1 Corinthians 3:1-9
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians began with an admonishment against quarrels and divisions (1:10-13). And, on first glance, he appears to have wandered away from that argument in 1:17–2:16 in a long discussion of God’s upside-down wisdom displayed in Christ’s cross. Far from being a digression, this was the real issue in Corinth. Not only was the existence of the church at stake, but the gospel itself was in danger. The Corinthians were pursuing a worldly wisdom that stripped the gospel of its real power and created strife in its wake. With these verses, Paul makes the transition from the one argument (over the upside-down nature of the gospel and the meaning of true “wisdom”) to the other (about division in the name of their leaders). 
The transition itself is marked by the twin clauses in verse. 2: “You were not yet ready.… Indeed, you are still not ready.” Of course, Paul’s words function as more than a mere transition from one subject to another. They are part of the argument itself. He says they’re both spiritual and divided. To Paul, those are mutually exclusive conditions. The problem is that the Corinthians think themselves to be entirely spiritual when they are in fact entirely divided. In order to communicate his points to them, Paul uses agricultural metaphors. These metaphors are vital for understanding Paul’s description of what it means to be involved in any sort of growth. The apostle explains how he and Apollos both participated in the growth process of believers, which God ultimately controls and guides.
The Corinthians lived in a meritocracy. Their concern was with their upward mobility. They lived to achieve, to grow their portfolios, and to become “somebody.” They lived for approval from their horizontal relationships rather than their vertical relationship with God in Christ Jesus. They saw their Christian faith as one more means to achieve their personal aspirations. They desired knowledge, rhetoric, and leaders that would gain them human notice as being wise, mature, and progressive. In this portion of his letter, Paul writes to them about growth: desired, destroyed, and downloaded. 
GROWTH DESIRED (1,2a)
Paul wants the Corinthians to grow into their faith. “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.”
By saying that he “could not address [them] as spiritual,” he seems to be allowing that there are “unspiritual” Christians—which is both true and not true. It is not true in the sense that the Spirit is the crucial factor in whether one is or is not a believer; one cannot be a Christian and be devoid of Spirit (cf. Rom. 8:9; Gal. 3:2–3; Tit. 3:5–7). On the other hand, the Corinthians are involved in a lot of unchristian behavior; in that sense they are “unspiritual,” not because they lack the Spirit but because they are thinking and living just like those who do. But these theological niceties that so often concern us are quite beside Paul’s point. He is “after them,” as it were; and he uses their language, now based on his own content that has just been given, to shame them into reality….
Continuing the theme of being “spiritual” from what he has just in chapter 2, Paul uses their language as a frontal attack and pronounces the Corinthians as not spiritual at all. Indeed, they are just the opposite; they are “fleshly”—still thinking like mere human beings, those who do not have the Spirit. All humans have a natural desire to grow, particularly in a meritocracy like Corinth. Paul uses a metaphor of natural, physical growth, referring to the early stages of their conversion as their infancy. Whenever we see natural, physical growth, we assume that we ought to grow in other ways as well.
Normal physical life sees us grow – progressing from infancy, to childhood, to adolescence, and ultimately to adulthood. Adults may sometimes long to return to the innocence and freedom of their childhoods, but nobody wants to grow smaller and less powerful. As one writer notes:
When looking at kids and toddlers, we automatically think they have nothing to worry about. As a result, we reminisce about what it would be like to be in that stage of life again. But one thing we do not think about going back to is wearing diapers or crawling on the ground because we believe there is a natural trajectory for growth— natural, physical growth. Paul appeals to our desire for growth when he speaks about stunted spiritual stature by using a physical metaphor.
Market research claims that the self-improvement industry— which includes self-help books, seminars, and life coaches— was a $9.9 billion dollar industry in 2016 and is projected to grow into a $13.2 billion industry by next year. Like the Corinthians, we are obsessed with finding happiness, security, and meaning in life. People want to be actualized, to be the best selves they can be. The Corinthians were no different. They saw Christianity as a vehicle for achieving their worldly goals. Their innate desire for growth extended beyond the personal and into the horizontal – not so they could reflect Jesus to a lost culture but so they could gain notice and approval from those around them.
Much like the Corinthians, our modern Western culture has a narrative of progression, development, advancement, boundary pushing, and evolution. We crave the newest, the fastest, the sharpest, the cleanest, the hardest, the praised, and the must-have things. To acquire those idols is a sign that assures us we have not grown stagnant. We assume that our idols will somehow help us stave off our inevitable death. Our desire to grow is not all bad because it is part of the creation mandate that man should work. The problem for the Corinthians, and for you and me, is that we work for our own enjoyment and glory rather than for the enjoyment of, and the glory to, God.
