First a look at Paul himself. The best light on this thorn is through the man. The man explains the thorn. We have a halo about Paul's head; and rightly, too. What a splendid man of God he was! God's chosen one for a peculiar ministry. One of the twelve could be used to open the door to the great outside world, but God had to go aside from this circle and get a man of different training for this wider sphere. Cradled and schooled in a Jewish atmosphere, he never lost the Jew standpoint, yet the training of his home surroundings in that outside world, the contact with Greek culture, his natural mental cast fitted him peculiarly for his appointed task to the great outside majority. His keen reasoning powers, his vivid imagination, his steel-like will, his burning devotion, his unmovable purpose, his tender attachment to his Lord, -- what a man! Well might the Master want to win such a man for service' sake. But Paul had some weak traits. Let us say it very softly, remembering as we instinctively will, that where we think of one in him there come crowding to memory's door many more in one's self. A man's weak point is usually the extreme opposite swing of the pendulum on his strong point. Paul had a tremendous will. He was a giant, a Hercules in his will. Those tireless journeys with their terrific experiences, all spell out will large and black. But, gently now, he went to extremes here. Was it due to his overtired nerves? Likely enough. He was obstinate, sometimes; stubborn; set in his way: sometimes head down, jaw locked, driving hard. Say it all softly, for we are speaking of dear old saintly Paul; but, to help, say it, for it is true.
God had a hard time holding Paul to His plans. Paul had some of his own. We can all easily understand that. Take a side glance or two as he is pushing eagerly, splendidly on. Turn to that sixteenth chapter of Acts, and listen: "Having been forbidden of the Holy Spirit to speak the word in (the province of) Asia," coupled with the fact of sickness being allowed to overtake him in Galatia where the "forbidding" message came. And again this, "they assayed to go into Bithynia; and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not." Tell me, is this the way the Spirit of God leads? That I should go driving ahead until He must pull me up with a sharp turn, and twist me around! It is the way He is obliged to do many times, no doubt, with most of us. But His chosen way? His own way? Surely not. Rather this, the keeping close, and quiet and listening for the next step. Rather the "I go not up yet unto this feast" of Jesus. And then in a few days going up, evidently when the clear intimation came. These words, "assayed to go," "forbidden," "suffered not" -- what flashlights they let into this strong man's character.
But there is much stronger evidence yet. Paul had an ambition to preach to the Jerusalem Jews. It burned in his bones from the early hours of his new life. The substratum of "Jerusalem" seemed ever in his thoughts and dreams. If he could just get to those Jerusalem Jews! He knew them. He had trained with them. He was a leader among the younger set. When they burned against these Christians he burned just a bit hotter. They knew him. They trusted him to drive the opposite wedge. If only he could have a chance down there he felt that the tide might be turned. But from that critical hour on the Damascene road "Gentiles -- Gentiles" had been sounded in his ears. And he obeyed, of course he obeyed, with all his ardent heart. But, but -- those Jerusalem Jews! If he might go to Jerusalem! Yet very early the Master had proscribed the Jerusalem service for Paul. He made it a matter of a special vision, in the holy temple, kindly explaining why. "They will not receive of thee testimony concerning Me." Would that not seem quite sufficient? Surely. Yet this astonishing thing occurs: -- Paul attempts to argue with the Master why he should be allowed to go. This is going to great lengths; a subordinate arguing with his commanding general after the orders have been issued! The Master closes the vision with a peremptory word of command, "depart. I will send thee far hence (from Jerusalem, where you long to be), to the Gentiles." That is a picture of this man. It reveals the weak side in this giant of strength and of love. And this is the man God has to use in His plan. He is without doubt the best man available. And in his splendour he stands head and shoulders above his generation and many generations. Yet (with much reverence) God has a hard time getting Paul to work always along the line of His plans.
That is the man. Now for the thorn. Something came into Paul's life that was a constant irritation. He calls it a thorn. What a graphic word! A sharp point prodding into his flesh, ever prodding, sticking, sticking in; asleep, awake, stitching tent canvas, preaching, writing, that thing ever cutting its point into his sensitive flesh. Ugh! It did not disturb him so much at first, because there was God to go to. He went to God and said, "Please take this away." But it stayed and stuck. A second time the prayer; a bit more urgent; the thing sticks so. The time test is the hardest test of all. Still no change. Then praying the third time with what earnestness one can well imagine.
Now note three things: First, There was an answer. God answered the man. Though He did not grant the petition, He answered the man. He did not ignore him nor his request. Then God told Paul frankly that it was not best to take the thorn away. It was in the lonely vigil of a sleepless night, likely as not, that the wondrous Jesus-Spirit drew near to Paul. Inaudibly to outer ear but very plainly to his inner ear, He spoke in tones modulated into tender softness as of dearest friend talking with dear friend. "Paul," the voice said, "I know about that thorn -- and how it hurts -- it hurts Me, too. For your sake, I would quickly, so quickly remove it. But -- Paul" -- and the voice becomes still softer -- "it is a bit better for others' sake that it remain: the plan in My heart through you for thousands, yes, unnumbered thousands, Paul, can so best be worked out." That was the first part of what He said. And Paul lies thinking with a deep tinge of awe over his spirit. Then after a bit in yet quieter voice He went on to say, "I will be so close to your side; you shall have such revelations of My glory that the pain will be clear overlapped, Paul; the glory shall outstrip the eating thorn point."
I can see old Paul one night in his own hired house in Rome. It is late, after a busy day; the auditors have all gone. He is sitting on an old bench, slowing down before seeking sleep. One arm is around Luke, dear faithful Doctor Luke, and the other around young Timothy, not quite so young now. And with eyes that glisten, and utterance tremulous with emotion he is just saying: -- "And dear old friends, do you know, I would not have missed this thorn, for the wondrous glory" -- and his heart gets into his voice, there is a touch of the hoarseness of deep emotion, and a quavering of tone, so he waits a moment -- "the wondrous glory-presence of Jesus that came with it."
And so out of the experience came a double blessing. There was a much fuller working of God's plan for His poor befooled world. And there was an unspeakable nearness of intimacy with his Lord for Paul. The man was answered and the petition denied that the larger plan of service might be carried out.