The Hermeneutics of Prosperity

Ken Casillas


To a great degree the roots of the prosperity gospel lie in the ministry of Oral Roberts and his “seed-faith” theology. And to a great degree Roberts’ theology was rooted in his understanding of 3 John 2. As a Pentecostal pastor and student at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1947 Roberts experienced a crisis of faith owing to his congregation’s lethargy and his own personal doubts and longings. “Out of this period of spiritual trauma,” writes biographer David Harrell, “came a sequence of instantaneous insights, revelations as Oral viewed them.”

The first occurred one morning as he read III John 2: “I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Oral had rushed out of his house one morning to catch the bus to class when he realized he had not read his Bible as was his custom. He returned, hastily grabbed his Bible, opened it “at random,” and read III John 2. He had read his New Testament, he reported, at least a hundred times, but this verse seemed brand­-new. He called [his wife] Evelyn and read it to her. “That is not in the Bible,” she challenged. “It is,” Oral replied, “I just read it.” “Evelyn,” he said, “we have been wrong. I haven’t been preaching that God is good. And Evelyn, if this verse is right, God is a good God.” The idea seemed revolutionary, liberating. They had been nurtured in a belief system that insisted “you had to be poor to be a Christian.” Perhaps it was not so. They talked excitedly about the verse’s implications. Did it mean they could have a “new car,” a “new house,” a “brand­-new ministry?” In later years, Evelyn looked back on that morning as the point of embarkation: “I really believe that that very morning was the beginning of this worldwide ministry that he has had, because it opened up his thinking.”1Oral Roberts: An American Life, 65–66

In fact, within months of his “discovery” of 3 John 2, Roberts had a new car, a new house, and a new ministry of itinerant preaching and healing.

I don’t bring up this account in order to analyze Roberts’ experiences or to provide a complete critique of prosperity theology. Instead my purpose is hermeneutical. Did Roberts go astray in concluding what he did from 3 John 2? More broadly, what should go into the interpretation and application of biblical statements like this?

An initial oddity is sadly a common problem in Bible-reading habits—the fact that Roberts arrived at his text “at random.” It’s true that providence may lead us in ways that appear haphazard and that God can use even human foolishness to advance his purposes. But “random” does not suggest the kind of careful Bible study whose conclusions carry divine authority. This concern is reinforced as we look at several specific factors relevant to a compelling use of 3 John 2.

Location, Location, Location

John wrote his third epistle to a believer named Gaius, and the wish-prayer of verse 2 forms part of John’s brief opening greeting. The body of an epistle, not its greeting, is what expounds the theological message of the letter. This is not to suggest that greetings are mere niceties or void of theology. Yet we should be warned not to blow their significance out of proportion, certainly not to derive from them a whole theology of material possessions. The brevity of 3 John 2 reinforces this point. John’s prayer for Gaius illustrates his genuine love for a brother in Christ, but it contains precious little detail on which to build an understanding of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual.

Defining Terms

Oral Roberts was reading 3 John 2 in the King James Version: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” Two factors in that translation easily create misunderstanding.

First, rendering the Greek preposition peri as “above” is highly questionable. Greek lexicons indicate that the word’s dominant meaning is “concerning” or “about.” In 3 John 2 “concerning all” means “in all respects,” as reflected in modern English versions. For instance, the NKJV reads, “I pray that you may prosper in all things” (emphasis added). This prevents the conclusion that the verse is prioritizing the physical over the spiritual (“above all things”).

Second, what does John mean by “prosper”? Contemporary usage brings to mind abundance and wealth. But the Greek verb euodoō does not necessarily imply this; it can refer to someone’s welfare or wellbeing more generally. Thus, the NET translates simply, “Dear friend, I pray that all may go well with you.”

Context, Context, Context

Next we need to look at how the words of John’s prayer are connected in a sentence and with the epistle as a whole. “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers” (NASB, emphasis added). John assumes that Gaius is spiritually healthy, and he wants his physical wellbeing to correspond to that. The apostle is clearly prioritizing the spiritual over the physical. Any prayer modeled after John’s needs to maintain this priority.

If we wonder what Gaius’ spiritual wellbeing looked like, the rest of the epistle gives us some idea. In general, Gaius was “walking in the truth,” living in a way that was consistent with the doctrine he professed (vv. 3–4). More specifically, John commends Gaius for supporting faithful gospel ministers (vv. 5–8). The contrast to this is proud and seditious Diotrephes (vv. 9–11), though Gaius had a complement in faithful Demetrius (v. 12). The burden of 3 John is clearly the promotion of obedience and love among fellow Christians not the achievement of financial dreams.

Someone might still use the epistle to bolster prosperity theology since it emphasizes the financial support of gospel ministers as a mark of godliness. But here we should note that first-century itinerant preachers were not amassing wealth. They relied on the hospitality of fellow Christians to provide their basic needs as they traveled from town to town.

The Canonical Context

Before concluding our discussion, we must consider one other layer of context: the context of Scripture as a whole. If one aims at developing a theology of material possessions in the Christian life, he cannot do so without integrating a host of passages from Old and New Testaments. This will lead to a complex and nuanced theology indeed.

What of the generations of believers in Bible times who lived their lives in obscurity, poverty, and/or sickness? What about all the lament psalms and the suffering of Job? Was Jesus wealthy? Wasn’t he called a man of sorrows? Did he not instruct his disciples to pray merely for their daily bread while foregrounding spiritual concerns in his model prayer? Didn’t first-century discipleship include the lesson that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22, NASB)? Did not the Lord refuse to remove Paul’s thorn in the flesh despite the apostle’s intense prayers? Were not masses of believers marginalized, beaten, imprisoned, and executed for their faith? Wasn’t the author of 3 John exiled to the island of Patmos, where he wrote a book that has persecution as a key theme.

We could go on. But the point is that whatever 3 John 2 means, it cannot responsibly be taken as a promise or guarantee that health and wealth are God’s will for all believers or that sickness or poverty necessarily indicate a lack of faith.

Whatever 3 John 2 means, it cannot responsibly be taken as a promise or guarantee that health and wealth are God’s will for all believers or that sickness or poverty necessarily indicate a lack of faith.

The Pendulum of Misinterpretation

Yet room remains to sympathize with Oral Roberts and his wife. As Harrell pointed out, “they had been nurtured in a belief system that insisted ‘you had to be poor to be a Christian.’” Analyzing the proof texts used to support such a theology would make an interesting study of its own. In any case, Roberts’ biography reveals that he was reacting to an extreme and burdensome position in which he had been reared. This highlights one motivation for careful biblical interpretation and application. When one generation misconstrues the Bible in one direction, a later generation may overreact by misconstruing it in the opposite direction. This has relevance beyond the specific issue of prosperity theology. Could it be a factor in why some young people today are remaking the faith of their fathers?

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1 Oral Roberts: An American Life, 65–66