by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Evangelist William Edward Shepard (1862-1930) addresses the thorn in the flesh that Paul talks about and what it may involve. He says that according to some statements he makes to the Galatian church, it leaves little room for doubt that his trouble was a mutilated condition of the face, particularly affecting his eyes due to his beatings and other physical abuse by his opponents. This is not meant to infer that he suffered from sore eyes, but a scarred face and weakened eyesight, that made him appear unsightly. In his own words, Paul says here in verse thirteen: “And my temptation, which was in my body, you did not despise nor reject; but received me as an angel of God, even as Messiah, Jesus.” He seemed so thankful to them that they did not reject him on account of his physical condition.

In verse fourteen, Paul feels that they would not hesitate to exchange what was complete in them for what was so incomplete in him. “For I remember that, if it were possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.” It seems quite conclusive that his trouble was mainly with his eyes. As further proof of this, we should note that Paul almost always brought companions with him, probably not only as a stenographer but a helper, because of impaired eyesight. It appears that the only epistle Paul wrote with his own hands was to these Galatians. Evidently, the reason why he did not write more was his physical frailty. He wrote the Galatians because they drifted into a sad spiritual state, and Paul, to prove that it was his own epistle, wrote it with his own hand so it would carry with it as much weight as possible. We see that in the final chapter, eleventh verse, Paul explained: As you can see, this is my own handwriting because of how big the letters are. This shows not only that he wrote the letter with his own hand, but that it was written in large characters. Why large letters? Because of his impaired vision, he could do the work easier and better. Probably the only way he could write at all.[1]

Modern commentator Robert Gundry points out that ancient people often mistreated those who suffered from physical handicaps by making light of their disability and by spitting, which they thought shielded them from catching the disease themselves, especially if the infirmed person looked at them with what they considered “an evil eye.”  We do not know for sure the nature of Paul’s infirmity, nor do we need to know in order to understand this passage, and he doesn’t identify his ailment to the Galatians because they already knew what it was.[2]  But he does say that because of it, “the Galatians were tested because of his incapacity.” They passed the test by welcoming him rather than mistreating him even a little bit. Moreover, they welcomed him as they would welcome an angel, in the same way, they would welcome the Anointed One Jesus Himself as a messenger from God. When we take into consideration their religious status at that time, it’s hard to imagine a better welcome.”[3]

Philip Ryken adds an additional piece of information related to just what physical ill was tormenting Paul when he arrived in Galatia. Some say he contracted malaria on his journey there, and others, of course, point to poor eyesight. Here in verse fourteen, Paul speaks of his condition being an illness that caused him no small amount of irritation and desire for relief. The Greek noun peirasmos that Paul uses here means something that tries one patience. Thayer in his Greek Lexicon says that as used here, it means an affliction that will test one’s endurance and perseverance. We don’t know how many times Paul was told and even considered, turning around and going back to Tarsus to recover.

But when he showed up in Galatia in poor physical condition, no doubt it made him look less than an inviting person to meet. In fact, Paul was so glad that the Galatians did not consider his condition to be something to scorn or despise. Therefore, says Ryken, it may have been so visually repulsive that Paul looks just plain ugly. Ancient Greeks considered disease and disability to be signs of divine displeasure or even demonic influence. The way Paul says this, it appears that he understood that pagans, many of which the Galatians were, showed their displeasure for someone that was disfigured by an evil power by spitting at them. So, says Ryken, that’s precisely what Paul said to them, “I’m glad you didn’t spit at me.”[4]

To get a better idea of what Paul looked like and what he was talking about when saying he was not in good physical shape, look at what he told the Corinthians: “I know I sound like a madman, but I have served Him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches.[5]

I’ve been an admirer of Mother Theresa, especially after visiting her hospital in Calcutta, India. Here was an elderly lady with a wrinkled face, bent over slightly as she walked, with no outer beauty to demand attention. Yet everywhere she went, crowds gathered around and admire her as a modern-day saint because of her compassion and dedication to the down and out. Perhaps Paul felt the same way when he arrived in Galatia. No doubt it touched his heart deeply, and now he’s beginning to wonder if it was all real; if it was genuine.

