Paul has been speaking to the Corinthians about the source of their sectarianism (1 Cor. 1:10–2:16), exposing the folly of their clannishness (1:10–17) and of their cleverness (1:18–2:16). He now turns instead to the spirit of their sectarianism (3:1–4:21). It was, first of all, a carnal spirit (3:1–17). Paul will show the fact (3:1–4), the folly (3:5–8), and the fruits (3:9–17) of their sectarianism.
Beginning with the fact of their carnality, their carnality is decried (3:1–3). Paul underlines, first, the childish level of their beliefs (3:1–2). He found them to be babes: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (3:1). In his letter to Rome, written from this very city of Corinth, Paul outlines for us the characteristics of three men. First there is the spiritual man (Rom. 7:1–6), the person who knows the truth of being “married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead,” and who, consequently, is producing “fruit unto God.” Free from the law, the spiritual person lives for the Lord. This is the kind of person every believer should be. He is indwelt and filled with the Holy Spirit who Himself makes Christ real to him just as the servant, in the matchless Old Testament type, sought to make Isaac real to Rebekah (Gen. 24:65).
Then there is the natural man (Rom. 7:7–13). The picture here is of a person in his unregenerate state doing his best to keep the commandments of God and miserably failing. Indeed, the law, far from being an instrument of salvation, proves to be a means of condemnation. Nobody tried harder than Saul of Tarsus to merit salvation by the works of the law. No one understood better than he the inner gnawing of conviction of sin, failure, and judgment to come (Phil. 2:3–11).
In concluding this great treatise on the nature of man, Paul talks about the carnal man (Rom. 7:14–23). The carnal man is a saved man, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who nevertheless tries to live the Christian life on the same principle that the unsaved man tries to merit eternal life. He tries to live the Christian life in the energy of the flesh—and fails. The failure is dismal and complete. The carnal man is thoroughly wretched. The Holy Spirit indwelling him will not let him enjoy worldliness and sensuality; the old nature within him will not let him enjoy his new life in Christ.
Paul holds the Corinthian believers accountable for their carnality. He could not even speak to them on a high spiritual plane. He could only talk to them as babes. Babes are attractive enough so long as they grow up, but a babe who remains a babe for twenty years is a tragedy. Babes are self-centered. They are dependent on others for all their needs. They have short attention spans. They go for things that glitter, and they have no sense of values. They are illiterate and ignorant of much they need to know. Their own wants are predominant. They are ruled by their appetites and move fitfully from one thing to another. They are unable to feed themselves, or to protect themselves, or to defend themselves. They cannot see beyond their own little world. They enjoy being the center of attention and soon learn how to get their share of it. They have no thought for the needs and concerns of others. They are demanding. They get themselves in the most frightful messes and seem blissfully unaware of it. They demand a great deal of care. But, in time, they grow up. The trouble with the Corinthians was that they did not grow up. Paul found them to be still babes.
Consequently, he had to feed them as babes: “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Cor. 3:2). It was not for lack of teaching. Paul had remained in Corinth for a year and a half (Acts 18:11) “teaching the word of God among them.” He labored there as an evangelist, as a pastor, and as a teacher. Imagine having the apostle Paul as your teacher! He soon took the measure of his beloved Corinthians, however. Doctrine did not interest them; what they wanted were the gifts—the spectacular sign gifts. No wonder Paul tells them bluntly that clever and capable as they no doubt were, they were childish (1 Cor. 13:11). There was so much he wanted to teach them—all the great truths we find in Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Thessalonians, and Hebrews. He would have liked to have taken them through the Old Testament explaining the types, highlighting prophecy, showing them Christ. They, however, were restless under the most prosaic and elementary teaching. As for a full course of doctrine—Soteriology, pneumatology, anthropology, angelology, ecclesiology, theology, eschatology, and the like—they were nowhere ready for that. He had to feed them as babes—just a few simple truths about salvation, baptism, the ordinances, resurrection, giving, and personal accountability—that was about all they were able to handle.
