We looked up the meaning of the word prosper. We found the word translated "prosper" in the King James Version of the Bible came from a Greek word, eudoo, which is made up of two Greek root words, eu, which means "good," and hodos, which means "road, or route, a progress, or journey." We did not find a single reference in the Greek to money, riches or material gain from the word translated prosper in the King James Version. The apostle John, the writer, was saying simply, "I wish you a good, safe, and healthy journey throughout your life, even as your soul has a good and safe journey to heaven."
John was not saying "Above everything else, I want you to get rich. Above everything, you should prosper and make money." That is not even implied in the true meaning of the verse. Yet I had based much of my philosophy at PTL and even before that on this one verse that I had totally misunderstood! Just to make certain that we were not unfairly placing too much emphasis upon the words in this passage, I began looking up other places where the same words were found in the Bible. I found eudoo again, for example, in Romans 1:10. The apostle Paul wrote, "Making request, if by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you" (KJV). Paul often took special care to make sure that his motivation could not be misconstrued or maligned because of money. It would be unthinkable for the apostle to say, "Please pray for me that somehow or other I might obtain wealth by coming to preach to you," or "Please pray that I will make a lot of money on this trip." Yet that is how Romans 1:10 would have to be interpreted if we took the King James Version translation of eudoo to mean wealth or material gain. Clearly, that was not the intent of the apostle Paul. He was saying simply, "I sure hope God grants me an opportunity to visit you soon. Please pray that I will have a good journey on the road as I travel to see you."
The apostle John was saying something very similar when he said, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth." It was a greeting, a prayerful desire of the apostle's, not a principle suggesting Christians should be wealthy.
David reluctantly agreed that to base a prosperity doctrine on this verse would be shaky indeed, but he was not yet ready to abandon his belief in the prosperity message with which he had been indoctrinated. He took some of the notes from our study sessions and wrote to several leading "prosperity preachers," some of whom were close friends of mine. Day after day, David was back, armed with more books sent to him by prosperity teachers.
"Jim, look at this!" David said as he pointed to a passage in the Old Testament to see that he had been referred by some of my friends to Deuteronomy 8:18. I had used the verse myself in countless messages and appeals for money. The verse reads, "But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day" (KJV).
At first glance, the verse did seem to support the idea that God is the one who gives us the power to get rich. When David and I read the verse in context with the entire passage of Deuteronomy 8:1-18, however, it took on a different meaning. We realized that what God is actually saying to His people in this passage is, "When I bring you out of Egypt into the Promised Land and you are enjoying the blessings I have given to you, don't think that you have been successful in your own strength. Don't say that it is your own power, that you did all this yourself." The Lord then warns His people to remember that He is the one who deserves the glory. All God was saying was "When you get into the Promised Land, don't forget who brought you there and gave to you everything that you have."
David and I dug into the words in the passage, looking especially at the word translated wealth. By looking up wealth in a Hebrew lexicon, we discovered that it comes from the Hebrew word chayil which is used 232 times in the Old Testament. In almost every case, the word is meant to imply, "might, strength, power, ability, virtue, valor," and, oh, yes: "wealth." It is used most often to describe valiant men and women and armies.
As David and I read the passage with new understanding, we concluded that God was not saying, "I am the one who gives you riches." What He really was saying was: "Remember, it is God who has given you the power to receive everything you have. He is the one who has given you strength. He is the one who has given you a house, land, or other possessions."
I admit, in the past I had used this verse to make it sound as though it was God's will to make everyone wealthy and if any of His people were poor it was probably due to lack of faith or not applying the biblical "formulas" correctly. That was an improper interpretation of the passage. Yes, it is God who gives us the power to receive all that we have, but to assume that He wants all His people to be wealthy based on this Scripture is an illegitimate extension of that truth.
As David and I studied the Scriptures concerning material wealth, he became convinced that the Bible does not teach that God wants us to be rich in material possessions. "But Jim, doesn't God want to bless His people?" David asked. "Of course He does," I replied, "but we don't have to twist the Scriptures into saying something they don't mean. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that tell us that God will provide for us, and as we honor Him by using the resources that He gives us for His glory, He will continue to pour out even greater blessings upon us." (Bakker then cites Mal. 3:10-11, 2 Co. 9:6)
God has promised to bless those people who put Him first in their lives. That principle has never changed. I still believe that God blesses His people and will meet their needs. The sin is falling in love with and seeking after money and material things. He doesn't want us to equate mere money with godliness. In fact, the apostle Paul said that "If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness .. supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself. But godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim. 6:3, 5-6 KJV).
For the first time, I began to really understand what Paul meant when he wrote: But they that will be rich (which I discovered meant: "they that want to be rich") fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. (1 Tim. 6:8-11 KJV)
For years I had glossed over that passage in Scripture. I ignored it, made excuses for it, or tried to explain it away. I refused to accept the obvious interpretation. I now see that the message was right there all the time, so plain that even a child could see it and understand it. I was wrong.
I knew I could not keep this new found information a secret. I had influenced so many people to accept a "prosperity message," I now felt that I had a responsibility to tell my friends what I had been learning from my studies in the Bible. I wrote a simple, straightforward letter and sent it to some of the people who had written to me in prison. The letter was not meant to be published to the world. I didn't know how The Charlotte Observer got a copy of the letter, but the paper ran portions of it on the front page .. Soon I began receiving mail from all over the country concerning the letter. Some people were appalled that I - a person they considered as a primary propagator of the prosperity message in the twentieth century - had disavowed my former teaching. Others wrote to me were delighted that I had "finally seen the light."
Frankly, I was not greatly concerned what the critics or the skeptics had to say about my speaking about against the prosperity message. I knew what God had clearly shown to me from His Word. I had studied every word of Jesus over a period of two years, and I was convinced that the prosperity message was at best an aberration and at worst "another gospel" contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although I still believed God blesses His people, the prosperity message I had preached for years was wrong.
In retrospect, one of the main reasons I slipped into believing and preaching a distorted doctrine was because of my lack of understanding of what it really means to allow Jesus to be Lord of my life.