The Corinthians were still “babes in Christ” (3:1) five years after Paul started the church. So why had they failed to grow? Well, a baby won’t grow if you don’t feed it nourishing food, and spiritual babies won’t grow if they’re not fed the spiritual nourishment of God’s Word. But Paul fed them the “milk” of the Word (3:2) for a year and a half (Acts 18:1,11), because that’s what babes in Christ need to grow (I Pet. 2:2), then followed up with them by writing them epistles (I Cor. 5:9; II Cor. 1:1).
So their problem wasn’t a lack of nourishment. Their problem was similar to the one in Hebrews 5:11-14. They hadn’t used what they learned from the Bible to help them discern good and evil, so the writer calls them babes too. And we know the Corinthians had the same problem because Paul says they were “carnal” (3:1). We know that word means sinful for Paul says they were carnal because there was “envying” and “stife” among them (3:3), and those are sins.
And they are very babyish sins. Did you ever watch babies play? When one picks up a toy, suddenly that’s the one the other one wants! We call that envy. And what does he do about it? He strives with the other about it. The Corinthians were showing their spiritual immaturity when they were envying—and so do we when we envy!
What were they envying? Words (cf. I Tim. 6:4), the words of Paul and Apollos (3:4). Christians are always striving about the words of preachers! If you’re wondering where the “envying” comes in, compare what happened when some men began prophesying in Israel and Joshua objected. Moses asked why he envied for his sake (Num. 11:27).
Now Moses didn’t envy those other prophets, and Paul didn’t envy Apollos. He called him a fellow minister (3:5). But when Moses said he didn’t envy those other men, that didn’t mean he felt they had the same authority he had. He knew he was God’s man of the hour (Deut. 4:1,2), the one God chose to write the first 5 books of the Bible and give Israel the rules for the dispensation of the law.
And Paul knew he was God’s man of the hour for the dispensation of grace. God gave him what to give us (I Cor. 11:23; 15:3), just as He gave Moses what to give Israel (Deut. 4:5). That means if you wanted to follow God in time past you had to follow Moses as he followed Him, and if you want to follow God today you have to follow Him as Paul followed Him (I Cor. 11:1).
So in calling himself and Apollos both ministers, he didn’t mean they were equal ministers. Paul was “the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles” (Rom. 15:16).
Here I need to point out that God didn’t give those other prophets anything He didn’t give Moses. The difference was that God spoke to them in visions, but He spoke to Moses “face to face” (Num. 12:6-8). And the Lord spoke to Paul face to face, by revelation, by revealing Himself to Paul directly (Gal. 1:11,12), but He spoke to the New Testament prophets in the Body of Christ “by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:2-5).
Paul “planted” the seeds of the gospel in Corinth (3:6) and Apollos watered those seeds by reinforcing what Paul taught. But God has to give “the increase” because only God can give life, just as the only thing you bury in the ground that can give life are seeds.
But only the seeds of God’s Word rightly divided can give life. God told Abraham if he got circumcised he could have eternal life. Moses told the Jews if they obeyed the law they could have life (Lev. 18:5). The Lord told the Jews if they got baptized they could have life (Mark 16:16). Only Paul says you can have life by faith alone without works. If you sow any of those other Bible seeds in the hearts of men today in the dispensation of grace, they won’t yield eternal life!
Finally, don’t forget that the Corinthians spoke in tongues (I Cor. 12-14), and yet Paul called them “carnal” and not “spiritual.” Don’t ever let anyone who thinks he can speak in tongues tell you that it is a sign of spirituality, for God says otherwise! And don’t feel unspiritual just because you can’t imitate the gift of tongues as some do. The gift of tongues is a gift God is no longer giving to His people!