He underlines, too, the childish level of their behavior (3:3). He mentions envy, strife, and divisions. “Are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” he demands. The word for carnal is sarkikos, “men of the flesh,” sensual, under the control of their animal appetites, governed by their human nature and not by the Holy Spirit. The word for envying is zēlos—jealousy. W. E. Vine says that the distinction between envy and jealousy lies in this—that envy wants to deprive another of what he has, jealousy desires the same sort of thing for itself. At Corinth, this attitude of jealousy was particularly noticeable in connection with the sign gifts. The word for strife is eris, contention as an expression, indeed, of enmity. There were all kinds of quarreling, rivalry, and wrangling going on in this church. It was in the same spiritual state as Israel in the wilderness when they spent their time murmuring and arguing and contending with Moses and Aaron. Paul could very well have written Hebrews 3:7–4:11 to this church. It certainly stood in need of that teaching.
So, then, their carnality is decried (1 Cor. 3:1–3). Now it is described: “For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?” (3:4). That was the proof that there was jealousy and strife at work in the Corinthian church. It was also proof that they were unspiritual. We have grown up with denominationalism and more or less accept it as normal and necessary. Paul had a horror of it and of the spirit that produced it. The Lord prayed that all His people might be one in the same bond of oneness He and His Father enjoyed (John 17:21–23). It has been part of Satan’s master strategy against the church to divide it. Yet within the mystical body of Christ there is a oneness that the Father sees, which we occasionally glimpse, and which will be displayed to the universe in eternity. Satan cannot destroy that.
In one of the grand old worship hymns we sang when I was a boy, one stanza went thus:
We would remember we are one
With every saint that loves Thy Name;
United to Thee on the throne,
Our life, our hope, our Lord the same.
Having, then, discussed the fact of their carnality, Paul turns to the folly of their carnality (1 Cor. 3:5–8). He confronts the Corinthians, first, with the question of reality: “Who then,” he demands, “is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” Who were these men, even Paul himself? Just servants of the Lord! The Corinthians preferred one above the other. Paul says God simply used them as His instruments to bring about their conversion. They had different gifts but the same grace (Rom. 12:6). What would heaven be like, indeed, if this Corinthian contentiousness were to be carried over to there? Here would be one set of believers boosting D. L. Moody, another group singing the praises of Martin Luther, another bragging about John Calvin or John Wesley or General William Booth! The very idea is ludicrous! Paul urges the Corinthians to face the facts. Men, even the most illustrious of men, are only men even though they brought a great deal of background, variety, and gift with them into the ministry.
Paul, for instance, came from a Pharisaical background. He was a trained rabbi, a pupil of the illustrious Gamaliel. He grew up among the Hellenist Jews of Tarsus, the chief city of Cilicia. He prized the invaluable asset of being a Roman citizen. He was not only thoroughly at home in rabbinical law but well versed in Greek philosophy. He had been a rabid persecutor of the church and became the foremost missionary, theologian, and spokesman of the church.
Apollos, by contrast, grew up in Alexandria, which had a large Jewish community. The Jews of Alexandria enjoyed a considerable amount of self-government. Some even held influential posts in the city administration. Philo’s brother, Alexander, was not only chief customs officer, he was fabulously wealthy. Philo himself was a patriotic Jew. He was also an eager student of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato, the Stoics, and the Neo-Pythagoreans. His goal was to interpret the Old Testament in the light of Greek philosophy. He developed a system of hermeneutics based on an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, pressed to the point of absurdity. He was, nevertheless, one of the most influential Jews of his day. Apollos was an Alexandrian and would have found it difficult to escape the influence of Philo. Apollos, well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, probably the Septuagint version, pointed people to Christ, even though his understanding of the gospel was defective at first. It is very likely that Apollos favored Philo’s allegorical hermeneutics. In any case, his style, so unlike Paul’s, appealed to many.
Even so, Paul and Apollos, great and gifted as they were, were only servants whom God had been pleased to use as instruments in His hand to bring numbers of the Corinthians to Christ. That was the reality. Both the men involved and the ministry involved were of God.
Paul turns now to the question of results (1 Cor. 3:6–7). First we have his appeal (3:6). He says, “I have planted, Apollos watered [the human partners in the work of winning souls]; but God gave the increase [the heavenly Partner].” We do not know what Paul may have thought about Alexandrian Christianity, which certainly seems to have been somewhat defective, or what he may have thought of Apollos’s tendency to over-allegorize the Old Testament Scriptures. He never cuts him down. They were workers together in the great task of winning people to Christ. One did this, one did that. Paul and Apollos were on the same side.
