On the day that little Johnny’s mother brought his new baby brother home, the newborn was screaming up a storm. So Johnny asked, “Where’d he come from?” His mom answered, “He came down from heaven.” He replied, “Well, I can see why they threw him out!”
If you are wondering why I’m talking about babies, it’s because of what Paul said to the Corinthians in the first two verses of our text in 1 Corinthians 3:1-6:
“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
“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. 3:1,2).
Now you probably know what Paul meant when he called them “babes in Christ.” When you’re born into the world you’re given life, and you become a baby. When you get saved, you’re born again and given eternal life, and you become a spiritual baby—a
babe in Christ.1
But the Corinthians had been saved about five years by the time Paul wrote that, and he still had to refer to them as babes. They obviously hadn’t experienced any spiritual growth. So what do you say we take some time to learn why they failed to grow, so we don’t fall into the same spiritual trap.
Nourish the Newborn
As I’m sure you know, if you don’t feed a baby with nourishing food, he won’t grow. And if you don’t feed a babe in Christ the spiritual nourishment of the Word of God, he won’t grow spiritually.
But we know that’s not why the Corinthians failed to grow, for in speaking of how the church in Corinth got started, Luke wrote:
“…Paul… came to Corinth… and he continued there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them” (Acts 18:1,11).
When Paul founded the church in Corinth, he stayed and fed them God’s Word for a year and a half! And as it says in our text, he began by feeding them the “milk” of God’s Word—the simpler things of the Scriptures. Everyone knows that babies need milk to grow, and spiritual babies need the milk of the Word to grow spiritually, as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:2:
“As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the Word, that ye may grow thereby.”
But Paul had fed the Corinthians the milk of the Word for eighteen months! And we know that in the years that followed those months he continued to feed them with nourishing spiritual milk in his epistles.
And not just the two Corinthian epistles that appear in our Bibles. We know that Paul wrote at least one letter prior to 1 Corinthians, for in that first epistle he made reference to an earlier letter (1 Cor. 5:9). He probably wrote them more often than even that, for “the care of all the churches” was something that was sure to weigh heavily on his shoulders (2 Cor. 11:28), something that would have prompted him to keep in close touch with the churches he founded through a vigilant correspondence ministry.2
But even after all that spiritual nourishment, Paul heard through the grapevine—perhaps from the members of “the house of Chloe” that he mentioned earlier in this epistle (1:11)—that the Corinthians hadn’t grown in the Word. He probably also deduced this from epistles that the Corinthians wrote him (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1).
But no matter how he learned of their undeveloped spiritual growth, the bottom line is that he knew he couldn’t give them the meat of the Word—the deeper things of the Bible—that they should have been able to handle by that time. So the question remains: why had they failed to grow? I mean, if it wasn’t for a lack of spiritual nourishment, what else could have been the problem?
Stunted Growth Among the Hebrews
As we’ll see in a minute, their problem was a lot like the one we read about in Hebrews 5:11-14 where, speaking of a mysterious man named Melchisedeck (v. 10), it says:
“Of whom we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, seeing ye are dull of hearing. For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskillful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
The reason those Hebrews had failed to grow is that they hadn’t used what they had learned. You can tell by the way the writer reproaches them that they too had been saved for years. They had learned the difference between good and evil years earlier, but they hadn’t been using what they’d learned. They hadn’t been living like they knew the difference between good and evil. So even though they’d been saved for years, the writer calls them babes too!
Now is there anything you can learn from that? Studying the Bible is critically important, but just knowing the Bible doesn’t cause you to grow. You have to use the things you learn if you want to grow to become a mature, spiritual Christian.
We see that in something the psalmist prayed in Psalm 119:100:
“I understand more than the ancients, because I keep Thy precepts.”
Here the psalmist says that he understood the Word of God better than the ancients because he obeyed the Word of God. That verse is probably the basis of the old saying that says that God won’t give you more understanding of His Word if you’re not living up to the understanding you already have. Why should He bother to do that if you’re not using the understanding you have?
A Common Problem
But this Hebrew problem of not growing because of not using what they learned is the same one the Corinthians had. We know that because after telling them they weren’t able to bear the meat of the Word at the end of verse 2, Paul went on to tell them why they weren’t able to bear it when he began verse 3 with the word “for”:
“For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?” (1 Cor. 3:3).
The reason the Corinthians hadn’t grown to where they could bear the meat of the Word was that they were carnal. We know that word means sinful because after pronouncing them carnal, Paul added, “for… there is among you envying, and strife.” Envy and strife are sins! And if you think about it, they are really very babyish sins.
