Exposition of 1 Corinthians 3:1–9 Misunderstanding life in the Spirit

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly — mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? 5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe — as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul seriously disagrees with his Corinthian audience about their identity. Certainly they are Christ-followers as shown when he addresses them as “brothers and sisters” (1 Cor. 3:1). They think of themselves “as people who live by the Spirit” while he says that they are “worldly — mere infants in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1). That is a big difference indeed!

The statement “I gave you milk, not solid food” (1 Cor. 3:2) has generally been misunderstood to mean that Paul was talking about an elementary grasp of the gospel (milk) and a deeper grasp of doctrine (solid food). To the contrary, Gordon Fee says: “For Paul the gospel of the crucified one is both ‘milk’ and ‘solid food.’ As milk it is the good news of salvation; as solid food it is understanding that the entire Christian life is predicated on the same reality [i.e., Christ crucified].”[1]

While the Corinthians thought themselves ready for more than “milk,” Paul says they were not ready when he was with them and still have not become ready (1 Cor. 3:2). The proof is that there is “jealousy and quarreling among you.” What Paul means by “worldly” is explained by the phrase “acting like mere humans” (1 Cor. 3:3), which means people who lack the Holy Spirit.

The factions are wearing masks of spirituality in that one claims to “follow Paul” and another to “follow Apollos” (1 Cor. 3:4). The evident folly of that behavior is that neither Paul nor Apollos are leaders; they are servants given their respective roles by Christ (1 Cor. 3:5). Some in Corinth have believed, but Paul only claims to have “planted the seed” and Apollos merely “watered it” (1 Cor. 3:6). It is, however, God who “has been making it grow” — a Greek imperfect verb indicating continuous action in past time.

Rather than placing their attention on two supposed leaders, the Corinthian believers should focus on God who sent the two servants (1 Cor. 3:5–7). Note that while the one planting and the one watering had a common purpose, they will be individually rewarded “according to their own labor” (1 Cor. 2:8) by the master.

Paul’s metaphors overturn the Corinthians’ viewpoint. In Roman culture it was fashionable to be a client of a powerful leader who could pull you up to a higher place. But Paul says that he and Apollos are only servants, and field hands at that! Paul calls them “co-workers in God’s service” (1 Cor. 3:9).

The Corinthian believers thought themselves in a position to choose among powerful leaders, but Paul says, “You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). David Garland says, “The images convey that the Corinthians are still a work in progress.”[2] After all, it’s hard for a turnip to boast.

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 125.

[2] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 113.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!