What does the Bible say?
We prosper physically as our soul prospers! Amen!
...actually it doesn’t say that.
- For starters it's a prayer not a promise. Just a simple observation of grammar and genre. It's good to pray for people's health for many things but the Father, in his wisdom, does not always give us what we pray for. Paul's thorn remained in the flesh. Trophimus remained sick in Miletus. Christians die. Even the Son of Man prayed with the qualification, "If it is possible... Yet not my will." A prayer is not promise.
- Another interesting observation is that prayers for health were extremely common in letters in the Roman world. The standard way to start a letter was with the opening address followed by something like, "Before all else I pray for your health and success", a wish which is sometimes expanded to a rather lengthy discussion of health matters (see the extremely helpful recent article by Peter Head in the Tyndale Bulletin available online). This makes the almost complete lack of mention of physical health in the New Testament letters, even the more personal ones, quite shocking. As Peter Head notes, instead of a concern for physical health, the NT letters are consumed with a concern for the spiritual health of the church body and use the vocabulary of 'health' and 'healing' and 'soundness' to refer to teaching and salvation rather than to the physical body. So the fact that this health/prosperity concern is conspicuously absent in the NT letters except possibly here in 3 John makes it very ironic that contemporary preachers should seize on this verse as their great theme and lens for the whole Bible.
- I say that the health concern is 'possibly here' in 3 John 2 because it may be that 'even as' (kathos) is linking two things where the second clause "soul prospers" clarifies the first clause "prospering and being in good health". In other words, kathos could be read as epexegetical (to use a fancy word) with the meaning “in the sense that” or “namely”. This would fit with the wider NT understanding of prosperity and health (as noted in the previous point) and it is also how many scholars understand the kathos in verse 3: Gaius is "in the truth" in the sense that he is "walking in the truth." I'm not saying we have to take it that way, it's perfectly possible that John is concerned for Gaius' physical health and well-being but it's worth keeping that possibility in mind.
- Most importantly, physical health and prosperity is not the big thing for John. The phrase “above all things” which appears in 3 John 2 in the KJV is dependent on little and very late textual evidence (late 16th c) for the Greek word pro. The vast majority of manuscripts have peri - “concerning all things”. Even without this, as we read on in 3 John it’s very clear that John’s biggest concern is not Gaius’ physical health but his spiritual health: "I have no greater joy than to hear my children are walking in the truth (v4). Yes bodies are important; it's good to pray for one another to be healed, but that’s not what this letter is about.