Unstable hearers create confusion for gospel proclaimers. Jesus notes that these people receive the word with joy. The positive response encourages those sowing the gospel. A little endurance adds to the encouragement. But at a certain point, these unproductive hearers “fall away.”
The English translation “fall away” causes confusion. Many interpret this passage to teach that a person can lose salvation. Jesus uses the word translated in Matthew 11:6 “offended.” Jesus rebuked Peter for being “a hindrance” to Him in Matthew 16:23. Later in this chapter, the people take “offense” at Jesus (13:57). “Fall away” captures the result, but it must be noted what caused the stumbling. Jesus explicitly states that “tribulation or persecution aris[ing] on account of the word” generates the offense.
Peter’s response to Christ regarding His death illustrates the point. A couple of verses earlier, Peter correctly identified Jesus Christ. But, when Christ’s word revealed the necessary work of the Messiah, Peter balked. Peter, within a few verses, demonstrates a classic, “Oh, yeah!” “Oh, NO!” response.
Unregenerate hearers might respond positively and with overwhelming initial zeal to the message of salvation in Christ. The past century and a half of revivalism illustrated overwhelming emotional responses to the gospel. Hoards of people swept forward at the emotional pinnacle of the “altar call.” Often, very few stayed the course of endurance in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The test of fruitfulness comes when a person must choose between what they want to do and what Scripture commands them to do. When the prospect of persecution or tribulation causes a turning away from the Word, no fruit exists. A life characterized by setting aside the Word calls into question true conversion.
Regenerate hearers might also respond in a similarly unproductive way. The preaching or reading of the Word brings instruction or conviction in a particular area. An initial response demonstrates a joyful reception. But, at a time when external pressures create discomfort old habits prevail. Again, Peter exemplifies this as described by Paul in Galatians 2. Peter brought the gospel to the Gentiles, but when certain Jews exerted pressure Peter capitulated.
David testifies to a perspective that protects from this type of unproductivity. “Therefore I consider all you precepts to be right; I hate every false way” (Psalm 119:128, ESV). Esteeming God’s Word right all the time protects the hearer from being offended, even in times of extreme pressure.