Paul's Own Sickness

by Spiros Zodhiates

Paul was mightily used by God to heal a great many individuals. However, many people fail to realize that Paul himself had to endure a physical infirmity. Here was a mighty man of God who saw the Holy Spirit use him to heal others, yet he could not heal himself. In fact, Paul had besought the Lord three times to heal him, and it was denied him (2 Cor. 12:8,9). Here, we want to examine what Paul thought of his illness and the reason why he was not healed.

(There are those who say that Paul's problem was not a physical problem. The Greek text says, however, "in my flesh" (srx). The New American Standard Version translates it "in my bodily condition" and the New International Version as "my illness." It was a physical sickness.)

"Through Infirmity of the Flesh I Preached the Gospel " (Gal. 4:13)

Our attitudes regarding healing and sickness must be formed by the Scriptures themselves. Of course, the Lord Jesus' attitude, as well as Paul's, Peter's, and John's, are our primary reference points.

When our Lord was crucified, there were those who taunted Him, laughingly suggesting that He come down off the cross if He was the Son of God (see Matt. 27:39-44). Did Jesus have the power to save Himself? Of course He did, but that would not have fulfilled His Father's and His own plan that He should atone for sin. Jesus, being then the God-Man in full submission to His heavenly Father, shed His blood on the cross for the remission of our sins. That was His purpose for coming to earth. It was God's will for Jesus Christ to die.

And it was God's will for Paul to heal only when the Lord ordained it. He did not have the inherent power to heal anybody at any time. It was only when the sovereign Lord permitted it that he had the power to heal.

We find in Acts 13 that after Paul and Barnabas left Cyprus, they sailed to Perga (v. 13). Perga is a seaport and, according to Ramsey, it was an area infested with malaria-infected mosquitoes. Could it be that Paul had contracted malaria and went up to Galatia, which is about three thousand feet above sea level, for health reasons? This, then, would be where Galatians 4:13 fits in: "You know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first."

Be clear about what Paul means by "infirmity." The word is asthéneia, and it is in the accusative case. It is linked with the preposition "through" (di). When di is used with the accusative it means "on account of" or "because of." So perhaps Paul is reminding the Galatians of something they fully recognized-he had an illness and was there at a higher altitude for health reasons. Paul is reminding them that circumstances forced a change of plans, possibly forcing him from a trip to Ephesus (at the time a seaport city) to the mountains.

Paul eventually landed in a Philippian jail cell (Acts 16:23-30). No one wants to be imprisoned, but Paul knew that prison was just another opportunity disguised as a problem. So he sang and prayed out loud (Acts 16:25), and the Lord sent an earthquake. This alarmed one of the guards who asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30). Paul had been beaten up and was wounded, yet he did not slack in his witness for his Lord.

If you are sick now, you are probably full of questions. You may be asking, Did God put me here in this sickbed? The answer is, God allowed it. Although Satan can cause problems for us, the Lord works them out for our eventual good. Satan is not co-equal with God, and God has set limits to his evil work (see Job 1:8-12; 2:3-10).

Paul knew that the Lord had a purpose for his infirmity, and that was to make Him known. Today there are those who wrongly teach that God's purposes could never include sickness (or prison!). Many Christians today are being taught that since they have been forgiven, then all other benefits should be theirs now, also. Consequently, we develop wrong priorities. We become far too self-centered. We are like Narcissus of Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water and leaned over so far that he fell in and drowned. And wasn't it Absolom's long, beautiful hair that led to his death when it became caught in a tree (see 2 Sam. 18:9)! We are not here primarily to enjoy good health, but to witness to the love of God through Jesus Christ.

"The Messenger of Satan to Buffet Me" (2 Cor. 12:7)

First John 5:18 would seem to open up some serious difficulties if we did not examine it carefully, for John wrote: "We know that whosoever is born of God sins not; but he that is begotten of God keeps himself, and that wicked one touches him not." The "wicked one" referred to here is undoubtedly Satan or the devil. What does John mean when he says that the devil cannot "touch" the believer? The word "touch" is hptomai, and it means to touch so as to leave an influence on a person. This is the same word used in Matthew 9:21 where it says, "For she said within herself, If I may but touch His garment, I shall be whole." She wanted to be influenced through that touch.

One idea made clear in 1 John 5:18 is that Satan cannot put us under his control. The classic biblical example that proves this is found in Job. The Bible does not teach "dualism." That is the belief that teaches that good and evil will battle eternally because they are evenly matched. Not at all! That is one of the main points of Job. Satan is shown to be against God and His people, but God limits his evil influence.

Paul said, "I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon mefor when I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor. 12:9,10). And this is where 2 Corinthians 12:7 fits our discussion of the Apostle Paul's views. He wrote: "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 be exalted above measure."

So Paul says that a physical problem "was given to me" (v. 7). Yes, God does give sickness, but always with a higher purpose.

Although Satan may afflict us, behind his hand is the hand of God allowing him to go so far and no farther. Satan may be the kosmokrto\r, the ruler of the world, but the Lord is the Pantokrto\r, the Ruler over all. Paul says that this Pantokrto\r has allowed the kosmokrto\r to send a messenger (literally "angel," for Satan's demons are fallen angels) to "buffet" him. The word "buffet" is kolaphzo\, from klaphos, a blow. Paul's thorn in the flesh was a disturbance from the outside.

Jesus was beaten or "buffeted" by the Roman soldiers (Matt. 26:67; Mark 14:65). Was God the Father using the Romans to afflict Jesus? Yes, but what was the result? Our salvation! Did good come out of evil? Yes, praise God, it did! The greatest, most heinous, despicable crime of humanity was the killing of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter said they "killed the Prince of life," but then he added, "whom God has raised from the dead" (Acts 3:15). Hallelujah!

From Sickness-Why? Healing-How?
© 1999 by Spiros Zodhiates.
Available from AMG Publishers

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