Chapter 6

John Chrysostom: Golden-Tongued Preacher


"Almighty God, who hast given to us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto Thee; and dost promise, that when two or three are gathered together in Thy name Thou wilt grant their requests: fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of Thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of Thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting, Amen."

This beautiful prayer, so appropriate for worship, is taken from the liturgy of Chrysostom. It was used in the worship services which he, as the most famous preacher in the early church, used in leading God's people to the worship of their Lord.

Preaching has always been the life blood of the church. From the preaching of the apostles in the early church to the pulpits of God's church today, preaching has always occupied a central and important place. Only when Rome introduced into the church meaningless and godless practices did preaching decline and all but disappear from the worship of the saints. The Reformation was, above all, brought about by preaching -- simple, biblical, expository preaching. And so it has been in the 400 years since the Reformation. When the church was strong, the pulpit was strong. When the church was infiltrated with false doctrine and worldliness, it was because the pulpit had failed. When reformation came into the church, it came on the wings of preaching.

It is not amiss, therefore, to consider the greatest preacher of the ancient church, John Chrysostom. Not only has his name become synonymous with preaching, but the last part of his name, "Chrysostom," was given him because the name means "Golden-mouthed," and was indicative of the high respect granted him as a minister of the gospel.

His Early Life

John was born in Syrian Antioch in 347 from Secundus, a pagan military officer, and Anthusa, a godly woman of great moral force and character. She married young and was widowed at the age of 20. When Secundus died, John was an infant, and his spiritual nurture came from his mother. So careful was she in John's religious instruction that a prominent heathen of the day said in astonishment at her devotion, "Bless me! What women these Christians have."

Antioch, where the believers were first called Christians, had become a worldly and godless city. One writer put it this way -- and it gives us some idea of the environment in which John was reared:

The warmth of the climate disposed the natives to the most intemperate enjoyment of tranquility and opulence, and the lively licentiousness of the Greeks was blended with the hereditary softness of the Syrians. Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendor of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch. The arts of luxury were honored, the serious and manly virtues were the subject of ridicule, and the contempt for female modesty and reverent age announced the universal corruption of the capital of the East.

He was given an excellent education in the best schools in Antioch, studying especially philosophy and rhetoric in preparation for a career in law. He was not immediately baptized by his mother, chiefly because of some erroneous views of baptism which prevailed in the church at that time. These views, held by some in the church, consisted mainly in the notion that baptism washed away all previous sins. It was considered wise, therefore, to postpone baptism so as to be free of as many sins as possible. At 23 years of age John was baptized by Miletus, the bishop of the church in his city. Later John himself would protest this practice of delaying baptism, but he does mark his own conversion as happening in his 20th year.

After his conversion he abandoned his studies in law and a secular career and devoted himself exclusively to the work of the church. In preparation for this work, he studied under Diodore, who had founded a monastic school, but who was influential in the establishment of a Seminary in that city.

This is worthy of more than passing note, for the Seminary in Antioch was devoted to the principle of biblical interpretation which insisted that the literal meaning of Scripture was the correct one. Antioch took a position contrary to the Seminary in Alexandria, Egypt, which promoted an allegorical method of interpretation. The tradition of the Seminary at Antioch, however, was the tradition in the church during those periods when preaching was strong, and it is still the method held today in all orthodox Seminaries. God used this education to prepare John for his work as preacher. A fellow student was Theodore, later bishop of the church in Mopsuesta, and himself a leading church father.

John had strong leanings towards the monastic life, but refrained from entering a monastery because of his mother's wishes. Only after she died did he retire for 10 years to live the life of a hermit in the hills outside Antioch. As a hermit he brought irreparable damage to his health and bore bodily afflictions to his deathbed.

His Service to the Church

But God had more important work for John. He was summoned to return to Antioch where he first became a lector (reader of Scripture in the worship service), then a deacon in 381, then a minister in the church. It was during this period that he wrote a book on the nurture of children and another on the ministry entitled, "The Priesthood." Both gained for him a reputation of excellence, for they were filled with profound wisdom.

Nevertheless, he was above all a preacher. Already while he was studying for law, his oratorical gifts were noticed; but God put them to use in the service of the ministry of the Word.

For 12 years he occupied the pulpit in the church of Antioch. It was his custom, as it has been in our own Reformed tradition, to preach series. Many of his sermons are still extant. He preached 67 sermons on Genesis, 90 on Matthew, 88 on John, 32 on Romans, 74 on I and II Corinthians, as well as series on other books. He preached not only on the Lord's day, but also during the week, sometimes five days in succession. His auditorium was always packed with people, and sometimes the congregation, appreciative of his preaching, would break out in spontaneous applause -- for which he severely reprimanded them.

