Most contemporary Christians have heard of the prosperity gospel (a.k.a. the “health and wealth” gospel. Many popular “televangelists” are proponents of the prosperity gospel, which claims that if you give your life to Jesus, God has promised to make you financially wealthy and physically healthy. This is a message that people want to hear, so the popularity of prosperity theology is not surprising. Prosperity preachers strongly emphasize that Christians must give their money to that preacher’s ministry in order to experience God’s financial blessing. Most proponents of the prosperity gospel are associated with the Charismatic, Pentecostal, and/or Word of Faith movements.
Baptistic Christians, including myself, widely agree that the prosperity gospel turns the true gospel on its head, since the New Testament promises persecution and suffering for Christ in this life, with no promise of physical prosperity until after this life is over (Acts 14:22; Rom 8:18; Phil 3:10-11; 2 Tim 3:12; 1 Pet 4:13; 5:1). But rather than analyzing verses which contravene prosperity theology, in this article I would like to analyze the verse which was originally claimed as the exegetical basis for prosperity theology. This verse is one that is under the radar of most Christians, since it occurs in the shortest book of the New Testament, 3 John.
Beloved, I pray that in all things thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. – 3 John 2
Back in 1947, Oral Roberts was a poor thirty-year-old pastor of a church in Enid, Oklahoma who was dissatisfied with his salary, and discontent with his poverty and namelessness. If we are to believe Oral and his wife Evelyn, it was reading this verse at random one day, and seeing it in an entirely new light from the midst of spiritual and emotional trauma, that marked the turning point in Oral Roberts’ ministry. (See David Edwin Harrel Jr., Oral Roberts: An American Life [Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1985], 65-66.) From here on out, Oral would preach that God wanted all Christians—himself included—to be financially prosperous and physically healthy. As Oral developed the prosperity gospel, it quickly displaced the genuine gospel message in his preaching and writing, to the point where the real gospel was completely silenced (if, indeed, Oral ever did preach the real gospel). Rather than preaching the message that genuine disciples of Jesus must renounce the things of this world and endure persecution, Oral preached that genuine Christians would be healthy and wealthy, and that people should come to Jesus in order to become physically prosperous. As Oral and his preaching became famous, many other preachers followed in Oral’s footsteps, and created the various forms of prosperity theology that exist today. The original claimed biblical basis for the prosperity gospel was 3 John 2. (For more on how this verse has been used in the charismatic movement, see Heather L. Landrus, “Hearing 3 John 2 in the Voices of History,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 11.1 : 70-88; Mark E. Roberts, “A Hermeneutic of Charity: Response to Heather Landrus,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 11.1 : 89-97.)
Third John 2 is seemingly as ordinary a verse as any in the Bible. Commentators widely recognize it as a stereotypical greeting for a letter of the period, though surely the greeting was a heartfelt prayer when uttered by the apostle John. John, who was facing great opposition from false teachers, wished peace and prosperity for faithful Gaius, to whom he addressed this letter. There is one specifically Christian element to the greeting, which is the address “Beloved.” But a standard feature of letters from the Koine period is the writer’s inclusion of a wish of good health for the addressee in the greeting (see Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John: Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, Anchor Bible, vol. 30 [New York: Doubleday, 1982], 788-90).
The most important exegetical feature of 3 John 2 to note with regard to the prosperity gospel is that John’s prayer for Gaius’ good health is just that—a prayer by a man, not a promise from God. The Bible repeatedly promises temporal suffering and persecution for following Jesus, with physical prosperity only promised in the life to come. We do not pray that persecution would befall us or other believers—in fact, we pray to be delivered from troubles—but we do expect that problems will come.
It is ironic, though not atypical, that such a common, ordinary verse as this one was misused to create a whole heterodox theological system which contravenes so much of the clear teaching of the New Testament. This single verse, lifted from its historical and biblical context, was assigned a novel and foreign meaning through the imagination of a young preacher who coveted fame and fortune. It is a lesson for all of us to handle the Word of God with great care, and to resist the common temptation to spiritualize a biblical text in order to give it the meaning that we desire to preach.