Tuesday, June 17, 2014

John the Golden Mouthed of Constantinople by Chris White

Chrysostom fearlessly preached to the great and small

John Chrysostom  (347-407 AD)

His birth name is John, but since the 7th century has been called “Chrysostomos” (Greek for the Golden Mouth) because of his great preaching.  He was one of the greatest preachers of the ancient Christian era and his life offers us a couple of lessons in Christian leadership.  Born to a wealthy couple in Syria, John’s father (whose name is unknown) was a prominent military officer for the Roman government in Antioch.  He died when John was quite young leaving his mother Anthusa ,who remained a widow the remainder of her life, to devote her full attention to the education and religious upbringing of their son.


John was given the best education of the day by Libanius, arguably the greatest master of rhetoric and literature of that era.  Although he lived in a time when Christianity became the required religion of the Roman Empire, he remained a pagan and was undisturbed for his beliefs because of his renown.  It is curious how Chrysostom’s mother, a devout Christian and one obviously desiring his conversion, would see fit to secure Libanius’ services for her son knowing the possible risk of his influencing him towards paganism.  But even more interesting is that three of the greatest preachers and theologians of this period, Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, were all trained by this same man.  John’s education was focused on  rhetoric and eloquence.  Such an education would prepare him for a career in law or government.  John briefly practiced law and for a .time was a civil servant, but when he became a Christian, he took his training and applied it to the art of preaching. 

Once converted he broke with the secular world and wanted to become a monk like St. Antony of Egypt who lived alone in the desert and devoted his entire life to prayer.  Although Anthusa was very glad for her son’s conversion, she begged and pleaded with John to not enter into the monastic life because it would mean leaving her.  John obeyed his mother in this and only after her death did he spend several years in monastic retreat living in a  mountain cave near Antioch from 374-380 AD.  Unfortunately, John was too rigorous in his asceticism early on and this ruined his health forcing him to suspend living as a solitary and instead he spent his life serving the broader church as a pastor and preacher.  This change of vocation proved to be a rich blessing for the Christian church of Antioch and the greater Body of Christ.

Icon of John

John Chrysostom’s appearance is described in one ancient book as being diminutive in stature and having what looked like an oversized head on a small body due to his constant fasting.  He was known to have a prominent nose and deep-seated eyes and due to his balding, a pronounced forehead furrowed with wrinkles.  He is said to have been handsome to look at but very easily could assume a severe expression.

For the first 16 years of his ministry he served in various capacities in Antioch (the place where followers of Jesus were first called Christians).  During this time he preached and wrote many of his books and commentaries.

Although he had no designs on the position, John was eventually elected to be the bishop of Constantinople.  This city was second only to Rome and the papacy in its ecclesiastical importance.  He was directly appointed by the emperor Arkadius who arranged for him to be spirited out of Antioch and brought under imperial guard to Constantinople.  The reason it happened this way is that it was expected that there would be riots in Antioch when the people found out their beloved preacher had been taken from them.


Constantinople was a sophisticated and worldly metropolis (as its current manifestation Istanbul Turkey is today) in the ancient world.  It was the capitol of the Roman empire and the seat of their imperial throne.  It would be inaccurate to say that Chrysostom disliked his promotion to the great city.  He saw the opportunity for influence and greater ministry especially since members of the royal household would all be under his spiritual care.

John himself was a bachelor and celibate priest but he did enjoy the companionship and help of the city’s great deaconess Olympia.  In many regards she was his equal both spiritually and intellectually.  She ran a great convent nearby the episcopal residence and regularly cared for him providing meals and laundry and advice when he needed it.  Author J. N. D. Kelly suggests that both of them had a mutual attraction to one another but were very cognizant of their roles in the church and world and took precautions to not place themselves in a position where temptation could overcome them.  Later when John was exiled, it was Olympia who would arrange for his support and would send people to encourage him.

John’s talent and eloquence at preaching was at a level well-suited for the city.  However, in a city known for its excesses and decadence, Chrysostom lived a manner of life that created tension for him most of the time.  He personally lived as an ascetic and gave his salary away to the poor and sick.  He insisted on earnest Christian living and practical works in his church and often vehemently denounced the worldliness of his congregation which did include the imperial court who were often singled out for direct rebukes and were routinely offended by them.

