Golden Mouth: Reflecting on the Legacy of John Chrysostom

Of the many early Church writers, two stand out as extensive contributors to early church literature: Origen Adamantius and John Chrysostom. We’ve discussed Origen in a previous blog and now turn to Chrysostom, another outstanding early Christian teacher. 

It would be hard to find two Bible expositors who differed more in their methodology than Origen and John Chrysostom. Origen delighted in finding symbolic meanings and prophetic types in virtually every narrative passage of Scripture. In contrast, Chrysostom stuck closely to the literal meaning of the text, and he rarely saw anything symbolic or typological in the narrative passages of Scripture. Nevertheless, both Origen and Chrysostom took the New Testament commandments and doctrines seriously. Neither of them watered down the commandments of Jesus and the apostles.

Chrysostom’s Exhortations

By the time Chrysostom was born (c. 347), the institutional church had compromised with the world in many areas. Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman empire, meaning the church was now bloated with millions of nominal believers. To be sure, these nominal Christians had given up their pagan gods. They no longer worshiped idols. They gave mental assent to the basic theological doctrines of Christianity. However, for most of them, their lives had changed only partially from their pagan days. In contrast, after his conversion, Chrysostom followed a different path. He preferred to live an ascetic life totally dedicated to Christ. Around 386, Chrysostom was ordained as an elder (presbyter) in his native city of Antioch in Syria. Chrysostom was determined to use his office of elder to help bring about reform in the Church. He preached in various churches throughout Antioch, boldly addressing the lax lives of the people. His perpetual topic was the excesses of the rich and their need to help the poor. Chrysostom went into vivid detail in condemning the unnecessary things on which the rich were wrongfully spending their money—fine houses, expensive clothing, jewelry, and banquets. This made him many powerful enemies, but it also brought about change in the lives of many. 

However, Chrysostom did not limit his preaching to the sins of the rich. He addressed numerous problems, such as worldly entertainment, immorality, and Christians taking oaths. Although he offended many, some listened to him. His reputation as a preacher spread throughout Antioch and the nearby region. People would flock to hear him speak.

To learn more about Christians like Chrysostom who refused to compromise with the world, take our course The Life of the Early Christians.

Chrysostom’s Preaching Style

While he served as an elder in the city of Antioch, John Chrysostom preached a series of exegetical sermons on various books of the Bible, including Matthew. The collection of his sermons on Matthew, dating to c. 390, serve as one of our earliest complete commentaries on Matthew. As he preached through the Gospel of Matthew verse-by-verse, Chrysostom emphasized the practical, moral applications of the passages from which he was preaching. If the passage contained commandments—such as in the Sermon on the Mount—then he spent most of his sermon expounding the need to obey what Jesus taught. If the passage was primarily narrative, Chrysostom typically devoted half of his sermon to discussing the passage. He then spent the remainder of his sermon addressing some area of life where the people were lax.

Bishop of Constantinople

Chrysostom desired nothing more than to preach the gospel to the people of his native city of Antioch. He had no ecclesiastical ambitions to higher offices in the church. However, his reputation for being a gifted speaker had spread far and wide. So when the bishop of Constantinople died, the church in Constantinople brought in Chrysostom and ordained him as the new bishop in 397. If people thought they were merely obtaining a capable preacher, they soon found out otherwise. As an elder in Antioch, Chrysostom had worked to root out the sins of the people—particularly the rich. He continued to do this as bishop in Constantinople. However, this time the rich and powerful persons whose sins he preached against were high officials in the Roman government and their wives. John also used his position as bishop to correct wrongdoing and laxity among the elders and deacons in Constantinople and nearby cities. All these things made Chrysostom many powerful enemies, who united to get him removed from the bishopry. Ironically, one of Chrysostom’s greatest enemies was far away in Egypt. He was Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, a vain and worldly man. He had no personal quarrel with Chrysostom. Rather, he was concerned with the growing power and prestige of the church in Constantinople, the capital city of the empire. For more than a century, the church in Alexandria had been the largest and most influential church in the world, except for the church in Rome. In fact, Alexandria played the leading role in the doctrinal disputes of the fourth century. However, the ascendancy of the church in Constantinople was beginning to challenge Alexandria’s role. So Theophilus was anxious to do anything to lower the prestige of the bishop of Constantinople.

