By J.R. Miller
Paul speaks of one of his friends as "Apelles, the approved." We do not know who Apelles was. He is not named elsewhere in the New Testament, nor does he have any place in secular history. Yet the distinction which Paul gives him is suggestive. Apelles had been put to the test in some way and had not failed. So he had won the title, "Apelles, the approved."
Every Christian should want to have the approval of men. There are instances, no doubt, in which good men have to brave the opposition of others and go against their opinions. Yet a Christian should seek to make his life so beautiful, so consistent, so worthy, so like his Master's--that everywhere he shall be well spoken of. The religion of Christ is beautiful. One of the few things said about the youth and early manhood of Jesus is that he "advanced in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man." It is not said only that he advanced in favor with God--that would not seem strange to us, since he was the Son of God--but that he advanced also in favor with men. As he grew older--his life became more winning and attractive, his disposition sweeter, nobler, manlier. There was nothing austere in him, nothing disagreeable, and nothing that made his neighbors dislike him.
Some people have the impression that religion is not winsome, that it makes one somehow uncongenial and less agreeable. But the very reverse of this is true. The nearer we approach to the perfection of Christ--the more will people love us and approve of our life. When the religion of anyone makes him disliked, there is something wrong, not with the religion--but with the person's living it out. If we would win for ourselves the honorable designation, "The approved," we must see to it that we make our life spotless in its beauty, and our conduct true to the teachings of our Master.
We are tested in many ways. We are tested by temptations. Everyone must be tempted. Untested strength is not trustworthy. An old chronicle tells of a company of men going into battle with swords which bent double, at the first assault. They had not been tried, and the steel was untempered. Before men can be entrusted with sacred interest and responsibilities, they must be tried. Not until we have been proved, are we ready for service.
We are tested by our duties. We do not begin to realize how much depends upon our faithfulness in the common days. To fail in our testing, is to come unprepared to great crises. We say God does his own work in the world. Yes--but not without us. Our faithfulness is essential to the carrying out of the divine purposes. There is a story of a blacksmith who was busy in his shop near the French and German border, one snowy night just before Christmas. He was very weary, for he had toiled all the day long. He was standing by his forge, looking wistfully toward his humble cottage where the lights were shining, and where his children were awaiting his homecoming. He was at his last piece of work--a rivet which required much care to shape it properly. This rivet was to hold together the metal work of a bridge that was to span the river near his forge. The rivet was the key to the whole bridge. The blacksmith, in his weariness, was sorely tempted to hurry, and to skimp his work. It was only a little rivet, and was so troublesome to make--why should he stay to do it carefully? But his conscience bade him to do his best. So he put away the temptation, and rested not until his work was perfectly done.
Some years later war broke out. A squadron of the blacksmith's countrymen was driven over the bridge in headlong flight. The bridge trembled under the weight. All depended on the little rivet--was it secure enough to stand the strain? Only the blacksmith's work that night, stood between the men and destruction. The rivet stood the test--the blacksmith and his work were approved.
We do not know what important interest may depend some critical hour, years from now, on the piece of work we are doing today--or on the honesty and truth we shall build into our character tomorrow. Let us do all we do so well that the Master and the world shall speak of us as the approved.
The lesson applies also to the cultivation of our Christian life and character. Perhaps we do not pay enough heed to this matter. We confess Christ, and take our place among his people, and think nothing more is required of us. But that is only the beginning. Ten or twelve years ago, a man gave himself to Christ. He was sincere from the first--but was only a diamond in the rough. He had been brought up in ungodly associations and companionships. He had been a profane man, a man of quick temper, resentful, of loud and uncouth speech--lacking all gentleness and tenderness. But this man took Christ into his heart and life, with most loving welcome, and he has been marvelously transformed by the divine indwelling. His whole nature has been changed. His manners have been softened into real gracefulness. His temper has been sweetened. The very tones of his speech have become quiet and kindly, almost musical. He has had but little time in his busy days and nights for reading and study, and yet he seems now like a man who has received a liberal education, since his conversion.
This example illustrates the value of spiritual culture in a Christian. The word "grace" means beauty of form, manner, and movement; something pleasing, agreeable, and winsome. To grow in grace is to grow in spiritual beauty. The finer things in Christian character should be cultivated. Someone chided a great artist with giving too much time to trifles in the finishing of his statues. He would spend hours on a small feature. He replied, "Little things make perfection, and perfection is no trifle." Likewise, we cannot spend too much time or thought on the culture of what may seem the smaller elements of Christian character.
