1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.


Paul begins to lay into his gentle rebuke in chapter 3. He explains what it means to be spiritual in chapter 2, but now in the third chapter he explains to his audience that they are not spiritual. He tells them, essentially, that they are babies. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(1) And I.—Again, as in 1 Corinthians 2:6, the Apostle shows how general principles which he has just explained were exemplified in his own conduct. In the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 2:0 St. Paul has enunciated the general method of teaching spiritual truth as being dependent upon the receptive powers of those who are being taught. He now proceeds to point out to them that their own character, as being wanting in spirituality, was the real hindrance to his teaching them the higher spiritual truth which may be called “the wisdom” of the gospel.

As unto carnal.—Better, as being carnal. Our version may seem to imply that the Apostle spoke to them as if they were carnal, though they really were not so; but the force of the passage is that they were indeed carnal, and that the Apostle taught them not as if they were such, but as being such. “Carnal” is here the opposite of “spiritual,” and does not involve any reference to what we would commonly speak of as carnal sin.

Babes in Christ.—This is the opposite of the “full grown” in 1 Corinthians 2:6, to whom the “wisdom” could be taught. (See also Colossians 1:28, “full grown in Christ.”) It may be an interesting indication of the “manliness” of St. Paul’s character and his high estimate of it in others, that he constantly uses the words “babe” and “childhood” in a depreciatory sense. (See Romans 2:20Galatians 4:3Ephesians 4:14.)

The babies comparison continues in verse 2. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 3:2

I fed you with milk. The metaphor is expanded in Hebrews 5:13, “Every one that partaketh of milk is without experience of the Word of righteousness; for he is a babe.” The same metaphor is found in Philo; and the young pupils of the rabbis were called “sucklings” (תוקונית) and “little ones” (camp. Matthew 10:42). Not with meat; not with solid food, which is for full grown or spiritually perfect men (Hebrews 5:14). For hitherto; rather, for ye were not yet—when I preached to you—able to bear it. The same phrase is used by our Lord in John 16:12, “I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now;” and he taught them in parables, “as they were able to bear it” (Mark 4:33). Not even now are ye able. Though you imagine that you have advanced so far beyond my simpler teaching.

The note lets us know that this babies metaphor is somewhat common. Interestingly, Apollos is thought to be the author of Hebrews, and he also uses this metaphor with his audience there.

Hebrews 5:13 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.

Paul explains that the division, strife, and conflict among the Corinthians, much of which is driven by a desire to obtain wisdom (as was addressed earlier in 1 Corinthians), is the thing that prevents them from growing up spiritually. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 3:3

For ye are yet carnal. This is the reason for the spiritual dulness which your pride prevents you from recognizing. Envying, and strife, and divisions. The two latter words are omitted in some of the best manuscripts, and may have been added from Galatians 5:20. Partisanship and discord, the sins of the Corinthians—sins which have disgraced so many ages of Church history—are works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19), and involve many other sins (James 3:16), and are therefore sure proofs of the carnal mind, though they are usually accompanied by a boast of superior spiritual enlightenment. As men; that is, “as men, not as Christians.” To walk as a mere ordinary human being is not to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25); comp.,” I speak as a man” (Romans 3:5).

In verse 4, Paul directly addresses the primary schism among the church in Corinth. Some people in the Church express a preference for Paul, and others for Apollos. From Ellicott:

(4) One saith, I am of Paul.—These and the following words explain exactly what the Apostle means by their being “carnal,” and walking after a merely human manner. Only two of the factions—those of Paul and of Apollos—are mentioned as types of the rest. The factious spirit was in each and all the “parties” the same, but the particular difference between the teaching of the higher wisdom and the simpler truths of the gospel was best illustrated by these two.

The selection for rebuke of those who called them selves by the Apostle’s own name was, no doubt, intended by him to show that it was no matter of personal jealousy on his part. He specially condemns those who magnified his name. It is for his Master alone that he is jealous.

Are ye not carnal?—Better, are ye not only men? carrying on the idea expressed in 1 Corinthians 3:3.

