Unless you have been living under a rock or have been otherwise deaf to the religious rhetoric that is abundant in many church circles today, you have heard some preacher or some other person say that it is God’s will that we (believers) prosper and be in health even as our souls prosper. The person who said this derived their conclusion from 3 John 1:2. But was that the original intended message of this verse? Is that a correct application of the principle of the verse? Does this verse really teach that it is God’s will that every believer prospers and be in health?
Well first of all, the first thing that we must consider in seeking the truth of this text and any biblical text is context. Note that this text is actually a greeting. John was not trying to relate a deep theological insight or blessing to Gaius, John was simply saying: “Hello!” According to the Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament (BECNT), “Some form of remembrance (common in Paul’s Letters) or a health wish was common after the opening lines of secular letters of the era, but 3 John “gives the best and only clear example” of such an opening in a NT epistle (R. Brown 1982: 790). Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 292 (ca. AD 25) records Theon writing to Tyrannos, “Before all else you have my good wishes for unbroken health and prosperity.” A second-century letter states, “Before all else I pray you are in good health” (for both examples, see Elwell and Yarbrough 1998: 194). Given the brief life spans and marginal medical care of antiquity, this would always be a point well taken.” [Yarbrough, R. W. (2008). 1–3 John (p. 366). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.] So, what many today have interpreted as a major statement of God’s will for our prosperity and health was actually just a common greeting!
Not only that, but let’s look at the context again! The “beloved” in the text is not every believer today nor was it every believer at the time of the writing! It was a term of endearment specifically for Gaius, the recipient of the letter. Furthermore, the “I” in the text was not a reference to the Lord, but rather it referred to author of the letter; the Apostle John. So, to be biblically correct, it is wrong to use this text to say that it is God’s will that we prosper and be in health even as our souls prosper! According to the text, it wasn’t God’s will for us, it was the Apostle John’s wish for Gaius! John wasn’t really saying anything “deep!” He was just saying our equivalent to: “Hey, I hope you are doing OK and I wish you good health!” It wasn’t a deep theological statement; it was just a common conventional greeting of that day and time!
Now how did we get from a common greeting to one person to a deep theological principle for all believers? Again, the BECNT offers some insight: “Landrus (2002) explores the history of interpretation of this verse. From various angles going back at least to Tertullian, interpreters always tended to stress John’s concern for Gaius’s overall welfare and especially his spiritual well-being. But beginning with Oral Roberts in 1947, 3 John 2 has been interpreted by some to say “something truly different” (Landrus 2002: 81). Followed by Kenneth Hagin and others, Roberts takes “the greeting of Third John … to secure the promise of physical, financial and spiritual prosperity for all believers” (Landrus 2002: 82). While it is possible to mount a defense of this approach (as Roberts 2002: 96–97 attempts; but see McConnell 1988), if Jesus came proclaiming a gospel of material prosperity, it is otherwise absent from the Johannine corpus. For that reason, and particularly in the current era of persecution of Christians on such a wide and ferocious scale going back to the early twentieth century, most careful “interpreters could not … responsibly encourage anyone today to anchor an exposition of God’s intent for his people to prosper on 3 Jn 2” (Roberts 2002: 96). This is of course not to deny that it is within God’s ability, and frequently his will, to bless his people materially in all kinds of ways.” [Yarbrough, R. W. (2008). 1–3 John (p. 367). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.] Is it God’s will that every believer prospers and be in health? It may very well be, but my contention is that assertion cannot be honestly made based on this text! In fact, it is a dangerous practice to base any assertion or principle on just “one” text in the Bible! If it’s an intended universal principle or practice, it will usually be found in more than just one text!
What does God want for us in regard to prosperity and health? Well, when we look at the whole of scripture, we discover that prosperity and the blessings of God were really just by-products! According to the dictionary, a by-product is something that is produced during the production of something else. It is something that happens as a result of something else. It is something produced in addition to the principal product. It is a secondary result. Typically, you don’t cut wood for the purpose of getting sawdust! You cut wood to have material to build something and sawdust is produced as a by-product of cutting the wood! Well, in the same manner prosperity, success, health, and other blessings are just by-products! Abraham was blessed by God because he was obedient and faithful. In Joshua 1, we discover that God told Joshua that his prosperity and success would be the results of his obedience! The Lord made Solomon rich, not because he asked for riches, but rather because he asked for wisdom! Wisdom was the real prize and his wealth or prosperity was just the by-product! Jesus said we are to seek first the Kingdom (rule, authority) of God and all the things needed would be added! Nowhere in scripture do we find the Lord advocating that we make blessings, riches, or prosperity our main goal or pursuit! In fact, the Bible teaches that the pursuit of those things is detrimental! (See 1 Timothy 6:8-11) In the Bible, God didn’t bless or prosper people because they ask or sought to be blessed or prospered. God blessed and prospered them because of their obedience and faithfulness! Is it God’s will that we prosper and be in good health? That is not the “real” pertinent question we should be asking. The question we should be asking is: Is it God’s will that we be faithful and obedient? When we are, God will bless and prosper as God sees fit in God’s own time! But we shouldn’t pursue the blessings, they are just sawdust. They are just the by-products of faithfulness and obedience! In fact, It is has never been God’s will that we pursue blessings and prosperity, but rather it has always been God’s will that blessings and prosperity pursue us! Deuteronomy 28:1-2 says: “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the LORD thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the LORD thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth: And all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the LORD thy God.” In Psalms 23:6, David says: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” In the Hebrew text, the word for “follow” is not a passive word for a puppy-dog following it’s master, but rather it’s active word for a ferocious beasts tracking and pursuing it’s prey! In Matthew 6:31-33, Jesus said: “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” This modern-day prosperity preaching has really gotten it twisted by making a side dish the main dish! It has made what God intended to be an appetizer the main meal! It is putting people in bondage because it is making people work for (pursue) what should be working (pursuing) them!
Is it God’s will that we prosper? I believe it is! I just don’t think it is the teaching to this verse! I don’t think the Bible teaches we should pursue prosperity for prosperity’s sake! I’m a “meat and gravy” kind of guy, so let me put it this way: I don’t cook meat just to get gravy, but I appreciate the gravy as a by-product of cooking the meat! Instead of pursuing prosperity, if we pursue the God who prospers, we will be blessed, we will prosper, we will be in health as a by-product of our relationship with God.