?John’s nickname Chrysostom (pronounced Chris es tom) meant “golden mouth,” but no one called him that in his lifetime. He was given that honorary title 150 years after his death, but from the beginning of his ministry people were enthralled with his preaching.
John studied classical rhetoric. He was drilled in grammar and syntax, tutored in the Greek classics (Demosthenes, Plato, Homer) and trained to memorize long passages. John pursued the finest education in liberal arts available, and he excelled in all the communication techniques of his day. And, then, at the age of 18, he rebelled. He threw aside what he dismissed as “ostentatious verbiage” and fell in love with the Bible.1
After his baptism in 368, he chose a life of seclusion. He became passionately devoted to a rigorous and demanding asceticism. He went for long periods without sleep and food. He learned large portions of the Old and New Testaments by heart. He refused to lie down, day or night, for the better part of two years. Sleep deprivation and constant standing were meant to enhance continuous communion with God. Since it was improper for a slave to lie down in the presence of his master, it was wrong for Christ’s servant to lie down before his Lord. Not surprisingly, this severe self-mortification ruined his health. Monasticism radicalized his life and ministry. Even though he became the fourth century’s greatest preacher-senior pastor at Antioch and then archbishop of Constantinople-John’s heart and soul never left the wilderness cave.
A Biblical Preacher
John sought a literal, straight-forward and historical interpretation of the text, instead of an allegorical and figurative interpretation. Years of secular training in rhetoric and wilderness training in the Scriptures produced a powerful preacher. He could hold an audience spell-bound, preaching extemporaneously with intensity and depth.
People had never heard preaching like this before.2 John’s style was forceful, immediate and compelling, a product not only of his internal makeup but the external conditions of his setting. Worshipers did not sit in pews, they stood and walked around. The audience was in perpetual motion and John had to keep their attention. He was the people’s theologian, exhorting his hearers to take his message home with them and repeat it over dinner. He made the whole counsel of God come alive.3 We have more than 600 of John’s sermons and 200 letters. His sermon series on the Book of Acts is the only surviving commentary on that book from the first 1,000 years of the church.4
For 12 years, John preached against the pagan decadence of Antioch-the wealthy capital city of Syria (386-397). He juxtaposed the truth of the gospel with the lifestyle of his parishioners. John’s insistence on pressing for obedience in a culture so similar to ours, in its addiction to sports and entertainment, makes me wonder how we should preach today. Would we dare to preach like John today? John weighed in on a host of issues from greed to gluttony. He refused to leave sin undefined. John’s biblical rationale was solid: “For all you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (
The People’s Theologian
John is well known for expounding and defending the biblical truth of the Incarnation of God in Christ. He was thoroughly Trinitarian. He attacked Arianism: the heretical perspective that used Jesus’ humanity to deny the essential oneness of the Son with the Father in the Godhead. His powerful grasp of theological truth and his impact on Christian thought in his own day and through the centuries is difficult to exaggerate; but his legacy is marred by his distorted understanding of the priesthood, the sacraments, sexuality and marriage, women, and the Jews. He defended the Incarnation, but he had trouble grasping a biblical theology of the person and the relationship of body and soul.