By being of Paul, or of Apollos, both sides of that divide are not “of Christ.” As the commentary notes, Paul specifically rebukes those who claim to follow after him. Continuing to verse 5 with Ellicott:

(5) The Apostle now proceeds to explain (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) what is the true position and work of Christian ministers. He asserts that all alike—both those who teach the simpler truths, and those who build up upon that primary knowledge—are only instruments in God’s hand; and in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (replying to those who sneered at and despised his simple teaching as compared to the higher instruction of Apollos) he points out that though all are only instruments used by God, yet that if there be any difference of honour or utility in the various kinds of work for which God so uses His ministers, the greater work is the planting the seed, or the laying the foundation. There can be only one foundation—it is alike necessary and unvarying—many others may build upon it, with varied material and with different results.

Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos.—Better, What then is Apollos? what is Paul? and to these abrupt and startling questions the answer is, “Merely those whom Christ used, according as He gave to each his own peculiar powers as the means of your conversion.” (Such is the force of the word “believed” here as in Romans 13:11). It is therefore absurd that you should exalt them into heads of parties. They are only instruments—each used as the great Master thought best.

Paul views himself, and Apollos, as specific instrument which are both part of a greater work. He continues with that metaphor in verse 6. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 3:6

I planted. St. Paul everywhere recognized that his gift lay pre eminently in the ability to found Churches (comp. Acts 18:1-111 Corinthians 4:151 Corinthians 9:11 Corinthians 15:1). Apollos watered. If, as is now generally believed, Apollos wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, we see how striking was his power of strengthening the faith of wavering Churches. Eloquence and a deep insight into the meaning of Scripture, enriched by Alexandrian culture, seem to have been his special endowments (Acts 18:24Acts 18:27). The reference of the word “watered” to baptism by Augustine is one of the numberless instances of Scripture distorted by ecclesiasticism. God gave the increase. The thought of every true teacher always is, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name give the praise” (Psalms 115:1).

The impression you get is that Paul started the Church in Corinth, and that he was followed by the more eloquent Apollos who taught and baptized those in Corinth. Whatever their differences may have been, what followed was a divide among the Believers that Paul now feels obligated to address.

Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries in verses 7 and 8:

1 Corinthians 3:7

Anything. The planter and the waterer are nothing by comparison. They could do nothing without Christ’s aid (John 15:16), and were nothing in themselves (2 Corinthians 12:11). But God that giveth the increase. The human instruments are nothing, but God is everything, because, apart from him, no result would follow.

1 Corinthians 3:8

Are one; literally, one thing. God is the sole Agent; the teachers, so far from being able to pose as rival leaders, form but one instrument in God’s hand. Their relative differences shrink into insignificance when the source and objects of their ministry are considered. His own reward… his own labour. In the lower individual sphere the work of teachers shall be fairly estimated and rewarded as in the parable of the pounds and talents (comp. John 4:36Revelation 22:12).

Paul begins to conclude his point here by arguing that while he and Apollos are individual laborers, they are one in the larger project. We’ll look at Ellicott to complete this thought, in verse 9:

(9) Thrice in this verse the Apostle repeats the name of God with emphasis, to explain and to impress the assertion of the previous verse, that men are to recognise the unity, and God alone the diversity, in the ministerial work and office. “We are GOD’S fellow-labourers; you are GOD’S field—GOD’S house.” The image is thus suddenly altered from agriculture to architecture, as the latter can be more amplified, and will better illustrate the great variety of work of which the Apostle proceeds subsequently to speak. This sudden change of metaphor is a characteristic of St. Paul’s style; a similar instance is to be found in 2 Corinthians 10:4-8, where the illustration given from architecture is used instead of the military metaphor which is employed in the earlier verses of that passage. See also 1 Corinthians 9:7, and Ephesians 3:17, and Colossians 2:6-7, where there is the introduction of three distinct images in rapid succession in so many sentences. It has been suggested that possibly the use of the word “field,” in the Greek “Georgion,” was the cause of the Christian name “George” becoming so popular in the Church.

field = γεώργιον geṓrgion, gheh-ore’-ghee-on; neuter of a (presumed) derivative of G1092; cultivable, i.e. a farm:—husbandry.

Fun note: If one want to know why the name George became so popular within the Church, verse 9 is probably the cause.

When we pick back up with verse 10, we will see Paul continue his rebuke while shifting his metaphor from agriculture to architecture.

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