1 Corinthians: Chapter 3 (verses 1-9)

June 25, 2024

by Peter Amsterdam

In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the apostle Paul found it necessary to include a reprimand, as their disunity, jealousy, and quarreling—especially about their leaders and teachers—showed that they were still infants in Christ.

But I, brothers (and sisters), could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.1

Paul begins this portion of his letter by addressing the Corinthians as brothers. In the Greek language, the word brothers included the women of the congregation as well as the men. By calling them brothers and sisters, he reminds them of his relationship to them in Christ. What he is about to say will seem harsh, and Paul strongly challenges them. But throughout his letter he reminds them that they are God’s family and that he loves them and cares for them.2

While Paul considers the Corinthian Christians to be spiritual, they are not behaving as they should, and so he speaks of them as people of the flesh. He uses the image of infants, immature children, to illustrate how their actions, words, and attitudes are not those of people with a Christian mindset. Being people of the flesh is manifested by being divisive and quarrelsome with others, considering some Christians to be superior to others and by following their natural instincts rather than the leading of God’s Spirit.

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.3

Despite the boasting of some of the Corinthian believers, they were acting childishly and needed to grow up. They hadn’t properly understood the “meat” of the gospel of Jesus’ death on the cross. Accordingly, Paul had to adjust the way he addressed them. He looks back to when he gave them “milk” to drink. As new “baby” believers, they weren’t given solid food, as they weren’t ready for it. That was expected; however, Paul strongly contrasts the earlier time, when they were new Christians, to their present time when they should be able to digest solid food. He points out that even now, they can’t eat solid food, because they are still of the flesh, or worldly.

For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?4

Paul makes it clear that the “fleshly” behavior that most concerns him is the jealousy which has brought divisions. The Corinthian believers are acting like those of the unbelieving world. Jealousy is a childish behavior and has to do with fighting for and arguing over one’s status and possessions. In Galatians 5:13–26, Paul wrote something similar about the works of “the flesh.” There he asks the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit.” He lists the works which generally reflect “the flesh,” which include sexual immorality, idolatry, strife, and jealousy.5 Jealousy brings about strife as people compare themselves negatively with others or try to assert their superiority over others.

In asking if they are of the flesh, Paul expects the answer “yes.” He is pointing to their quarrels and jealousies over status and leadership, which show that they are behaving only in a human way. Paul contrasted living in a solely human way with living a spiritual life.

For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?6

Paul returns to those he referred to in chapter 1:12—Paul, Apollos, and Cephas—but only includes himself and Apollos this time. He doesn’t explain why he chose Apollos rather than Cephas (Peter). It may have been because Apollos was known for his eloquence.7 Or it might have simply been that Apollos and Paul were better known by the local church since they both had preached in Corinth.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.8

Paul uses himself and Apollos as an example, showing that there is no rivalry between them, as they are God’s fellow workers. They have different callings and gifts, a point that Paul will later write more about, pointing out that there are a variety of gifts that God gives through His Spirit.

He reminds the Corinthians that they believed through the work of Paul and Apollos. To make sure they didn’t get too attached to either of them, Paul also reminds them they are simply “servants.” Their work among the Corinthians was given to them by God, and they followed His instructions.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.9

Paul now uses gardening as an illustration. He refers to the early days when he first came to Corinth. As they think back to those earlier days, Paul wants them to look at the work that was done among them for the Lord. Paul was the first one there, and he sowed the seed of God’s work among them. Apollos did some follow-up work and he also planted, and some people came to the faith through his ministry there. Though what Apollos did is not discussed, it probably involved teaching of the faith and expounding of Scriptures. The focus here isn’t on what each of them did specifically; rather what matters is that it was God who was causing growth throughout the time Paul planted and Apollos watered. God is the one whom people should focus on, as He continues to do the work even as leaders come and go as He assigns them to various tasks.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.10

The first point that Paul takes from gardening is that the only one who counts in the process is God. The way the Corinthians regarded their leaders was “fleshly” or merely human—who they were and what they had done was given importance. However, for Paul, God is all that matters. He reminds the Corinthians that God’s work continues on with or without us. It is God who deserves all the credit for the blessings believers receive and for the harvest of believers.

He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.11

The second point Paul makes from the agricultural example is that the two workers—the one who plants and the one who waters—while having two different jobs, “are one.” Paul makes the point that he and Apollos “are one.” They are fellow workers who belong to God. They are united in one work in which both fulfill what God has assigned to them.

For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.12

The third point Paul makes is that he and Apollos are co-workers. There was a unity between them that was likely visible to the Corinthian believers. Both men were servants who belonged to God, and they worked together to carry out God’s will.

The Corinthian church was God’s field, and He was the church’s ultimate leader. Paul called the Corinthian believers God’s building, speaking of the church as God’s possession, under God’s leadership. God was building a unified church.

(To be continued.)

Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 1 Corinthians 3:1.

2 1 Corinthians 1:10, 11, 26; 2:1; 3:1; 4:6, 14–15; 6:5, 8; 7:24, 29; 10:1; 11:33, and more (28 times in 1 Corinthians).

3 1 Corinthians 3:2–3.

4 1 Corinthians 3:3.

5 Galatians 5:19–20.

6 1 Corinthians 3:4.

7 Acts 18:24.

8 1 Corinthians 3:5.

9 1 Corinthians 3:6.

10 1 Corinthians 3:7.

11 1 Corinthians 3:8.

12 1 Corinthians 3:9.