Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

1 Corinthians 3:1-9



Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.

At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.

Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.  The first of those problems is divisions in the church, which Paul began discussing in 1:10-17. In the intervening chapter and a half (1:18 – 2:16), Paul talked about Christ as the true wisdom of God. Now in chapter three he once again focuses on the divisions in the Corinthian church.


1Brothers (Greek: adelphoi), I couldn’t speak to you as to spiritual (pneumatikois), but as to fleshly (sarkinois), as to babies in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not with meat; for you weren’t yet ready. Indeed, not even now are you ready, 3for you are still fleshly (sarkikoi). For insofar as there is jealousy (zelos—envy or jealousy) strife (eris) and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men (peripateite kata anthropon—walking like ordinary humans)? 4For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you fleshly?

“Brothers”(adelphoi) (v. 1a). Note Paul’s sensitivity here. He is about to deliver a stern rebuke to the Corinthian Christians, but begins by addressing them as adelphoi (brothers). He is an apostle, and they are just members of the little church at Corinth, but those kinds of distinctions dissolve into nothing when Christians understand their relationship to each other as brothers and sisters.

In verse 9, Paul will introduce another distinction. He and Apollos are merely servants, and the Corinthian Christians are the field where God has sent Paul and Apollos to toil—the building that God has sent them to build. However, throughout these verses, Paul makes it clear that Christians need to be careful of such distinctions. The focus needs to be on God’s redemptive activity and not on Paul, Apollos, or the Corinthian church.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul will spell out in more detail that Christ has done away with the things that humans typically use to distinguish between one person and another. There he says that all Christians “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

“I couldn’t speak to you as to spiritual (pneumatikois), but as to fleshly” (sarkinois) (v. 1b). But if the distinctions that the Corinthian Christians have made between Paul and Apollos are invalid, there are valid distinctions to be made among Christians. Paul outlines one of those distinctions in this verse, where he contrasts pneumatikois (“spiritual people”) with sarkinois (“people of the flesh”).

Paul first used the word pneumatikois (“spiritual people”) in 2:13. The first part of that word, pneuma, is the Greek word for spirit. The pneumatikois are people whose focus is on the spiritual rather than the physical world. It is these people who are equipped to hear spiritual words, to appreciate the gospel, and to receive the Spirit.

Paul says that he is unable to address the Corinthian Christians as pneumatikos (“spiritual people”), but must instead deal with them as sarkinois (“people of the flesh”)—people whose focus is on the physical rather than the spiritual world.

The word sarkinois comes from the Greek word sarx (flesh). In the New Testament, the word sarx is used in different ways:

• Jesus took upon himself human flesh (sarx) to dwell among us—obviously a good thing (John 1:14). The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is his flesh (sarx) (John 6:51)—also a good thing. Jesus said, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you don’t have life in yourselves” (John 6:53).

• But more frequently, sarx is used in the New Testament as a symbol of weakness—“The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41)—or to contrast with that which is spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6; Galatians 5:17). That is how Paul uses sarx in this verse. As sarkinois (“people of the flesh”), these Corinthian Christians have not yet made the transition from the lower concerns of the natural person to the higher concerns of the spiritual person.

“as to babies in Christ” (v. 1b). This phrase incorporates both negative and positive elements. The word “infants” tells the Corinthian Christians that Paul regards them as the most elementary kind of Christians—but also reassures them that he does see them as Christians.

The imagery of infants is both attractive and unattractive. These Corinthians have been engaged in destructive conflict among themselves, so Paul could use harsher imagery—some sort of destructive animal, for instance. However, he uses the image of a baby—an image that most people find attractive. There is something lovable about babies. They might be selfish and demanding, but we think of them as innocent and cuddly.

However, the imagery of this verse makes it clear that, even though Paul ministered to them for eighteen months and Apollos ministered to them for an extended period of time, these Corinthian Christians have failed to grow spiritually as they should have. Their development has been arrested. Their growth has been stunted.