In the fourth century B.C. there was a great artist named also Apelles. His motto is said to have been, "No day without a line." Every day he must make at least a little progress in his art, become a little better painter, do a little more beautiful work. Is not this a good motto for us who are Christians? We never should be content with anything less than perfection, and in striving to reach perfection, we should add a line every day. We should never allow a day to pass, in which we do not become a somewhat more beautiful Christian.
For example, in the matter of temper. Perhaps there is nothing that mars the beauty of more Christian lives, than ill temper in some of its manifold forms. There is no confession made oftener that this, "Somehow I cannot control my temper." Many good people seem to think that faults of temper are not really sins, certainly not grievous sins--that they are only little infirmities, not needing even to be repented of. Also, the fact that nearly everybody has the same fault, seems to make it less a fault, scarcely more than a common human trait. But let us not allow ourselves to be deceived into any such minimizing of faulty temper. Think how much pain and bitterness are caused every day to gentle hearts--by bad tempers. Then think how outbreaks of temper in others appear to you--how unlovely, how inappropriate, and how undivine. That is just the way similar outbreaks in you, appear to others. If we would be approved, we must get this vice of ill temper in us, transformed into gentle, patient lovingness.
Thought for others is another of the details in which Christians should cultivate their characters. It is only when self dies and we learned to put others in the empty place--that we begin truly to live the Christian life. We cannot understand, to what refinements of love, the religion of Christ calls us. We are not always kind to each other, not always patient with each other, not always courteous, not always forgiving, not always large hearted and gentle. Sometimes we are fretful, irritable, sensitive, too easily hurt. We speak words which are like thorns! We doubt and suspect each other. We are too likely to take up an evil report against another. If we would be among the approved, we must get the sweetness of love for others in our lives. We admire love in others. It warms our hearts to find the whole thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians in some person's life. That is the ideal for us. It vexes us--to find others selfish, suspicious, unforgiving, thoughtless, and unkind. It vexes others just as much--to find the same unloving things in us.
"Search your own heart. What painest thee
In others--in yourself may be."
Again, if we would win the honor of being approved by men--we must trust God. If the religion of Christ stands for anything in the lives of those who follow him--it stands for faith and confidence. We are to be anxious for nothing. The meaning of this, is that we need never doubt nor be afraid. But what is the fact? Are Christians any more trustful in the presence of danger and troubles, than unbelievers are? Are followers of Christ any more confident and joyful in time of trouble and loss, than other people are? Joy is a Christian duty. We are to rejoice always. How is it with most Christians? What comes of the joy--when we suffer pain or when we experience loss?
There is a story of song birds being brought over the sea. There were thirty six thousand of them, mostly canaries. At first, after the ship sailed, the sea was calm and the birds were silent. They kept their little heads under their wings, and not a peep was heard. But the third day out the ship struck a furious storm. The travelers were terrified, the children wailed. Then this strange thing happened. As the tempest reached its height, the birds all began to sing, first one, then another, until the whole thirty six thousand were singing as if their little throats would burst. Is that the way we Christians do? When the trouble begins, when the clouds of sorrow gather and break, when the storm rises in its fury--do we then begin to sing? If we fully understand the covenant of our God, and believed his promises, should not our song break forth in tenfold joy when the tempest begins? But instead, we get frightened at the smallest troubles; we fret and grow discontented when any hope fails. We chafe at little sufferings, we complain and repine, and the sunshine dies out of our face, and the gladness out of our voice.
No doubt, one reason Apelles was called the approved was because he trusted God absolutely. Whatever word he found among the promises--he received it as one of God's words, none of which ever has failed, or ever can fail. If we can convince the people of the world that we have tried and proved the divine words, thousands will desire our God too. People who know us will not doubt our sincerity, nor will they doubt the faithfulness and the power of our Christ. When we begin to live thus, believing, trusting, rejoicing--then people will receive our gospel, and we shall become approved.
Are we living so as to commend Christ and his gospel to all who know us and see us--weekdays as well as Sundays? We are always in the eye of the world. A moment's ill-temper, a bit of selfish living, an angry word, a careless act; an unseemly display of pride, of greed, of passion, of resentment, of sharpness in driving a bargain; a little impatience, a neglect of duty, the lack of gentleness toward others, unlovingness shown even toward the lowliest--there is nothing so trivial--that in it we may not either honor or dishonor our Master!