1.) All scripture is inspired by God. (I agree!)
2.) 3 John 2 is scripture, therefore it is God’s Word. (True!)
3.) God’s Word is God’s will. (Yes. However, interpretation is very important.)
4.) Therefore, according to 3 John 2, God’s will is for Christians to be physically healthy and financially prosperous.
But is that really what this verse teaches? That’s the question we are going to try to answer in this post. To be very clear, this is not a question of the inspiration of scripture. It’s not even a question of whether or not God’s will is for Christians to be healthy and financially prosperous (that would require a much longer blog post). This is simply a question of the interpretation and application of one verse.
I’ve heard it said that while all scripture is equally inspired, it is not all equally applicable. That should be fairly obvious. For example, I’ve never heard a Christian say that it is God’s will for them to bring anyone a cloak from Troas, even though Paul explicitly says to do so in 2 Timothy 4:13. It’s obvious in that situation that Paul is giving specific, context-dependent instructions to Timothy. Inspired? Sure. God’s will for all Christians? Of course not. The same could be said of Romans 16:6, where Paul says to “Greet Mary.” That is clearly not a divine command to all Christians to greet people named Mary.
Now that we have established the fact that not all scripture is equally applicable, let us look more closely at 3 John 2.
When it comes to biblical interpretation, context is king. Additionally, looking at a passage in several different translations helps to clarify meaning. So, let’s look at this verse in context in several different translations.
3 John:1-3, KJV
1 The elder unto the wellbeloved Gaius, whom I love in the truth.
3 John:1-3, NIV
1 The elder, To my dear friend Gaius, whom I love in the truth.
2 Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. 3 It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it.
3 John:1-3, ESV
1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
First, we should notice that the opening verse identifies this piece of writing as a personal letter from “the elder” to his “dear friend,” a man named Gaius. This is very important. This type of opening is typical for letters written in and around the first century AD, writers of letters would introduce themselves and identify the recipients of the letter right at the very beginning. We’ll come back to this idea of typical styles of letter writing in a moment.
Second, when we look at verse three, we see that there was a specific occasion for the writing. Some of the believers came to the elder and reported to him that Gaius was walking in the truth and the elder wanted to praise Gaius for this. This is not a statement about every Christian any more than Paul’s instructions to Timothy to bring his cloak are instructions to every Christian.
Third, we should notice that of the three translations, only one actually uses the English word “prosper.” Both the NIV and ESV, as well as most (though not all) English translations, say “go well with” instead of “prosper.” So what about the Greek? The greek word in question is εὐοδόω (euodoo). Etymogically, the word is formed from a combination of the prefix ευ, which means “good” or “well,” and the word ὁδος, which means “road,” “way,” or “journey.” The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament And Other Early Christian Literature defines εὐοδόω as “get along well, prosper, succeed.” It certainly can carry the meaning of financial prosperity, but more generally it just means to be doing well. There is actually a similar phenomenon in English. For example, when I see you on the street I may say, “I hope you and your family are doing well,” which is clearly a generic statement of overall well-being. More colloquially, however, we might point to someone who has been very financially successful and say he or she is “doing well.” The meaning is entirely context-dependent. The same is true with this particular Greek word. The overall context of 3 John doesn’t give us much reason to suppose that the elder had anything in mind other than general well-wishing.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the discovery of other ancient documents reveals to us that the statement in verse two is a standard salutation in ancient letters.
The image below is a side-by-side comparison of the opening lines of two ancient letters. The left side comes from a third or fourth century letter called “Letter to Apollo from His Son.” The right side is the Greek text of 3 John 1-3. The colored boxes are used to indicate identical words. I have provided translations below.
Dearest father, I pray to God that you are whole and doing well and that we might receive you in good health.
V.2: Dear friend, concerning all things, I pray that you are doing well and in good health, just as your soul is doing well.
After a little bit of research it is clear that 3 John 2 is NOT a divine promise of financial prosperity and physical health, it is simply a standard salutation in an ancient letter.
Now, does that mean God is uninterested in our health and finances? Of course not. There are plenty of scriptures that deal with these topics directly. However, we do a disservice to scripture when we try force to certain verses do something other than what they were originally intended to do.