A baby who behaves like a baby is a joy, but an older child or adult who behaves like a baby is a tragedy. If this is so on a physical level, it is also true on a spiritual level.

“I fed you with milk, not with meat; for you weren’t yet ready. Indeed, not even now are you ready, for you are still fleshly” (sarkikoi) (vv. 2-3a). Paul contrasts milk (for a baby) with meat (for a more mature person). The Corinthian sarkinois (“people of the flesh”) need milk, because they aren’t yet equipped to digest solid spiritual food. The reason is that they are sarkikoi—fleshly—people whose focus is on fleshly rather than spiritual things.

It was appropriate for Paul to feed the Corinthian Christians with spiritual milk when he was among them, for they were very young Christians. Paul founded the church in Corinth, so he started teaching them when they knew nothing about the Christian faith. However, he stayed for eighteen months, so they should have demonstrated some growth. After Paul departed for another mission field, Apollos served as pastor of the Corinthian church for several years. Apollos, like Paul, was a good teacher. These Corinthian Christians have had enough time and competent leadership to have demonstrated a good deal of growth, but they have failed to realize their potential.

This must be extremely frustrating for Paul, who has invested so much of himself in the Corinthian church. His frustration shows in this letter. Paul’s labors in Corinth seem almost to be in vain, but he never succumbs to despair—never loses hope—never lashes out in anger—never tells these infant Christians that they aren’t Christians—never throws in the towel.

Pastors today can learn from Paul’s example. If the great Apostle Paul experienced such frustration in his ministry, why should we expect anything better? If these Corinthian Christians failed to mature—if they fostered divisions in their congregation—if they tolerated immorality in their midst—why should we expect that our congregations will be any different? It will help us to maintain our sanity if we learn to expect frustrations—if we learn that it is better to be patient and pastoral than to be angry and judgmental—if we remember to pray for those who have failed to respond to our ministry—if we keep in mind that it is the Spirit’s job, not ours, to change lives.

Easier said than done! Pray for grace!

“For insofar as there is jealousy (zelos—envy or jealousy) strife (eris—strife) and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men?” (peripateite kata anthropon—walking or living like ordinary humans) (v. 3b). The little word “for” connects this part of verse 3 to the earlier verses.

Paul has accused these Corinthian Christians of being sarkikoi (“of the flesh”). Now he illustrates what he means. Their zelos (envy or jealousy) and eris (strife or quarreling) demonstrate their spiritual immaturity—prove that they are still spiritual infants—show that they are living like ordinary humans rather than Christians who have been born of the Spirit. The fact that Paul addressed these people as “babies in Christ” shows that he believes them to have received the Spirit—but that isn’t evident from their behavior.

“For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ aren’t you fleshly?” (v. 4). The word “for” connects this verse to verse 3. In that verse, envy and strife illustrated that these Corinthian Christians were “fleshy.” Now Paul gives a second illustration to prove his point. Some of these Christians have identified with Paul, and others have identified with Apollos. Paul says that this kind of division in the church constitutes further proof that these Corinthian Christians are acting like ordinary humans rather than people who have received the gift of the Spirit.


5Who then is Apollos, and who is Paul, but servants (diakonoi) through whom you believed; and each as the Lord gave to him? 6 I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase. 7So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. 8Now he who plants and he who waters are the same, but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9For we are God’s fellow workers (synergoi—co-workers). You are God’s farming, God’s building.

“Who then is Apollos, and who is Paul, but servants (diakonoi) through whom you believed; and each as the Lord gave to him?” (v. 5). To correct the problem of divisions in the Corinthian church, Paul starts by correcting the misunderstanding that these Corinthian Christians have of their leaders. They have focused their attention on Apollos and Paul, as if Apollos and Paul were divine figures. That is a serious error. Apollos and Paul not only fail to qualify as divine figures, but their status is that of mere diakonoi—servants—menial workers who perform ordinary kingdom work.

