In the lead-up to the Truth Matters conference in October, we will be focusing our attention on the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture. Of our previous blog series, none better embodies that emphasis than Frequently Abused Verses. The following entry from that series originally appeared on October 7, 2015. -ed.
Just as a single cell of cancer can metastasize until it spreads throughout the physical body, a single false doctrine can multiply itself and spread throughout a body of believers. A great forest fire can be started by one spark. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 140.
Throughout this series on Scripture’s “Frequently Abused Verses,” we’ve seen how God’s Word has been misunderstood and misapplied, as well as instances when it is intentionally twisted to accommodate blasphemous lies and spurious doctrines. Today we’re going to consider how the misappropriation of one verse—3 John 2—triggered a heretical movement that has been a scourge for God’s people and blight on the testimony of the church for more than half of a century.
The Roots of the Prosperity Gospel
Not long after Oral Roberts’s death—and amidst a tidal wave of glowing praise for the pioneering televangelist—John MacArthur wrote this summation of the preacher’s life and ministry:
Oral Roberts’s influence is not something Bible-believing Christians should celebrate. Virtually every aberrant idea the Pentecostal and charismatic movements spawned after 1950 can be traced in one way or another to Oral Roberts’s influence.
One of his primary legacies is the prosperity gospel. As John explains in the article quoted above, the prosperity gospel “is the notion that God's favor is expressed mainly through physical health and material prosperity, and that these blessings are available for the claiming by anyone who has sufficient faith.”
Roberts might not have been the first person to teach that false doctrine, but through his television ministry he served as its chief herald and the primary catalyst for its rapid growth and widespread acceptance.
And according to Roberts’s biographer, David Edwin Harrell, Jr., the televangelist’s commitment to the prosperity gospel was born out of a crisis of faith and a new perspective on an overlooked verse.
Out of this period of spiritual trauma 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 they 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 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.”
Oral’s new-found insight was soon put to a practical test. The agent was a Mr. Gustavus, a neighbor who owned the Buick automobile dealership in Enid. Mr. Gus liked Oral, and, although he was a “nonreligious” man, he listened to his neighbor’s preaching occasionally and liked his emphasis on the “here and now.” One morning Mr. Gus noted that Oral’s car looked “pretty bad” and suggested that he buy a new one. It seemed a preposterous idea. Cars were still “practically unobtainable” in these postwar months, and there was no slack in the Robertses’ tight budget. But Mr. Gus showed them a way; he sold their old car for the “highest ceiling” price and acquired a new Buick for Oral at “dealer’s cost.” Mr. Gus, Oral, and Evelyn drove together to Detroit to pick up the car. As they drove back to Enid in their “brand new . . . long, green slick Buick,” Oral and Evelyn pondered the significance of this seemingly impossible turn. Evelyn asked Oral to stop: “We have just got to hold hands and praise the Lord for this car.” For Oral, the “new car became a symbol to me of what a man could do if he would believe God.” Nor was Mr. Gus through. He kept egging Oral on. “Son, the message you are preaching is too big for one town,” he told Oral, “the country is waiting for it. . . . Preach it, son. And you will stir this generation.”  David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Oral Roberts: An American Life (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985) 65-66.
Of course there are plenty of other Bible verses that have been contorted by prosperity preachers to support their false teaching—we looked at one of them earlier in this series. But 3 John 2 is the textual soil that sprouted Roberts’s prosperity gospel, and the massive family tree of prosperity preachers who have carried on his heretical legacy.
And when you consider how the lies of the prosperity gospel have permeated and poisoned the church, you understand why the details matter, and the damage that can be done when we play fast and loose with God’s Word. The careless reading and application of this one verse has spawned multiple generations of false prophets and fraudulent healers who have feasted on the spiritually naïve and theologically shallow. And by continuing to perpetuate Roberts’s false teaching, they further tarnish the testimony of God’s Word and His people. In many parts of the world, the face of Christianity is a sneering charlatan with his hand out, preaching the get-rich gospel of health and wealth to people who have neither.
When it comes to biblical interpretation, the details are vitally important.
And in the case of 3 John 2, the details make the true meaning of the verse abundantly clear. In his short letter to a man named Gaius, the apostle John wrote, “Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers.”
The reality is that the apostle’s words are not a prophecy of blessing. As John MacArthur explains in his commentary on 3 John, “The phrase ‘I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health’ was a standard greeting in ancient letters.”  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007) 245.
The salutations of the epistles are rich with doctrinal truth (cf. Romans 1:1-7; Galatians 1:1-5; 1 Peter 1:1-2). But it’s not theologically safe or hermeneutically sound to turn a greeting to a specific audience into a promise for all believers.
Moreover, the apostle’s words here don’t support an emphasis on physical blessings like health and wealth, since that’s the opposite of the point John was making. He was praising God for the good report on the quality of Gaius’s character. As John MacArthur explains, the apostle’s focus was spiritual prosperity.
“Prosper” translates a form of the verb euodoō. The term, used only here, Romans 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 16:2, means “to succeed,” “to have things go well,” or “to enjoy favorable circumstances.” The first use of prosper in verse 2 refers to Gaius’s physical health, as the contrast with the last part of the verse makes clear. The apostle’s wish was that Gaius’s physical health would be as good as that of his spiritual.
John’s concern for Gaius is a pastoral desire that he be free from the turmoil, pain, and debilitation of illness so as to be unrestricted in his service to the Lord and His church. . . .
But [in contrast to his physical condition] Gaius’s healthy soul brought far more delight to John. He knew he had a vibrant spiritual life. To borrow from some other apostles, Gaius was among those who are “sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13); constantly “grow[ing] in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18); “walk[ing] in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1-3 John, 245-246.
When considering how the Lord might bless us, we need to keep in mind that His blessings are not merely for our benefit. As long as He grants us breath, He has use of us for the work of His kingdom. It stands to reason then that even the physical blessings we enjoy have eternal purposes—and for the sake of His glory and His church, we need to pursue those purposes.
God is in the business of building His church, not handing out Buicks.