God created a world full of life that was meant to be cultivated. He designed humans to flourish on every level – physical, mental, spiritual, interpersonal, and cultural (Gen. 1:28). Growth and flourishing are God’s s design. Stagnation calls the vitality of life into question. Very few people are ever truly looking to simply maintain. Think about how you normally answer when someone asks how you’re doing. You rarely say that you have nothing to do and that you’re simply coasting along. You tell people how busy you are because busy is good in our “get things done” culture. Giving up on progress is bad. It leads to regression, decline, and death. We hide our physical decline with chemicals, workouts, anti-aging products, and medicine.
In these first 2 sentences of the chapter, Paul appeals to the Corinthians’ natural desire for growth and upward mobility. The Bible is not anti-growth in the name of humility. Being humble and making progress in life are not mutually exclusive. Growing is a spiritual responsibility. The problem happens when spiritual growth is destroyed in favor of horizontal self-interest. The Corinthians probably wanted Paul to give them props for the way they had grown beyond infancy. They were likely shocked when Paul claimed that their attempts to mature had been destructive. They had been striving for spiritual growth by latching onto some favorite teacher to make them mature, and it had all been for nothing. Paul tells them they have yet to progress at all.
GROWTH DESTROYED (2b-4)
And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
Paul tells them they have made no progress in the faith at all. Every morning they boot up according to the basic operating system of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They believe the gospel, but they are not awakened to it. That’s clear to Paul because of their jealousy, strife, and divisions. He wrote to the Galatians (5:19-21):
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul is saying that if you are jealous of, or angry at, someone within your gospel community that is on the same level as idolatry, sorcery, and sexual immorality. If you are disrupting the gospel community by your attitudes, words, or your actions, you are no different than an adulterer or a witch! That is how crucial Paul considers gospel community to be. But he is not the only apostle who teaches that. John preaches the same thing to his tiny little church in Ephesus, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”  John goes so far as to say that the way we manifest God’s love in the world is to genuinely love one another in the gospel community (1 Jn. 4:12). Tongue love is useless. Real love in Christ costs because it involves death to self, death to preferences, death to our idols of meritocracy and horizontal approval.
In this instance, the Corinthians had taken a beautiful gift of God (the spirit-led teachers and preachers God sent them) and turned it into an occasion for jealousy, strife, and idolatry. They had turned God’s gifts, their teachers, against one another and created an occasion for discord and division. Idolatry, sorcery, and sexual immorality, complaining, jealousy, disharmony, and the like are all the same sin! They are all means for YOU to try to get what you want apart from God’s will. Being self-focused is the root and means of all sin and utterly destructive to gospel community. It is the basic input/output system of the flesh, not the Spirit.
What that demonstrated for Paul was that the Corinthians had tapped into the wrong source for growth. We search for growth in all the places that seem attractive to us. We are attracted to things like clothing, travel, gourmet meals, sophisticated culture, education, politics, and entertainment to make ourselves feel as if we have arrived at our goal. And we document our journey on social media for all the horizontal approval we can get. We look to other people – romantic relationships, industry leaders, gifted writers, thoughtful celebrities, news media or YouTube personalities, influential religious leaders, and pastors – to give us a sense of progress. In other words, we do what the Corinthians were doing.
In verses 3 and 4, Paul asks two diagnostic questions, “3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a [fleshly] way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely [fleshly]?” The word “human” in the ESV I translate as an adverb (because it is); it comes from the Greek word meaning “flesh” or “carnal.” in other words, they are seeking from their sin nature what only the Spirit of God can give and has already given them. They are trying to manage their flesh for a spiritual outcome. They are looking to the wrong source, their flesh, for spiritual growth. Nothing is more destructive to our lives in Christ than searching within ourselves for what only the Spirit can give – what he has already given to all who trust into the perfectly-lived life and sacrificial death of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ.
As Gordon Fee notes, “With this charge Paul exposed himself to centuries of misunderstanding. But his concern is singular: not to suggest classes of Christians or grades of spirituality, but to get them to stop thinking like the people of this present age.” There are no such categories as “carnal Christians” and “spiritual Christians.” If you are trusting into Christ, you already have all the resources you need to be “spiritual.” That was Paul’s point in chapter one. Thanks be to God it is not our trust that saves us, but God in Christ Jesus that saves us! Our trust into Father-Spirit-Jesus is weak and sporadic just like the saints of Corinth.
They wanted to see Peter, or Apollos, or Paul, as the source of their growth. In other words, they were absolutely rejecting God the Holy Spirit’s rule of their lives in favor of their own preferences, despite the fact that ONLY God’s rule is gracious. They wanted what they wanted, and they wanted it right now because they believed attaching themselves to a famous person or cause would make them look better to their fellow sinners. Paul wants them to follow the ultimate source of truth, not their fleshy hardware but their updated virus-free software – the only ultimate source of spiritual growth – the Holy Spirit.
