"Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me-- to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.
And He has said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." (2 Corinthians12:7-9 NASB unless noted)
Many have offered their interpretation in an attempt to identify Paul's "thorn." I offer mine for your consideration.
Most consider Paul's thorn to be a physical malady and particularly relating to an unsightly eye condition. They point primarily to his letter to the Galatians. Therein we read:
"you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself." (Galatians 4:13-14)
"See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand." (Galatians 6:11)
"For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me." (Galatians 4:15)
I believe that the thorn and Paul's references to his eyes are two distinct issues.
If the phrase "you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me" could be a figure of speech. We today might say, "It cost me an arm and a leg." or "I'd give an arm and a leg for one of those." Was this reference to giving their eyes a metaphor expressing affection? If not, there is another possibility.
When Paul was first in Galatia he was met with considerable opposition from the Jews who lived in the region. Acts 14 describes how Paul's stoning, in Lystra of Galatia, was intended to be to his death (Acts 14:19). Seems he was only partly dead since, miraculously, he got up and they continued their journey.
As it was written the incident seems trite. This picture may help to dispel that. Those Jews who instigated the stoning hated Paul with a vengeance. Stones would have been directed at Paul's head. The experience would have affected Paul's appearance and eyes for weeks. The stoning was no small matter. This little girl's eyes were affected by a fractured skull.
If your pastor said to you, "I have to go and deal with a real pain in the neck." Would you direct him to a chiropractor? Or would you recognize the phrase as a figure of speech descriptive of having to confront someone over a relationship issue?
In other places in his letter to the Corinthians Paul tells of his constant struggle with Jews who were following him around undermining his work and reputation:
"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds." (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)
Paul seems to grow weary of having to prove his credentials:
"For they say, "His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible."" (2 Corinthians 10:10)
"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ?-- I speak as if insane-- I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death." (2 Corinthians 11:22-23)
Because of these references and others, I suggest that the "thorn in the flesh" is a figure of speech which represents people who were antagonistic toward Paul and his ministry.