Above the Apostle disclosed the strife and division among the Corinthians, who disputed among themselves about the particular ministers of Christ who had baptized and instructed them. Here he begins to attack their judgment of these ministers as the root of their strife. In regard to this he does two things: first, he attacks their judgment, insofar as they attributed more than they should to those ministers in whom they boast; secondly, insofar as they looked down on the other ministers of Christ (c. 4). In regard to the first he does two things: first, he shows the loss they suffered from the strifes arising from the perverse judgment; secondly, he attacks their perverse judgment (v.4). As to the first he does two things: first, he mentions the loss they have suffered till now on account of this fault; secondly, he shows that they are still suffering from it (v. 2).
In regard to the first he does three things: first, he mentions the loss they have suffered till now from this fault. For above he had said that the apostles delivered spiritual things to spiritual men, teachings which sensual men were not able to apprehend. Now he applies this to them saying: But I, brethren, who along with all the other apostles speak spiritual things to spiritual men, could not fittingly address you as spiritual men, i.e., deliver spiritual teachings to you, but as to men of the flesh I have spoken to you. Here he calls the carnal the same ones he first called sensual, to whom must be delivered things suited to their weakness: "Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand the hearing? them that are weaned from the milk, that are drawn away from the breasts." (Isaias 28: 9), i.e., from a carnal understanding and way of life.
Secondly, he employs a simile, saying: as babes in Christ, i.e., barely introduced to the perfect teachings of the faith which is given to spiritual men: "For every one that is a partaker of milk, is unskilful in the word of justice: for he is a little child." (Hebrews 5: 13).
Thirdly, he gives the reason, lest they suppose that he withholds spiritual teaching from them through envy, which would be opposed to Wisdom (7:13): "Which I have learned without guile, and communicate without envy" That is why he adds: for you were not ready for it. As if to say: It was not through envy that I kept spiritual things from you, but on account of your incapacity, because you were not ready to grasp spiritual words: "I have yet many things to say to you; but you cannot bear them now" (John 16: 12).
Then when he says, and even yet, he shows that even now they are suffering the same loss. First, he shows the incapacity under which they are still laboring when he says: But even yet you are not ready. As if to say: It was not strange that in the beginning you were unable to grasp a fuller teaching, because this was expected of your newness: "As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile" (1 Peter 2: 2). But it seems sinful that in spite of the time during which you could have made progress, you still show the same incapacity: "For whereas for the time you ought to be masters; you have need to be taught again what are the first rudiments of the oracles of God" (Hebrews 5: 12).
Secondly, he gives the reason why they are still unable, saying: For you are still of the flesh in life and mind. That is the reason why you cannot grasp the things of the Spirit, but have a taste for the things of the flesh: "For they who are according to the flesh, relish the things that are of the flesh" (Romans 8: 5).
Thirdly, he gives the reason behind the proof, saying: For while there is among you jealousy and strife, are you not of the flesh and behave like ordinary men? Here it should be noted that he was right in joining jealousy with strife, because jealousy is the food of contention, for a jealous person is grieved at another's good, which the latter tries to improve and from this arises strife. Hence James (3: 16) says: "For where envying and contention is, there is inconstancy, and every evil work." On the other hand, charity through which a person loves another's good is the source of peace.
Secondly, it should be noted that jealousy and strife occur only among carnal persons because, being attracted to material goods which cannot each be possessed by many persons at the same time, whenever one person owns a material good, another person is prevented from fully possessing it. From this follows jealousy and later strife. But spiritual goods, by which spiritual persons are attracted can be possessed by several persons at the same time; consequently, one's good is not another's loss. For this reason neither jealousy nor strife finds a place among them: "Which I communicate without envy" (Wisdom 7: 13).
Thirdly, it should be noted that carnal men are said to walk according to the flesh, even though man is composed of spirit and flesh. For it is consonant with human nature to obtain knowledge of the spirit from the senses of the flesh; consequently, the affections of human reason are moved by the things of the flesh, unless man's spirit is raised above man by the Spirit of God, for "And the heart fancieth as that of a woman in travail: except it be a vision sent forth from the Most High" (Ecclesiasticus 34: 6). Therefore, the sense is this: like ordinary men, i.e., according to human nature left to itself by the Spirit of God, as Psalm 4: 3: "O ye sons of men, how long will you be dull of heart? why do you love vanity, and seek after lying?"
