milk, not solid food: Milk helps the young to grow and develop. Similarly, new Christians grow and develop spiritually as they draw strength from basic Bible doctrine. (Heb 5:12–6:2) These basic truths are essential to salvation. (1Pe 2:2) But Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to “press on to maturity,” as he later urges the Hebrew Christians in Jerusalem to do. (Heb 6:1) He thus stresses the importance of taking in solid food, or deeper spiritual truths.
Apollos: See study note on 1Co 1:12.
Ministers: Or “Servants.” The Bible often uses the Greek word di·aʹko·nos to refer to one who does not let up in humbly rendering service in behalf of others. (See study note on Mt 20:26.) At Ro 15:8, the term is used to describe Jesus. (See study note.) In this verse (1Co 3:5), Paul describes himself and Apollos as ministers, or servants, who helped the Corinthians to become believers. Their ministry, like the ministry of all baptized Christians, involved filling the spiritual needs of other humans.—Lu 4:16-21.
I planted, Apollos watered: Paul uses the work of a farmer to illustrate the Christian ministry. Paul planted the seed of the Kingdom message in the “field” in Corinth when he brought the good news to the people there. Apollos watered and nourished that seed by coming afterward to teach the Corinthians further. (Ac 18:24; 19:1) However, God by his spirit brought about the spiritual growth of new disciples. The point of Paul’s illustration was that spiritual growth is not dependent on any individual human. All are ministers, cooperating together as “God’s fellow workers.” (1Co 3:9) God blesses the unselfish, unified efforts of his servants, and he is the one responsible for the growth.
are one: Or “have one purpose.” Paul here describes the unity among Christian ministers as they work with one another and with God. (1Co 3:9) The Greek word here rendered “one” is in the neuter gender (denoting “one thing”), not in the masculine gender (denoting “one person”). So Paul is referring to being “one” in the sense of being united in action and cooperation.—See study notes on Joh 10:30; 17:11, 21, where the Greek word for “one” is used in a similar way.
God’s fellow workers: The Greek word for “fellow worker,” sy·ner·gosʹ, appears more than ten times in the Christian Greek Scriptures, most often in Paul’s letters. The expression is used regarding those who shared together in spreading the good news. (Ro 16:9, 21; 2Co 1:24; 8:23; Php 2:25; 4:3; Col 4:11; Phm 1, 24) Here Paul calls attention to the great privilege that Christian ministers have of being “God’s fellow workers.” (See study note on 1Co 3:6.) Paul expresses a similar thought at 2Co 6:1, where he speaks about “working together with him,” that is, with God.—2Co 5:20; see study note on Ro 16:3.
You are God’s field under cultivation: God, not Paul, was the true and rightful Owner of the field of growing Christians. Unless God imparted his blessing and spirit, all the work that Paul or Apollos did would be without results. (See study note on 1Co 3:6.) The term rendered “field under cultivation” (Greek, ge·orʹgi·on) appears only here in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Although Corinth’s economy was mainly based on trade, the area was renowned for its fertility. In addition to this illustration based on agriculture, Paul introduces another illustration in this verse, that of construction. (See study note on God’s building in this verse.) Paul appeals to different members of the congregation, since construction and agriculture were two common activities in the ancient world.
God’s building: Here Paul likens the Christian congregation to a building. In the next verse, he compares himself to a builder, working together with God in a spiritual construction work to produce Christian disciples who have durable qualities. (1Co 3:10-15) At 1Co 3:16 (see study note), Paul calls the congregation “God’s temple.” At Eph 2:21, 22, the congregation is called “a holy temple” that God inhabits “by spirit.” This means that God uses his holy spirit, or invisible active force, to motivate those in the congregation, to sustain them, and to help them cultivate its fruitage. (Ga 5:22, 23) The apostle Peter uses a similar comparison, calling the disciples “living stones.” (1Pe 2:5) The apostles and prophets are likened to the foundation, and Jesus is “the foundation cornerstone.”—Eph 2:20.
a skilled master builder: Or “a wise director of works.” Generally speaking, “a . . . master builder” (Greek, ar·khi·teʹkton, which could literally be rendered “a chief craftsman”) was in charge of the construction and worked at the building site. He recruited the craftsmen and had oversight of their work. In this verse, Paul likens himself to a builder, working together with God in a spiritual construction work to produce Christian disciples who have durable qualities. (1Co 3:9-16) In the Christian Greek Scriptures, this term is used only here; the related Greek term teʹkton is rendered “carpenter” and is used of Jesus and his adoptive father, Joseph.—See study notes on Mt 13:55; Mr 6:3.
gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw: Paul encouraged the Corinthian Christians who followed up on his work to teach the new disciples well, helping them build Christian qualities in themselves. (1Co 3:6) To illustrate this point, Paul contrasted fine, durable, and fire-resistant building materials with disposable, temporary, and flammable materials. A wealthy but diverse city like Corinth no doubt abounded in buildings of both types. There were imposing temples made of massive, expensive blocks of stone and perhaps decorated with gold and silver. These durable buildings were probably located not far from huts and market stalls made of rough wooden frames and thatched with straw. In the figurative building work, the gold, silver, and precious stones represent such qualities as strong faith, godly wisdom, spiritual discernment, loyalty, and loving appreciation for Jehovah and his laws. These kinds of qualities are essential if a Christian is to have a strong relationship with Jehovah God, a bond that will endure tests of faith.
it will be as through fire: A Christian minister must use fire-resistant materials to build, or to help his student develop, Christian qualities that will survive tests of faith. (1Co 3:10-14) If a Christian teacher fails to do his work as instructed, he may find that his figurative building work is “burned up” if it is put to a fiery test. (Mt 28:19, 20; Ro 2:21, 22; 1Ti 4:16; 2Ti 2:15; 4:2) Also, the teacher himself may suffer like a man who lost everything in a fire and was himself just barely rescued. Paul employs the term “fire” in a figurative sense, as did other ancient Greek authors who used the expression “through fire” as a metaphor to say that someone barely escaped a trial or a difficult situation.
you yourselves are God’s temple: This is one of several instances where the Bible likens people to a temple. Jesus used such a comparison about himself at Joh 2:19, and the Scriptures foretold that he would be “the chief cornerstone” of such a spiritual structure. (Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16, 17; Ac 4:10, 11) The Greek verb used in the expression “you yourselves are” is in the second person plural, indicating that the entire congregation makes up “God’s temple” in which God’s spirit dwells. These anointed Christians serving as underpriests are “God’s building” (1Co 3:9; see study note), so verse 17 emphasizes the holiness of this spiritual temple and warns anyone who would attempt to defile it. At Eph 2:20-22 and 1Pe 2:6, 7, Paul and Peter use similar comparisons regarding Jesus and his followers.
this system of things: See study note on 1Co 1:20.
for it is written: Paul here quotes Eliphaz the Temanite. When speaking to Job, Eliphaz misapplied the statement “he [that is, God] catches the wise in their own cunning.” (Job 4:1; 5:13) Paul was not endorsing everything that Eliphaz said, much of which was either untrue or misapplied. (Job 42:7) However, Eliphaz’ statement at Job 5:13 reflects a general observation, similar to thoughts expressed elsewhere in the Scriptures. (Ps 10:2; compare Job 5:17 with Ps 94:12.) Paul under inspiration quotes these words to show that man’s wisdom can in no way compare to God’s wisdom.
Cephas: See study note on 1Co 1:12.