When John on one occasion said to the Lord Jesus, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us.” Jesus replied, “Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is on our part” (Mark 9:38–40).
So Paul saw Apollos as a partner, not as a rival. On all the really important issues they were one. There was plenty of work for everyone. Not all are gifted to plow and plant. Not all have the patience and concern to water. In any case, neither one could accomplish anything without God, who alone can give the harvest.
Now comes his application (1 Cor. 3:7). “So then,” he says, “neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.” The seed was sown, a very simple operation indeed. The farmer made a makeshift bag out of the folds of his garment, filled it with seed, and walked up and down his field throwing the seed far and wide upon the ground. The seed was watered. Again, the operation was simple in the extreme. The water ran down channels. As the farmer wanted to direct it here or there he dammed one channel by moving some earth with his foot and opened another the same way. Nothing could be simpler than sowing or watering. Anyone could do it. It took little or no skill. Besides, in the whole process of working for a harvest, that was about all anyone could do.
Then came the hard part, the mysterious part, the impossible part. That dry seed germinated! There was life there! Tiny roots went down into the moist soil. Tiny green shoots showed tentatively above the ground. A miracle had taken place which had no explanation apart from God. There was life and growth. Shoots became stems. The stems produced another wonder, fragrant, colored, and beautiful flowers. The bees came. The pollen was transferred from plant to plant. Fruit appeared. The miracle happens so often we take it for granted. We call it “nature.” It is God! God at work, giving the increase. Only God knows how to turn a seed into fruit.
Paul planted the seed, the Word of God (Matt. 13:19). Apollos came along and did what he could. Paul and Apollos alike were nothing. Anybody could do what they did. It calls for no great skill to pass on a verse of Scripture or to encourage someone to heed God’s Word. But by what mysterious process does the seed germinate in a human heart? “Being born again,” says Peter, “not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever … and this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Peter 1:23, 25). But how does it happen? When talking to Nicodemus about the same mystery, only using a different illustration, Jesus bluntly said, “Thou … canst not tell” (John 3:8). Nicodemus may have been a learned doctor of the law but he did not have the slightest idea how spiritual life is germinated in a human soul. Nor do we.
Paul recognized that the whole mysterious process of conviction, conversion, and consecration, with all its ramifications of election, justification, sanctification, atonement, redemption, reconciliation, regeneration, and glorification, was one vast mystery which had no explanation apart from God. All is of God. God gives the increase. “How does blood cleanse sin?” an unbeliever demanded of a Christian. “How does water quench thirst?” responded the Christian. “I don’t know,” said the unbeliever, “but I know that it does.” Just so! We don’t know how blood cleanses sin but we know that it does because God says that it does (1 John 1:7). We don’t know how the planting and watering of the gospel seed results in people being born again but we know that it does. All the glory belongs to God who gives the increase.
Paul follows all this up by raising the question of rewards (1 Cor. 3:8). He calls for perfect accord in the body: “Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one.” It is not a question of rivalry. We all have different gifts and abilities and different tasks. The Holy Spirit is “the Lord of the harvest” (Matt. 9:37–38). There are few enough willing to labor; we cannot afford to spend time fighting among ourselves, raiding other men’s fields, pushing for recognition and position. We are to be one when it comes to evangelizing a lost world.
Paul speaks also of personal acclaim at the Bema, the judgment seat of Christ: “Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour.” The emphasis is on the words “his own.” We may, perhaps, derive inspiration from some other man’s ministry but we are not to lionize anyone. The important thing is to get on with the work entrusted to us. The promised reward is a powerful incentive. There are some who decry the idea of working for reward. It seems to them to be an inferior motive. “We should work for the Lord because we love Him,” they say. “We should work to win souls out of compassion for them.” All well and true. However, the offer of reward as an incentive for service is one often encountered in Scripture. Indeed, right here, Paul goes on to expand his own teaching on the subject. He himself never lost sight of his promised crown (2 Tim. 4:6–8). The Lord Jesus Himself held out the prospect of rewards (Matt. 5:10–12) However, we are not going to be rewarded because of what someone else has done. We shall have plenty to do if we pay attention to the work the Lord has entrusted to us. We are neither to covet nor criticize another person’s field. We need to cultivate our own.