Fourthly, he clarifies the proof, saying: For when one of you says, I belong to Paul, because I have been baptized and instructed by Paul, and another, I belong to Apollos, which shows that there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not merely men, i.e., carnal and not spiritual, indulging in jealousy and strife for human things? For as a man is, so is he affected by corresponding things and desires them: "They became abominable, as those things were, which they loved" (Osee 9: 10).
Then when he says, What then is Apollos? he spurns their judgment, insofar as they attributed more to their ministers than they deserved. First, he discloses the truth; secondly, he excluded their error (v. 18). In regard to the first he does two things: first, he describes the status of their ministers; secondly, he speaks about their reward (v.8). As to the first he does three things: first, he describes the status of the ministers; secondly, he proposes a simile (v. 6); thirdly, he explains his intent (v. 7).
Touching on the status of the ministers, he mentions two things: first, that they are not masters, but ministers, saying: You boast of Paul and Apollos. So I ask you: What then is Apollos and what is Paul?, i.e., what is their dignity and power, if you are to be reasonable in boasting of them? And he answers: they are servants of God. As if to say: what they do when baptizing and instructing, they do not do as masters but as God's ministers: "But you shall be called the priests of the Lord" (Isaias 61: 6). But someone might consider it great to be a minister of God and suppose that one should boast of men who are ministers of God. This would be true, if God could not be approached without men, as happens when men glory in the king's ministers, without whom the king cannot be approached. But this is not applicable here, because Christ's faithful have access to God by faith, as it says in Romans 5: 2 "By whom also we have access through faith into this grace, wherein we stand, and glory in the hope of the glory of the sons of God." Therefore, he is careful to say: through whom you believed. As if to say: by faith you have now been joined to God and not to men. That is why he said above (2: 5): "That your faith might not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God." Therefore you should take joy first in God and not in men.
But it sometimes happens that ministers of men have some dignity or skill that makes them fit to be ministers. This is not true of God's ministers. Therefore, he shows that the worthiness and power of God's ministers is entirely from God, saying: as the Lord assigned to each. As if to say: Each one of us has as much power in ministering as the Lord has granted to him; consequently, there is no reason for boasting in us for ourselves: "Not that we are sufficient to think any thing of ourselves, as of ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God" (2 Corinthians 3: 5).
Then when he says, I planted, he stresses a similarity between ministers and husbandmen, where two differences in their activities should be noted: one is the difference between the activity of one minister and that of another. In regard to this he says: I planted, i.e., in preaching to you I was like a planter, because I was the first one to preach the faith to you: "I have put my words in thy mouth, that thou mightest plant the heavens" (Isaias 51: 16); Apollos watered, i.e., he acted as a person who waters plants to nourish them and make them grow. In the same way we read in Apocalypse (19: 1) that after Paul had converted many Corinthians, Apollos came on the scene and contributed many things to the believers, showing publicly by the Scriptures that Jesus is Christ, and fulfilling what is said in Ecclesiasticus (24: 31): "They that explain me, shall have life everlasting."
The second difference is found in the work of ministers, who by planting and watering cooperate outwardly with the work of God Who works inwardly, hence he adds, but the God gave the increase: "increase the growth of the fruits of your justice" (2 Corinthians 9: 10). So, too, in material things, planters and waterers work from without, but God works from within by the activity of nature to make plants grow.
Then when he says, so neither he that plants, he draws two conclusions from these premises. The first of these is based on the minister's dependence on God: inasmuch as Paul planted and Apollos watered, they were but ministers of God, having nothing but what they received from God; and they worked only from without, God working within. So neither he that plants, nor he that waters is important and great; but God that gives the growth. For God is independent and great by Himself: for an action is not attributed to the instrument, which a minister is, but to the principal cause. Hence Isaias (40: 17): "All nations are before him as if they had no being at all, and are counted to him as nothing, and vanity"
The second conclusion is based on a comparison between the various ministers: He that plants and he that waters, since both are God's ministers, having nothing but what they receive from God and working only from without, are equal. Since the only ground for preferring one over another is some divine gift he has received, they are equal, so far as what they have of themselves is concerned. Furthermore, since their intention is to be God's ministers, they are one in the harmony of their wills; consequently, it is foolish to have dissensions about persons who are one: "I will praise thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; in the council of the just, and in the congregation." (Psalm 110: 1); "So we, being many, are one body in Christ" (Romans 12: 5).