John's Church the "Hagia Sophia"

As bishop, Chrysostom found the priesthood of Constantinople in need of great reform and discipline.  Some supposedly celibate priests lived with women known in public as “spiritual sisters”.  Others were guilty of taking church finances and lavishly furnishing their homes and wardrobes.  All the while the poor and sick were neglected and preaching was made a low priority.  John reformed all of these things and required all finances of the diocese to be placed under his scrutiny.  Many luxuries purchased at church expense were sold off and churches were ordered to have regular services at hours where common people could attend and hear the word preached.  As with any reformer, many rejoiced to see justice and righteousness prevail, while many more were quite offended and became his enemies.  Although Chrysostom had a singular and brilliant talent in the pulpit and was a man of great holiness, he was far less gifted in understanding human relations and the management of people.  His blunt approach, while true to his character and his faith, probably more than any other factor led to his eventual downfall.

Eventually the empress Eudoxia conspired with other clergy who were jealous of John to have him falsely accused of heresy, overthrown, and placed into exile.  A secret church council known as the Council of the Oak (so-called because it was held at a country villa estate called “the Oak” nearby Constantinople) was convened and 29 false charges were brought to bear on him which led to his banishment from the church.  The central gist of the charges were that he was teaching the doctrines of Origen, a long-dead but highly influential and speculative theologian whom the church had condemned as heretical some decades before.  One of the absurdities of Chrysostom being accused of being “Origenist” is that Origen was so highly speculative and looked for spiritual and mystical meanings in the scripture.  Chrysostom was far more conservative in his interpretation of scripture almost taking an antithetical approach.  He was certainly not guilty as charged. 

However, three days after he was excused from his post a huge earthquake hit Constantinople.  A great public outcry ensued over Chrysostom’s dismissal and the natural disaster only confirmed that God was in agreement with the people.  John was hastily reinstated to his position.  Once back in the pulpit, John fearlessly continued his denouncements of public immorality and especially singled out Eudoxia who had had a silver statue of herself erected near his church the Hagia Sophia and was known for her extravagant dressing.

Eventually John was condemned again and sent into exile in 404 being banished to the wastes of eastern Asia Minor (Armenia).  Although efforts were made to have him released by Pope Innocent I, it was to no avail with the court of Constantinople.  3 years into his exile when he was being moved to a more remote location (he was growing popular with the local people in the initial location) he falls ill and collapses from exhaustion having been forced to walk a road too hard and too long for his frail constitution.  When he sensed he was dying he asked the guards in charge of him to take him to a small roadside church where he could have a final communion before passing away.  His last words were said to be “in all things, glory be to God.”

Theodosius II

Thirty years later, Theodosius II, the son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, orders the remains of John brought back to Constantinople to be buried and venerated by the church.  When the coffin arrived at nearby Chalcedon, Theodosius fell down before it and apologized to Chrysostom for his unworthy treatment at the hands of his parents.

John Chrysostom’s body of sermons and practical commentaries on the Bible are considered to be some of the most valuable of the ancient church era and most remain in print today.  Although John was a brilliant expositor he never studied Hebrew and thus most all of his surviving sermons are on the Pauline letters and Gospels of the New Testament.  What he is known for is paying attention to the context and meaning of the author and deriving its practical application for the problems of today.  Because of this many of his sermons have great relevance even in today’s modern culture.

In summing up what we might learn from the life of this great preacher a couple of thoughts come to mind:

1.  Competence in the pulpit does not make a person omni-competent in all other things.  John would have probably benefited from a leadership team that could have advised him and back him in making reforms and changes especially in a well-established city with a well-established sin matrix.  He did it as the lone righteous prophet and good as that is, prophets don't have a record of things turning out well for them.

2.  No education is a waste of time.  John was educated for political and legal eloquence but transferred his learning into usefulness for the Lord.  All work is the Lord's work (unless it is hurtful and dishonest towards people) and that same work can be used for ministry.  In fact, I know a person who was a missionary who in his field experience had to learn sanitation and waste water management.  This turned into another career for him and now he is using his career as a platform for more ministry.  God doesn't waste anyone's life.  What you have learned can be used in some way for Him.

To enjoy a sampling of the preaching genius of John Chrysostom, the “Golden Mouth”, go to:

“John Chrysostom”  Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature Vol. 2.  
                                  McClintock and Strong eds. (Grand Rapids : Baker Book House, 1981) 

“John Chrysostom”  Butler’s Lives of the Saints.  Bernard Bangley Ed.  (Brewster : Paraclete Press,

Kelly, J.N.D.  Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop. (Grand 
                       Rapids: Baker, 1995)

Cairns, Earle E.  Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand 
                            Rapids : Academie Books, 1981)

The Oxford History of Byzantium.  Cyril Mango, Ed.  (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001)

Gonzalez, Justo L.  The Story of Christianity Vol. 1.  (New York : Harper Collins, 2010)

Davidson, Ivor J.  A Public Faith : From Constantine to the Medieval World AD 312-600 Vol. 2.  
                             John D. Woodbridge & David F. Wright Eds.  (Grand Rapids : Baker Books,

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