4:15-16 So, what happened to your joy and openness? Back then, I was convinced that if you could, you would have gouged out your own eyes and given them to me. Accordingly, I ask you, do you hate me now just because I’m willing to be open and honest with you?

 Now Paul begins his version of “Breaking up is hard to do.” The Apostle reminds them of how everything was going great when they were together; how they declared themselves so blessed with him being in their midst. And when they saw the infirmity he was dealing with, they pledged to do anything, and they meant “anything” to try and help him cope with it or completely overcome it. Some theologians suggest that by Paul mentioning their willingness to sacrifice their eyes, and his reference to writing in big letters at the end of this epistle, that the infirmity was poor eyesight.  But others make note that already in Paul’s day there were Latin writings such as the one in which one character named Aeschinus said, “May all the Gods detest me, father, if I do not love you better than my very own eyes!”

In this revelation of the Galatian believer’s love and respect for Paul, he raises an important point concerning the relationship between a pastor and the congregation. The great reformist John Calvin once said that it’s not enough that pastors be respected if they are not also loved. Both are necessary; otherwise, their teaching might taste sour.[6] By the same token, the great modern-day reformist John Montgomery Boice stated that the degree to which ministers and teachers teach the Word of God, they should be welcomed at the same level as the Galatians received the Apostle Paul.  Ministers should not be evaluated on the basis of their personal appearance, intellectual attainments, or pleasant manners in order to be accepted, but as to whether or not they are indeed God’s messengers bearing the Word of the Anointed One.[7]

In my over fifty-five years in ministry, I’ve listened to scores and scores of pastors, evangelists, teachers, and ministers.  When it came to looks, dress and delivery style, some of them made little impression, but their knowledge of the Word and their commitment to the truth made me admire them greatly; by the same token, some others who were qualified to appear on the cover of GQ Magazine left me shaking my head in disappointment when it came to their substandard expository preaching of God’s Word.

The Bible does not give us a physical description of Jesus. The prophet Isaiah noted: “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him.”[8] The people did not stream after Jesus because He was good looking or resembled a matinee idol, but they were impressed by the way He taught. When the Jewish leaders sent out the temple guards to arrest Jesus, they came back empty-handed. The leaders asked them why, and the guards responded: “We’ve never heard anyone speak like this man!”[9]

After reflecting favorably on the past, Paul now throws out a challenging question: What happened to those people who made me feel so welcome and listened intently to the message of hope I brought them? It’s like there was nothing you wouldn’t do for me, now it looks like you don’t want anything to do with me. Paul expressed a similar frustration when the Jews seemed totally unreceptive to his message of salvation by faith through grace. He once wrote that he felt great sorrow and always feels much sadness for his own people. They were his brothers and sisters, his earthly family. He wanted so badly to help them turn to the Anointed One even if it brought a curse on him and cut him off from the Anointed One.[10] But the Galatians were not the only ones he felt such compassion for and appreciation for their love and respect.

Paul also wrote the Thessalonians and told them how his visit to Thessalonica turned out to be such a success. Before he visited there, the Jews in Philippi abused him and his team with insults and made them suffer. And then, when they came to Thessalonica, many people there also caused trouble for them. But God gave them the courage to tell them His Good News about the Messiah. And when they encourage people to give their hearts to God, it wasn’t done with any ulterior motive. They were not trying to trick or fool anyone. They did it because God was the one who sent them there. But it was only after he tested them and saw that they were trustworthy to do what they were being sent to do.

[1] William Edward Shepard: Wrested Scriptures Made Plain, Ch. 9, pp. 45-46

[2] Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7–10

[3] Robert H. Gundry: Commentary on Galatians, loc cit.

[4] Ryken, Philip Graham. On Galatians, op. cit., (Location 3041-3064) Kindle Edition

[5] 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 – New Living Translation (NLT)

[6] John Calvin: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[7] John Montgomery Boice, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Galatians, loc. cit.

[8] Isaiah 53:2-3

[9] See John 7:46, (cf. Matthew 7:29; Luke 4:22)

[10] Romans 9:2-3

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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