Diakonos (servant) is the Greek word from which we get our word “deacon.” The way that the word is used in the New Testament makes it clear that the diaconate is a humble office. Jesus said, “whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (diakonos) (Matthew 20:26; see also Matthew 23:11).

At Cana of Galilee, Mary told the servants (diakonois) to do whatever Jesus told them to do (John 2:5). Jesus told them to fill the jars with water, which he then turned into wine. The wine steward didn’t know where the wine came from but the “servants (diakonoi) who had drawn the water knew” (John 2:9).

Paul uses diakonos frequently to show that he is merely a servant of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 1:23; 6:21; Colossians 1:23, 25). He also calls Christ a diakonos (servant) (Romans 15:8). That might make it sound as if diakonos and deity are synonymous, but they are not. Christ emptied himself of his heavenly status so that he could come to earth in a servant (doulos—slave—an even more humble word that diakonos) status (Philippians 2:5-11).

So Apollos and Paul are no better than servants. They are doing whatever work the Lord assigns them to do. The Lord gives them orders, and they do as they are told.

“I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase” (v. 6). In verse 5, Paul refocused the attention from Apollos and Paul to the Lord. Now, in this verse, he uses a gardening metaphor to do the same thing. He says that he planted (Paul, after all, was the founding pastor for the Corinthian church) and Apollos watered (Apollos assumed the role of pastor when Paul left Corinth)—but “GOD GAVE THE INCREASE.”

That gardening metaphor is so apt! Every gardener knows that someone must plant the plants and someone must water them—but every gardener also knows that his/her ability to cause plants to grow is very limited. In fact, the wise gardener knows that he/she can plant and water and fertilize and weed, but only God can cause the plant to pop up out of the ground and grow to maturity.

“So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase”(v. 7). If Apollos and Paul are merely servants, doing what the Lord assigns them to do, they are not worthy of high honors—of top billing. Yes, they are Godly men! Yes, their work is important! Yes, they deserve credit for their faithfulness! But menial workers don’t get their names in the newspapers. Menial workers don’t achieve celebrity status. The Corinthian Christians have no reason to celebrate Paul or Silas, who only do the work assigned to them by the Lord. The Corinthian Christians should be honoring “God, who gives the increase.”

“Now he who plants and he who waters are the same” (v. 8a). There is an essential unity to the work of Paul and Apollos. They are one in the Lord and one in their purpose. It doesn’t make sense, therefore, for Corinthian Christians to say, “I follow Paul” (as if Paul were more important than Apollos) or “I follow Apollos” (as if Apollos were more important than Paul). To the extent that the Corinthian church wishes to honor Paul and Apollos, they need to honor both of them.

“but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (v. 8b). Paul and Apollos (and others engaged in ministry through the ages) can expect that God will reward them according to the work that they have done.

“For we are God’s fellow workers (synergoi—co-workers). You are God’s farming, God’s building(v. 9). While the NRSV translation is legitimate in that it conveys the meaning of the original language, the first part of this verse says literally, “For we are God’s fellow workers.” There is no word for “servants” in the original Greek.

Paul has introduced a number of contrasts in this text: “Spiritual people” vs. “people of the flesh.” “Milk” vs. “meat.” Those who plant and those who water vs. “God who gives the increase.” Now he introduces another contrast: “God’s fellow workers” vs. “God’s field, God’s building.” In the Greek, the emphasis is on “God’s” rather than “servants” or “field” or “building.”

Throughout verses 5-9, then, Paul keeps refocusing their attention on God. In verse 5, he emphasizes “the Lord.” In verses 6-7, he emphasizes “God (who) gave the increase.” Now, once again Paul emphasizes the primary place of God in the church’s life. Paul and Apollos are merely “God’s servants”—important servants, but only servants. The Corinthian church is “God’s farming, God’s building”—important components of God’s kingdom, for sure, but only a piece of that which belongs to God.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2010, 2011, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan