this splinter, it is hard to believe that God would have given Paul a SIN. We don’t need to be given sins. We are constituted so spiritually weak that we sin as easily as breathing. God hardly has to give us sins--we are sinning machines. But Paul’s splinter was "given" to him by God.

WITHDRAW FROM ME

Another telling word is found in Paul’s entreaty: "For this I entreat the Lord thrice, that it should withdraw from me.

The Greek word translated "withdraw" is aphistemi = FROM-STAND. Only a creature of intelligence and mobility can possibly "withdraw" from someone.

Withdrawal is used fifteen times in the Greek Scriptures, and always refers to people or creatures of mobility. "Withdrawal" is never used in connection with inanimate objects. Objects are normally "removed" or "taken away." They do not "withdraw." When Paul asked God to have "it" withdraw from him, the "it" was not an "object or thing,", but a "creature."

PAUL’S BIZARRE LIFE

No one in the history of the world has ever lived a life as Paul did. Read II Cor. 11:22-28. Jails, blows, deaths, beatings, shipwrecks, stoning, and constant dangers of every kind, day after day, year after year, decade after decade! Who can comprehend such a life? Who could ever endure such a life? After the first scourging and the second shipwreck, I believe I would throw in the towel.

Some years ago, I meditated on the incredible hardships that Paul endured while taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. Clearly, (in the relative world,) time and chance and circumstance would never produce the plethora of catastrophes Paul faced daily.

Imagine this. You return home from a three-day business trip to Puerto Rico. In shock, your wife greets your tattered body at the door. "What happened to you?" she asks.

"Well dear, after disembarking in Puerto Rico I was dragged back into an alley where several men beat and robbed me. They even took my clothing. I stumbled back to the main street in my underwear, where police promptly arrested me for indecent exposure. They took me to jail. After verifying my identity and passage on the ship, they let me go the next day. I acquired a new credit card at a local bank. A small clinic charged me $3500 to clean and bandage a few flesh wounds. I didn’t call you for fear you would panic.

I didn’t attend my business meetings. I lost a big account for my company. I went to the beach to relax and heal. The second day I took a swim and was stung by several jellyfish. I was again taken to a doctor. The third day I boarded ship to return to Miami. Midway home, the ship sank. There were sharks everywhere, but thank God, the Coast Guard arrived in a few hours."

All would agree, that that would be just "too much." Not for Paul, however.

THE TRIALS OF PAUL

Paul’s suffered:

weariness
jails
blows
deaths
thirty-nine lashes
flogged with rods
stoned
shipwrecked
day & night in swamp
journeys
dangers of rivers
dangers of robbers
dangers of my race
dangers of the nations
dangers in the city
dangers in wilderness
dangers in the sea
dangers/false brethren
toil and labor
vigils
famine and thirst
fasts
cold and nakedness
more exceedingly
more exceedingly
inordinately
often
five times
three times
one time
three times
one time
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often
often

Paul remembers lashes, rods, stoning, shipwrecks, and a day in the swamp, by numbers-- five, three, one, three, and one. All of the rest of his trials and sufferings are mentioned as "often." How often? Obviously, so often (certainly five times or more,) as to not remember. (The "often" after "vigils" refers back, I believe, to all the categories of "dangers," which are all in the plural; and we know from Scripture itself, that those things happened "often.")

This leaves two categories (weariness and jails) that were "more exceedingly." "More exceedingly" than what? or who? More exceedingly than: "...the paramount apostles" (Ver. 5).

TRANSCENDENCE VS. INORDINATELY

We are now left with just one category in a class all of its own. "... in blows inordinately ..." (Verse 23).

Only the trial of "blows" does Paul label "inordinately." Why? Is there something unique about this particular category of trial (blows?) Yes there is!

Fourteen years prior to writing II Corinthians, Paul speaks of being: "...snatched away to the third heaven...into paradise and hears ineffable declarations, which it is not allowed a man to speak" (II Cor. 12: 2-4). How big of a deal was this heavenly revelation to Paul? It was a giant, big deal. Paul said that it was a transcendent revelation (Verse 7).

Paul acknowledged that unless God would apply a counterbalance to him, he would surely, "...be lifted UP..." (Verses 7 and 8). The revelation was that "transcendent!"

"Transcendence" is translated from the Greek word [h]uper bol e’ = OVER-CAST.

Here are some of the ways it is used in Scripture:

"Yet be zealous for the greater graces. And still I am showing you a path, suited to transcendence" ( I Cor. 12:31).

"Now we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the transcendence of the power may be of God and not of us" (II Cor. 4:7).

"For the momentary lightness of our affliction is producing for us a transcendently transcendent eonian burden of glory..." (Ver. 17).

If we notice carefully, these occurrences of "transcendency" are either attributed to God, or to things yet future. Only Paul actually experienced "transcendency" in this life. Because of this privilege presented to Paul, God must now humble him and bring him back down to earth.

Paul’s explanation of what his splinter in the flesh really was quite clear:

"Wherefore also, lest I should be lifted up by the transcendence of the revelations, there was given me a splinter in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, that he may be buffeting me, lest I may be lifted up."

"For this I entreat the Lord thrice, that it should withdraw from me. And He protested to me, ‘Sufficient for you is My grace, for My power in Infirmity is being perfected" (II Cor. 12:7-9).

Notice, "...there was given me a splinter in the flesh, a messenger of Satan..." The "splinter" is the "messenger." It is exactly the same as "...there is one God, the Father..." The "Father" IS the "one God." The splinter IS the messenger. But wait; there’s more.

So the "messenger" is the "splinter." What was the messenger to do to Paul? Answer: "...that he may be buffeting me..." (Ver. 8).

"Buffeting" comes from the Greek word kol aph iz’o = CHASTEN-FROM. It means: "to rap with the fist" (Strong’s Greek Dictionary p. 43. Webster’s, buffet, (bufit) n. a blow. "A blow." Now where have we seen that before?

II Cor. 11:23--"...in blows inordinately..."

Again, Webster’s New World Dictionary, blow n. 1 a hard hit, as with the fist, 2 a sudden attack 3 a sudden calamity; shock.

Webster’s Twenteth-Century Dictionary gives us an even broader definition: buffeting, n. 1. A striking with the hands. 2. A succession of blows; strife; opposition; adversity.

So now we have a good idea of the meaning of this word "buffet"--A hard hit (especially to the face,) sudden attack, sudden calamity, shock, succession of blows, strife, opposition, and adversity. Why would Paul call all this pain and calamity "a splinter?" A splinter seems rather mild compared to the miseries that define buffet. That’s because Paul is not speaking of intensity when he speaks of a "splinter," but rather the incessantness of a splinter. The pain and aggravation is constant. It never goes away. It plagues one with every move until the splinter is removed.

The idiomatic expression "a splinter in my flesh" is still in popular usage. We alter it slightly to "a thorn in my flesh" or "a thorn in my side." We say things like: "Jack as been a thorn in my side ever since he came to work here."

The pain that Paul suffered from his hundreds of trials was obviously very intense. However, an analogy of a "splinter in the flesh" is not a description of intensity, but rather of its uninterrupted, nonstop, persistence. Paul suffered by buffeting for fourteen years prior to his writing II Corinthians, and probably another eleven years after writing II Corinthians, seeing that God never did remove it from him ("Sufficient for you is My grace...").

Imagine twenty-five years of such suffering by being buffeted by a messenger of Satan. Why so much? Why so severe? Why so long?

Remember, Paul’s revelations were transcendent. It is, therefore, necessary that his humiliation must be in accord with his exaltation. Is there a negative word that answers, in kind, to the word "transcendence?" Yes. It’s the word "inordinately!"

Let’s first look at the positive: Webster’s, transcend, 1. To go beyond the limits of; exceed, 2. To surpass; excel. This is the positive side of [h]uperbole.

Now the negative: I like Webster’s New World Student’s Dictionary: inordinate, adj. too many or too much; excessive.

How revealing these words are. Paul’s privilege in revelations was so high (maybe almost too high) that God had to answer this exaltation with the opposite of "transcendence." Something that will humble him. Something "excessive." Something that is almost "too much." Inordinately!

God’s answer and remedy to "transcendence" is "inordinately."

Here’s proof: The word "transcendence" and the word "inordinately" are both translated from the same Greek word, "[h]uper bal’lo"!

Paul’s splinter was a messenger of Satan. His purpose was to buffet Paul. Buffeting was the category that Paul said happened to him inordinately, which answers in kind to Paul’s transcendence in revelations. So Paul lived for twenty-five years, being "hit hard," "suddenly," constantly and incessantly (like an aggravating "splinter in the flesh.")

We have to understand that Paul could not live normally, by just expecting a setback or trial from time to time as circumstances would allow. No. Paul traveled in foreign lands for years, fully conscious of the fact that this appointed messenger of Satan was always there, like a sniper in the dark, ready to suddenly pounce on Paul with blows of every description and severity of pain and agony. And how often did these things happen to Paul? Almost too often, and too much--INORDINATELY!

Did Paul ever get a bad attitude over his "inordinate" blows? No. He said: "Wherefore I delight in infirmities, in outrages, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake, for, whenever I may be weak, then I am powerful" (II Cor. 12:10).

"For the momentary [for Paul this was twenty-five years!] lightness of our afflictions [read the list of Paul’s trials again] is producing for us a transcendently, transcendent eonian burden of glory..." (II Cor. 4:17). Whenever we get down, it’s because we fail to comprehend our future--transcendently, transcendent glory! Paul was given a foretaste to encourage him, and also to assure us that these things are real--they belong to us with our future in Christ.

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