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The only conversions that count in the kingdom are those confirmed by a life of discipleship. Jesus sowed the Word widely, but not all his hearers persevered in discipleship. What was true of the crowds that followed Jesus is also true of the crowds who claim to be his disciples today. Many who have raised their hands in evangelistic crusades or even attended church regularly will be surprised on the day of judgment that Jesus never knew them (7:21-22). Whether the message went in one ear and out the other (13:19), whether someone began the Christian life eagerly and then abandoned it because it entailed too much hardship or persecution (vv. 20-21), whether one accepted the gospel but then backslid into complacency, seduced by other interests (v. 22), such people prove useless to the kingdom. Yet others will more than make up for the seed invested in them, becoming true disciples of the kingdom and spreading the true message of the kingdom to others (v. 23).
In One Ear and out the Other (13:19)
Jewish teachers exhorted students to listen intently and memorize their teachings (for example, Mek. Pisha 1.135-36; Sipre Deut. 306.19.1-3). Yet many who listened to Jesus would forget the message of his kingdom. Such neglect, Jesus says, is the devil's work. Sometimes in counseling I encounter people who have heard the gospel every week in church yet insist that they do not know how to be saved. Simply hearing the gospel does not guarantee understanding or embracing it.
Shallow Commitment (13:20-21)
Matthew warns us that even disciples who spent years with Jesus proved susceptible to such hardship, although their roots were secure enough to return (26:56, 75). I soberly recall that many friends who became followers of Jesus at the same time I did, including some of my witnessing partners, later abandoned the faith. God is less interested in how quickly we run at the beginning of the race than in whether we truly finish it (compare Jn 8:30-47). Some will fall no matter how plainly we preach the truth, but we definitely set people up for failure when we fail to instruct new believers that suffering comes with following Christ (Acts 14:22; 1 Thess 3:3-4).
The World's Distractions (13:22)
Some embrace the gospel, but gradually other interests-wealth, security, family and the like-choke it out of first place. Christ's apostles proclaimed that Jesus must hold first place in our lives (see 1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17). The Bible often warns against the dangers of wealth (as in Mt 6:24; Deut 6:10-12), and Matthew provides some examples of would-be disciples lured away by desire for wealth (Mt 19:21-23; 26:14-16). Even in parts of the world that include many professing Christians, many churches are full of barely committed people who never win a soul to Christ, rarely speak a word on his behalf and accept Christianity as a nice addition to their lives-which are devoted to the same basic goals as their neighbors'. Jesus' kingdom demands suggest that such people may not believe the reality of the gospel enough to stake their lives on it, hence may not prove true disciples of Jesus Christ (compare 3:8-10; Marshall 1974:62-63). One reason we may have so many shallow Christians in some churches today is that many of us have preached a shallow gospel rather than the demands of God's kingdom, and they are (to paraphrase a lament of D. L. Moody) our converts rather than our Lord's.
Daring to Believe the Gospel (13:23)
Sometimes daring to believe in opposition to the values around us means believing the gospel even in contrast to the practice of Christianity we see around us! These people dare to make a difference in the world for the name of their Lord Jesus. Jesus already understood what many of us who work for him have yet to learn: in the long run, drawing crowds is less significant for the kingdom than training those who will multiply the work by training others in turn. Perhaps many of us prefer numbers in the short term over spiritual depth because we lack the faith to believe that such depth is essential (compare v. 12); but fifty disciples with spiritual depth will produce greater numbers in the end than a million raised hands without commitment ever could.
We should take careful note, however, of Matthew's description of the fruitful person: the fruitful person is the one who understands the message (v. 23). Only those who press close to Jesus, persevering until they understand the real point of his teaching, will prove to be long-term disciples (vv. 10-17; compare Jn 8:31-32; Marshall 1974:62-63).