How does a preacher speak to a society that is possessed by materialism and self-indulgence, riddled with political corruption and a resulting disrespect for the law? If that sounds like a situation faced by American preachers in the 1980’s, it was also the situation faced by one of the greatest preachers in Christian history: Chrysostom.
Even today, his sermons have an amazing relevance, since Chrysostom sought primarily to apply the Scripture to real-life situations faced by people in all ages.
Born John of Antioch in 347, the name Chrysostom (“golden mouth”) was applied years after his death. He studied rhetoric as a youth and for a time practiced law, but tired of it as he became disillusioned with the corruption of society in Antioch. During the period that followed he studied the Scriptures intensely, and in 381 became a deacon of the church at Antioch. Five years later, at the age of 39, he was named preacher of the church. He quickly gained enormous popularity with the people of the city.
One reason for Chrysostom’s popularity as a preacher was his speaking style. He spoke naturally, with a directness and clarity that the common people could understand (though occasionally he would get carried away with a flight of rhetorical fancy). He used vivid illustrations, and used them frequently. His sermons were primarily expository, often simply a running commentary on the Scriptures. Chrysostom’s preaching reflected his deep sensitivity to the needs of the people, and a willingness to attack social evil as well as individual sin.
So popular was Chrysostom with the people of Antioch that the emperor’s troops had to kidnap the preacher to bring him to Constantinople, where he was named archbishop in 397. In that great cosmopolitan city — with its materialism, wealth and corruption — he alienated the nobility because of his identification with the poor and alienated the clergy because of his reforms. When he was finally banished from the city by the empress, the people rioted and forced his recall. Because of the continuing tension, however, Chrysostom choose to leave the city on his own. He died in 407, while still in exile.
In the life and ministry of Chrysostom are important messages for all who proclaim the Word of God. He is evidence that any who will faithfully, clearly preach and apply the Word will have a hearing. He is also evidence that to do so in the fullest sense of the gospel will inevitably draw opposition. The selections that follow give but a small glimpse of one of the great preachers of the church’s history.
From “The Importance of Preaching”
To help a man to order his life aright it is true that the life of another may excite him to emulation; but when the soul is suffering under spurious doctrines then there is great need of the Word not only for the safety of those within the fold, but also to meet the attacks of foes without. For if a man should have the sword of the Spirit and the shield of faith so powerful as to be able to work marvels, and by his mighty deeds to stop the mouths of the shameless, he would have no need of the help of the Word; or rather, I should say, that even then the Word would not be useless, but very necessary. The blessed Paul used it, although he aroused wonder on every side by the signs he wrought. And another of that company bids us take heed of this power, saying, “Be ready to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason concerning the hope that is in you.” And further, with one accord they entrusted Stephen and his company with the charge of the widows, for no reason save that they might devote themselves to the ministry of the Word.
From “The Homilies on the Statutes”
Shake off this sadness! Let us return to our former custom; and as we have been used always to meet here with gladness, so let us also do now, casting all upon God. And this will conspire together for our very deliverance from the calamity. For should the Lord see that His words are heard with sincerity and that our love of divine wisdom stands the trial of the difficulty of these times, He will quickly take us up again, and will make out of the present tempest a calm and happy change. For this too is a thing in which it behooves the Christian to differ from the unbelievers, the bearing all things nobly; and through hope of the future, soaring above the attack of human evils. The believer has his stand on the Rock; for this reason he cannot be overthrown by the dashing of the billows. For should the waves of temptation rise, they cannot reach to his feet. He stands too loft for any such assault.
The Church is not a theatre, that we should listen for amusement. With profit ought we to depart hence, and some fresh and great gain should we acquire before we leave this place. For it is but vainly and irrationally we meet together, if we have been but amused for the time and return home empty, and void of all improvement from the things spoken.
From “Excessive Grief at the Death of Friends”
But, you say, a dead man experiences corruption, and becomes dust and ashes. And what then, beloved hearers? For this very reason we ought to rejoice. For when a man is about to rebuild an old and tottering house, he first sends out its occupants, then tears it down, and rebuilds a new and more splendid one. This occasions no grief to the occupants, but rather joy; for they do not think of the demolition which they see, but of the house which is to come, though not yet seen. When God is about to do a similar work, he destroys our body, and removes the soul which was dwelling in it as from some house, that he may build it anew and more splendidly, and again bring the soul into it with greater glory. Let us not, therefore, regard the tearing down, but the splendor which is to succeed.
Tell me not of grief, nor of the intolerable nature of your calamity; rather consider how in the midst of bitter sorrow you may yet rise superior to it. That which was commanded to Abraham was enough to stagger his reason, to throw him into perplexity, and to undermine his faith in the past. For who would not have then thought that the promise which had been made him of a numerous posterity was all a deception? But not so Abraham. And not less ought we to admire Job’s wisdom in calamity; and particularly, that after so much virtue, after his alms and various acts of kindness to men, and though aware of no wrong either in himself or his children, yet experiencing so much affliction, affliction so singular, such as had never happened even to the most desperately wicked, still he was not affected by it as most men would have been, nor did he regard his virtue as profitless, nor form any ill-advised opinion concerning the past. By these two examples, then, we ought not only to admire virtue, but to emulate and imitate it.
The covetous man is a keeper, not a master, of wealth; a slave, not a lord. For he would sooner give anyone a portion of his flesh, than his buried gold. And as though he were ordered and compelled of someone to touch nothing of these hidden treasures, so with all earnestness he watches and keeps them, abstaining from his own, as if it were another’s. And certainly, they are not his own. For what he can neither determine to bestow on others, nor to distribute to the necessitous, although he may sustain infinite punishments, how can he possibly account his own? How does he hold possession of those things, of which he has neither the free use, nor enjoyment?
He that today is rich, tomorrow is poor! Wherefore, I have often smiled, when reading wills that said, let such a man have the ownership of these fields, or of this house, and another the use thereof. For we all have the use, but no man has the ownership. For although the riches may remain with us all our lifetime, undergoing no change, we must transfer them in the end, whether we will or not, into the hands of others; having enjoyed only the use of them, and departing to another life naked and destitute of this ownership. Whence it is plain that they only have the ownership of property who have despised its use, and derided its enjoyment. For the man that has cast his substance away from him, and bestowed it on the poor, he uses it as he ought; and takes with him the ownership of those things when he departs, not being stripped of the possessions even in death, but at that time receiving all back again.

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