One noteworthy incident demonstrates the power of his preaching. During the Lenten season of 387 the people of Antioch rioted over new taxes imposed upon them by the emperor Theodosius and burned a number of statues of the emperor and his family. Theodosius threatened to destroy the city in his anger and sent troops into the city to quell the rioting and judges to try the instigators of the riot. John took the occasion to preach 20 sermons on the subject, "On the Statutes," in which he reminded the people of their responsibilities to those whom God had put over them and reminded the emperor of the evils of undue cruelty. These sermons served to bring about a quietness in the city and an amnesty from the emperor. One writer of the time said of these sermons: "Though such a crowd had come together, the silence was as deep as though not a single person had been present." One is reminded of Luther's sermons which quelled the disorders in Wittenburg, brought on by the unruly Zwickau prophets.

Because of his great preaching powers, he was appointed by the agent of the emperor to be minster in Constantinople. He had to be escorted out of the city by troops because of the great devotion of his people in whose midst he had labored for twelve years.

The pulpit in Constantinople was the most prestigious in the entire Eastern Church, and perhaps in the entire church. It was, after the time of Constantine the Great, the capital of the empire. on the shores of the Bosporus in Greece, it was the most influential church of the time.

But it was not long before John was in trouble. Great preacher that he was, he feared no one and preached the Scriptures regardless whom he offended. Because Constantinople was the imperial city, it was filled with luxury and corruption, intrigue and depravity. Against all these sins John preached with vehemence and force; and his preaching earned him the undying hatred of the Empress Eudoxia. Conniving with the bishops of Alexandria, she secured his exile across the Bosporus, but it was to last only a short time. He returned in triumph to his pulpit and continued to condemn the evils in the city. He probably, from an earthly point of view, made his fatal mistake when he called Eudoxia another Herodias who would not rest till she had obtained the head of John.

His Martyrdom

This time John had gone too far. The emperor deposed him; John refused to obey the command to abdicate his pulpit. The emperor sent troops into the cathedral during a baptism ceremony and mixed the blood of the worshipers with the water used for baptism. John was exiled to Cucresus in the Taurus mountains of Armenia. he described his feelings upon being exiled in a letter.

When I was driven from the city, I felt no anxiety, but said to myself: If the empress wishes to banish me, let her do so; "the earth is the Lord's." If she wants to have me sawn asunder, I have Isaiah for an example. If she wants me to be drowned in the ocean, I think of Jonah. If I am to be thrown into the fire, the three men in the furnace suffered the same. If cast before wild beasts, I remember Daniel in the lions' den. If she wants me to be stoned, I have before me Stephen, the first martyr. If she demands my head, let her do so; John the Baptist shines before me. Naked I came from my mother's womb, naked shall I leave this world. Paul reminds me, "If I still pleased men, I would not be the servant of Christ."

In Exile

Even in exile his influence continued, for people from Antioch and other parts of the empire came to visit him, and he carried on correspondence with all parts of the empire -- a total of 242 letters.

And so the empress had him banished to another place so far removed from the churches that he could have no influence at all: the remote northeast corner of the Black Sea called, Pitys. On the way, he was cruelly treated by the soldiers and died during the journey. The year was 407. He was buried in an obscure grave.

But the church honored him, and several years later exhumed his body and moved it to a grave in Constantinople. He died a martyr for the faith in a time when there was supposed to be no persecution.

"The personal appearance of the golden-mouthed orator was not imposing, but dignified and winning. He was of small stature (like David, Paul, Athanasius, Melanchton, and others). He had an emaciated frame, a large, bald head, a lofty, wrinkled forehead, deep-set, bright, piercing eyes, pallid, hollow cheeks, and a short, gray beard."

He was a preacher who emphasized the moral aspects of the Christian faith. He himself described his work in this way: "My work is like that of a man who is trying to clean a piece of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing."

In keeping with his times, he held some views which were later considered erroneous by the church. Orthodox in all matters to which the church had addressed itself, he took a weak position on the depravity of man and the power of sin in man's nature. But these issues were not to be defined until the work of the great church father, Augustine.

He has gone down in history as one of the church's great preachers. Fearless, catering to no man, willing to suffer the consequences of his firm commitment to Scripture, he is an abiding testimony of the importance of the preaching in the church. May God give such preachers to the church today.