Have you ever watched babies play together? When one of them picks up a toy, suddenly that’s the toy that the other one wants! Well, we have a word for that. We call it envy! And what does the baby do about it? He will usually begin to strive with the one who has what he wants.
So when Paul says that the Corinthians were guilty of envy and strife, that means they hadn’t grown to become mature, spiritual, adult Christians. They were still living in infantile iniquity, walking “as men”—unsaved men.
By the way, the Corinthians spoke in tongues, and yet Paul calls them carnal. So don’t ever let anyone tell you that speaking in tongues is a sign of spirituality—and some Pentecostal believers will try to tell you that.
But now the question is this: what were the Corinthians envying? Whatever it was, it was causing strife. And strife, by the way, is the Bible word for an angry disagreement (Prov. 15:18; 29:22). And when the Corinthians strove with one another and experienced those angry disagreements, it was causing “divisions” among them. So what could they have been envying?
The Haves vs. the Have-nots
When we think of envying, we usually think of envying material possessions. Some people have a lot of them, and some don’t. We call them “the haves” and “the have-nots.” And as I don’t have to tell you, the “have-nots” tend to envy the “haves.” And that often causes angry disagreements when the have-nots lash out against the haves about being have-nots!
Politicians all have ideas about how to fix this class variance, but if you’re a mature believer, avoiding the envy that naturally accompanies it is an easy fix. If you’re one of the have-nots, just don’t envy the haves!
Most of the men in the church that I pastor envy the beautiful Harley that one of our men rides to church—and some of our ladies envy it too! During the coronavirus lockdown the man helped me with some painting at church and helped me salve my envy a little by letting me sit on it. But I don’t have any angry disagreements with him just because he has a beautiful motorcycle and I don’t. And the others in our assembly who envy him don’t cause divisions by making him sit all by himself in church. We’ve learned to deal with our envy graciously!
But the Corinthians weren’t envying two-wheeled chariots made by Harley-Davidson. They were envying something that Paul had in mind when he warned Timothy about men who were always
“…doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings…” (1 Tim. 6:4).
We know that the Corinthians were envying someone’s words, for Paul went on in our text to say,
“For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?” (1 Cor. 3:4).
This shows that the Corinthians were envying and striving about the words of the Apostle Paul and one of his coworkers, a man named Apollos. And if you don’t know how the words of preachers can cause envy and strife in a church, you haven’t hung around enough preachers or churches! Christians are always arguing about what preachers say.
But maybe you’re wondering, “Where’s the envy come in?” If so, look what happened to Moses in Numbers 11:27-29 when
“…there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp. And Joshua…answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them. And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.…”
When some other men started prophesying like Moses, Joshua got envious for his sake! He evidently felt that Moses should be the only man prophesying in the camp.
But as you can see, Moses didn’t get envious that other men were prophesying. And as we read on in our text, we see that Paul didn’t get envious that Apollos was preaching:
“Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man?” (1 Cor. 3:5).
Obviously, Paul didn’t envy Apollos, and he didn’t want the Corinthians envying Apollos for his sake. Both Moses and Paul knew that it is just as childish to envy the words of one spiritual leader over another as it is to envy the material possessions of another.
We Have It on Good Authority
But having said all that, there’s something I need to point out here. When Moses said that he didn’t want Joshua to envy those other men for his sake, that didn’t mean that Moses thought those other men had the same spiritual authority that he had. Moses knew that he was God’s man of the hour under the dispensation of the law. Look what he said about himself in Deuteronomy 4:1,2:
“Hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments which I teach you, for to do them… Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”
As you can see, Moses pounded home the fact that he was the man that the people of Israel had to follow if they wanted to obey God. He was the man God had chosen to write the first five books of the Bible and give the Jews the law that contained the rules and guidelines for them during the dispensation of the law. He just didn’t let it go to his head, to where he thought he was the only one who could teach the things that God gave him. And he didn’t want Joshua thinking that either.
And Paul didn’t want the Corinthians to think that about him, even though he knew that he was God’s man of the hour for today. Let’s compare some things that Moses and Paul said about themselves, beginning with Moses, who wrote:
“Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the Lord my God commanded me…” (Deut. 4:5).
Doesn’t that sound a lot like some things that Paul wrote to the Corinthians?
“…I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received…” (1 Cor. 15:3).
“…I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you…” (1 Cor. 11:23).
Do you see the comparison? Moses said that he gave Israel what God had given him, and Paul said that he gave the Corinthians what God had given him.
Do you know what that means? It means that if you wanted to follow God in time past you had to follow Moses as he followed God. And if you want to follow God today, you have to follow Him as Paul followed Him. Isn’t that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1?
“Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ.”
So when Paul says something that sounds like Apollos was equal in authority with him, like when he said they were both “ministers,” we know that he didn’t mean to say that he wasn’t God’s man of the hour. He was just being like Moses in that he was glad there were other men preaching what he preached.
The Means By Which God Spilled the Beans
Something else that should be pointed out is that God didn’t give Eldad and Medad anything to prophesy that He hadn’t given Moses to prophesy first as God’s man of the hour. And another difference between Moses and those prophets was the manner in which God spoke to them, as we see when God told the people of Israel:
“…If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so… With him will I speak mouth to mouth… and not in dark speeches” (Num. 12:6-8).
And these same differences held true for Paul and Apollos. The difference between them was that the Lord spoke to Paul first as His man of the hour, and directly, as he himself explained to the Galatians when he talked about his message and added,
“…I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12).
The Lord revealed the grace message to Paul directly. That’s what the word “revelation” means. It’s the noun form of the verb reveal. The Lord revealed grace truth to Paul face to face, just as He had given the law to Moses.
But that is not how men like Apollos learned the new message of grace. Look what Paul says about them in Ephesians 3:2-5:
“…the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward… is… revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit”
See the difference? The Lord revealed the grace message to Paul face to face, but He revealed it to men like Apollos by the Spirit.
So when Paul says that he and Apollos were both “ministers,” you have to keep in mind what he wrote to the Romans, that
“…grace… is given to me of God, That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:15,16).
As the apostle himself says here, he was the minister of God’s new message of grace for the Gentiles. He was just thankful that he wasn’t the only minister of grace truth.
By the way, when Paul said that he and Apollos were both “ministers,” it shows that he wasn’t too proud to do what you might call the “grunt work” of the ministry. That is, he wasn’t just some highfalutin apostle sitting in an ivory tower somewhere mailing out epistles to what the world calls “the great unwashed.” He was working out in the mission field with men like Apollos, doing what he went on to describe in the next verse of our text:
“I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6).
When Paul says that he “planted,” that’s a reference to how he planted the seed of the gospel of salvation in Corinth (cf. 1 Pet. 1:23). But some of the Corinthians were like men today and didn’t immediately believe the gospel. And as they were mulling it over in their hearts, Apollos came along and watered the gospel seed by assuring them that Paul’s gospel was true.
So as you can see, Paul is comparing the ministry to farming—and there are a lot of comparisons. For instance, every farmer knows that you can plant a seed and you can water a seed, but only God can give the increase. That’s because only God can make a seed.
A Corny Story
There’s an old illustration of this that preachers used to tell years ago, and I know it because I’m an old preacher and I used to tell it! It’s about a scientist who invented a synthetic kernel of corn. It looked like real corn, and it had the same chemical makeup and composition as real corn. He was so proud of it, he offered a prize to anyone who could tell the difference between his fabrication and the real thing.
Hearing this, a farmer accepted his challenge, and won the prize by merely planting both seeds, and watering them. Eventually the natural kernel of corn sprouted and grew into a stalk of corn, while the scientist’s corn just dissolved into the soil. That’s because only corn that God makes has life.
That’s what Paul meant when he said that he planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. You can plant anything you want in the ground, and water it till the cows come home, but only God’s seeds will grow, for only God’s seeds have life. And while I doubt that story is true, I know that the moral of the story is true, spiritually speaking. There’s a lot of “holy books” in the world. They may look like the Bible, and even sound like the Bible. But plant them in the souls of men and nothing will come of it, for only the Word of God has eternal life.
And only God’s Word rightly divided! God told Abraham that if he got circumcised it would give him life, and those who remained uncircumcised would remain dead in the uncircumcision of their flesh (cf. Col. 2:13). Moses told the Jews that if they obeyed his law it would give them life (Lev. 18:5; Ezek.20:11,13,21; Luke 10:25,28; Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12). The Lord said that if men got baptized with water it would give them life (Mark 16:16). Paul is the only one who says that faith alone, without works like that, can give eternal life. That means if you plant any of those other seeds in the souls of men in this dispensation, even though they are seeds found in the Bible, they won’t give eternal life any more than the Book of Mormon, the Koran, or any other so-called holy book.
So if you believe that proclaiming God’s word rightly divided is worth giving your life to, say Amen! Then get busy planting and watering!
1. See page 36 of my book Rightly Divided Answers to Frequently Asked Questions if you’d like to consider evidence that members of the Body of Christ are indeed born again, despite what is often taught to the contrary.
2. Paul mentions another non-canonical epistle in Colossians 4:16.