Chrysostom’s Enemies Prevail

Chrysostom’s enemies did not have long to wait. Chrysostom gave a sermon one Sunday in which he attacked the expensive garments worn by rich Christian women. He also attacked jewelry, cosmetics and similar vices. The Empress Eudoxia was not in the audience, and the sermon was not specifically addressed to her. However, the allies of Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, made sure she heard about it. They convinced her that Chrysostom’s sermon was meant as an attack on her. Eudoxia urged her husband, emperor Arcadius, to depose Chrysostom and send him into exile. Meanwhile, Theophilus had gathered a group of bishops who were allied to him. They joined forces with the emperor to remove Chrysostom. Realizing his enemies were too powerful, Chrysostom decided to leave Constantinople on his own accord and go into self-exile. However, before long, the people of Constantinople wanted Chrysostom back, so they persuaded him to return. There was no conflict for a few months. However, one day the government placed a statue of empress Eudoxia outside the entrance of one of the main churches in the city. The people danced in the street and put on street plays to celebrate the statue of the empress. The next Sunday, Chrysostom boldly rebuked the people for dancing and frolicking right in front of the doors of a church building. The people accepted the rebuke, but Eudoxia was furious. She again implored her husband to banish Chrysostom. Word reached Chrysostom of what the empress was doing. The next Sunday, he began his sermon with the words, “Herodias raves again and is troubled once more. She dances and desires once more to receive John’s head on a platter.” Not long thereafter, a council of bishops, composed largely of John’s ecclesiastical enemies, met in council to depose him. He faced them fearlessly and answered their charges, but they ruled against him anyway. The people of Constantinople surrounded Chrysostom’s house to prevent the soldiers from arresting and exiling him. However, Chrysostom did not want to see a violent conflict occur on his account. So he took the course of nonresistance. He quietly slipped out of the city and exiled himself. However, his enemies were not satisfied with this. The elders and deacons who supported John were arrested and imprisoned. The emperor also sent soldiers to arrest other supporters or close friends of Chrysostom. The emperor even sent a troop of soldiers after John in his self-imposed exile. Once they found him, they arrested him and began taking him to an even more remote place in the empire. However, as a result of the stress from these events and because of the harsh treatment of the soldiers, Chrysostom died en route to his place of banishment. 

For lessons on following God wholeheartedly like Chrysostom, listen to our course Radical Christian Living.

Chrysostom is Ultimately Exonerated

Origen had died at the hands of a pagan Roman emperor. Chrysostom died at the hands of a Roman emperor who professed to be a Christian. Despite the similarities of their deaths, their eventual fates turned out quite different. During his lifetime, many Christians were incensed at the treatment that Chrysostom had received. Likely due to his popularity, trained secretaries had written his sermons in shorthand and then transcribed them. Unlike many of those with access to Origen’s writings, Chrysostom’s supporters made sure that his sermons were preserved and that they continued to be copied. They have survived to this day. Although we now refer to this man as Chrysostom, his actual name was simply John. People knew him as “John of Antioch” and later as “John of Constantinople.” However, in the centuries that followed John’s death, Christians who read his sermons recognized what an outstanding expositor of Scripture he had been. So they gave him the appellation of Chrysostom, which means “golden mouth.” He was eventually recognized as one of the great teachers of the Church in both the east and west.

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This blog was adapted from David Bercot’s Commentary on Matthew. For citations of the historical sources, see pages 484-487 in Bercot’s commentary. To read these primary sources, follow the links below.

The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates
The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen

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