GROWTH DOWNLOADED (5-9)
He writes in verses 5-7
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
Note the depersonalizing of both himself and Apollos “What is…,” not “Who is….” They are both merely “servants” (διάκονος – waiters at a meal). The source of their assignments was the Lord Jesus. He sent them both to the table of Corinth to feed the sheep. Paul planted the food and Apollos watered the food but neither one of them actually made the grass grow. True spiritual growth is always God-given, not self-created. It rarely comes through “winning.” It almost always comes through suffering. That’s totally upside-down to us because the gospel is upside-down. It’s not about winning but losing; not about living but dying. And death hurts. Only God can give such an upside-down growth.
Paul started off by saying, “2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.” He wasn’t writing that they couldn’t yet understand systematic theology! He was writing that they didn’t like the personal implications of the gospel, so they couldn’t grow in understanding it. Death to self was completely upside-down to their culture of meritocracy. The reason the Corinthians were “fleshly” was NOT because they were “carnal Christians” who hadn’t learned enough doctrine yet.
They were fleshly because they confused their waiters with the one true chef. They loved the appearance of the Holy Spirit’s giftings (prophecies and tongues), but they rejected the Sprit’s sovereignty over their lives and the Spirit’s love that enables us to love the last, the lost, the least, the little, and the dead rather than the big, the flashy, the hip, the powerful, and the new and the cool. God alone is the giver of growth, health, life, vitality, and flourishing. That fact has several implications for us.
First, we don’t need to strive to produce our own growth. In fact, it is impossible for us to produce our own growth because God alone is the one who graciously gives it. What, then, do we do? We die. We die to all of our self-help, self-improvement, self-actualization projects. Just as salvation is God’s gift by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8), growth in Christ Jesus is also by grace through faith. Growth does not come from reading the right book, or listening to the right preacher, or following a proper regimen of spiritual disciplines. God may certainly use any or all of those things. But the things themselves are not the source of growth. Growth comes directly, and only, from God.
Second, since God alone gives growth, we are able to put our differences into proper perspective. If we are trusting into Christ, then we are all servants of Christ. There is no hierarchy of merit in the Church. We are all beggars, not braggers. And the gospel community has diverse gifts. Some till the soil, some plant the seeds, some water, and some reap the harvest. Different gifts and different duties do not imply division. A gospel community has both diversity of gifts and duties AND unity – “8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” Since it is God alone who gives the growth, we are free to celebrate others when they flourish. Every servant is necessary and each one has a role to play.
We know that God will give growth. He is the gardener who created the world. When his garden fell into disrepair because his workers rebelled, he did not abandon it. He humbled and incarnated himself into the world he created in order to pay the wages of our sin, decline, regression, and death. He made a new creation by defeating both temptation and death with his resurrection. He has created a new people for himself to extend his garden – new servants who, by his Holy Spirit within them, are able to resist rebellion and flourish by experiencing new growth and progression in every area (natural, personal, societal, and cultural) – a people who will one day eternally live in a renewed and reconciled garden-city where God will be our God, we will be his people, and he will dwell with us face-to-face.
We are not pressured to produce our own growth. We have no need to ask the things of this world to produce it for us. God gives growth as we feed more and more upon the meaty, sustaining realities of the gospel. Jesus is the true vine trust into whom we have been engrafted (Jn. 15:5). We are engrafted by receiving the Holy Spirit whom he sent out to give us trust into an upside-down wisdom preached not with words of power – lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power (1:17) – but with the one great truth given by the Holy Spirit. He places us into a gospel community where strength looks like weakness and wisdom looks like stupidity, and where real power does not come through health, wealth, influence, or political maneuverings because the humility of Christ’s cross informs and sustains everything. Only the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ can give this upside-down, humble growth.
This is only troubling for us when we assume that life is about what we can do for God rather than what God has already done for us. If you are in Christ, you already have ALL his benefits! Attempting to create growth for ourselves leads to despair. Hope only comes from realizing there is an unchanging, unconditional source willing, able, and certain to give us what we can never acquire by our own will and strength. Our hope for every real need we truly have is found always and only in Christ Jesus, the Man in Heaven. He alone frees us from our enslavement to the wrong sources for change. Paul wrote to a tiny, struggling congregation in Philippi:
6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 3:1–9.
 Fee, 121.
 Um, 51. Kindle Edition.
 Fee, 123.
 Id., 52.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ga 5:19–21.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Jn 3:18.
 Fee, 122.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Php 1:6.