In some respects, John’s high view of the priesthood was too high. Sacerdotalism and asceticism added to the burden of the office. John’s vision of pastoral ministry would have been helped by understanding the priesthood of all believers. If he had grasped a theology of the gifts of the Spirit and every member ministry, some of the pressure he felt would have been lifted. He would have been better off including women in ministry and resting in the truth that there is only one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus. His interpretation of the Mass meant that the priest played an essential role in the salvation of his congregation. “Only by means of these holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest,” who lift up the body and blood of Christ are people saved.5 This put enormous pressure on the priest. “Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves. . .”6
With that said, many of John’s concerns about the challenges and temptations facing pastors were well-founded, and they remain true for us today. John was fearful:
“I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of the priest than the gales that disturb the sea.”7
John’s counter-culture message and his passion for Christ worked well in Antioch-a pagan, pluralistic city. But his reputation for outstanding preaching got him into trouble. In 397, he was literally kidnapped by armed guards, escorted 800 miles to Constantinople and forcibly consecrated as archbishop. The emperor’s chief advisor Eutropias thought the church in the capital city ought to have the best orator in Christianity.8
John accepted this twist of political fate as the providence of God. He believed he was being called to deliver his message of renewal and reform at the very center of religious and secular power. But if anyone thought that success and privilege would mellow John, they were wrong. In spite of the pressure to become a political super-pastor, John dug in his heels and drove his message home against money, sex and power. He preached and lived like a prophet. He had a passion for the poor, and he made it a habit of offending ecclesiastical dignitaries. He made sure funds given for the poor got to the poor. He set up a leper colony next door to an upscale neighborhood. He preached against the high and mighty, and in due course they determined to bring him down. No matter how good the preaching may be, implying that the emperor’s wife is a “Jezebel” jeopardizes the preacher. John preached with passion, exposed corruption and made enemies. By 404, John was driven into exile, and by 407 he was dead.9
John was arrested and deported, exiled to Cucusos, a remote mountainous town in Armenia. In fragile health, he suffered a 70-day journey lying on a litter pulled by a mule. The trip nearly killed him. Destitute and abandoned, he suffered loneliness and inactivity. Everything had been taken from him-health, church, friends, ministry and preaching. Everything, but the one thing-the truth that this exhausted 56-year-old prophet pastor never tired of repeating either in lecture or by letter-his devotion to Christ. Faced with every reason to quit and with every excuse to become bitter, John contended that “no one who is wronged is wronged by another, but experiences this injury at his or her own hands.”10
Nothing can ruin our virtue or destroy our soul that is not self-inflicted. John argued that poverty cannot impoverish the soul. Malignancy cannot malign the character. The lack of health care cannot destroy a healthy soul. Famine cannot famish one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. No! Not even the devil and death can destroy those who live sober and vigilant lives. The devil robbed Job of everything but could not rob Job of his virtue. Cain took Abel’s life but could not take away his greater gain. Only those who injure themselves are injured.
Self-betrayal is the danger, littleness of soul the problem. “Those who do not injure themselves become stronger,” wrote John, “even if they receive innumerable blows; but they who betray themselves, even if there is no one to harass them, fall of themselves, and collapse and perish.”11
The best preachers are those who preach first to themselves and then to others. The herald hears the Word in the soul before it is spoken in the sanctuary. This was true of John. His “prison epistles”are free from lament and bitterness. He modeled the spiritual direction he sought to give.
John’s own life was the unspoken metaphor behind the message. He was the hidden parable in the proclamation. The messenger and the message were one. He was the illustration illuminating the text. The end in faithfulness to the end may be a long way off, but it is the only end worth pursuing. I agree with my brother, Saint John, the golden mouth and stalwart contender for the Faith, when he wrote:
“Let us then, I encourage you, be sober and vigilant at all times, and let us endure all painful things bravely that we may obtain those everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power, now and ever throughout all ages. Amen.”12
1. J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom– Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 16.
2. Ibid. 58.
3. Ibid. 60.
4. Kevin Miller, “Did You Know?” Christian History, issue 44, 1994, 3.
5. Chrysostom, “On the Priesthood,” op. cit. vol. 9, bk. 3, sec.5, 47.
6. Chrysostom, op. cit. vol. 9, bk 3, sec. 4, 46.
7. Chrysostom, op. cit. vol. 9, bk. 3, sec. 8, 49.
8. Robert Krupp, “Golden Tongue and Iron Will,” Christian History, op. cit. 8.
9. Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press: New York, 1988), 317-318.
10. Chrysostom, “To Prove That No One ….”, op. cit. 272.
11. Ibid. 280.
12. Ibid. 284.