This is part 1 of “Preachers of the Past,” a series where we discuss four distinct preachers from the past, ranging from 347 A.D. to 1945.
We’ve included detailed preaching points for study and discussion towards the bottom of this post.
Some Background on John Chrysostom (A.D. 347–407)
John was born in Antioch to a wealthy family around 347 or 349 A.D; however, historians are not certain on exact dates. John’s father died when John was an infant, so he was raised by his Christian mother. John was well educated, and recognized early on as a powerful speaker in the art of rhetoric.
His teacher, the great rhetorician Libanius, said, “My successor should have been John had not the Christians stolen him from us.” John was most likely converted to Christianity at a young age, but by the age of 18 felt a calling to the ministry and was baptized in 368. From there, he went on to serve under Bishop Meletius as an aide. He became an ascetic and a “son of the covenant,” which meant that he lived like a monk but lived at home. He took vows, wore a habit, remained celibate, abstained from meat and wine, and devoted his life to prayer.
Diodore, an ascetic and biblical scholar who later became bishop of Tarsus, also mentored John. Leaders wanted to ordain John, but he felt totally unworthy, retreated, and became a full-fledged monk. It was during this time that John practically memorized the OT and the NT. He could quote large portions of both Testaments and knew them inside and out. Later, he grew ill from such rigorous asceticism and returned to Antioch. At this point, he was made a deacon (381) and, after a few years, became a priest around 386.
John began to preach and write quite a bit, with many took notice of his amazing gifts. He was called to serve as a priest in Constantinople and later became its archbishop. Because he offended many with his preaching and lifestyle (some bishops were offended that he dined alone, the emperor and others thought he was too strict, moral, ascetic, etc.), he was sent into exile and died in 407.
[bctt tweet=”John Chrysostom considered his role as a preacher to be an extension of the Holy Spirit’s work.” username=”anglican_pastor”]
- The classical ideal of oratory was that of “the good person speaking ” John Chrysostom (Chryso-stomos means ”golden-mouthed,” the name given to him after he died, probably about two centuries later) lived during a time when there was an extreme interest in rhetoric. Some of these great orators knew they spoke lies, but their job was to be persuasive and to have exciting arguments. John was trained by one of the most prominent rhetoricians, Libanius, but he never used those skills to manipulate, only to preach more effectively. The Church during this time, however, showed ambivalence towards classical rhetoric.
- As a speaker, John was without peer, considered to be the greatest preacher and biblical commentator of the Greek Church. At the time of the most highly developed and critically appreciated art form of oratory, he was considered the
- John was known to rebuke audiences when they applauded his sermons because he wanted God to have all the glory, and to let the people know that the Author and the Message were more important than the He taught his disciples to be indifferent to praise.
On his approach to Scripture
- Unlike many in the centuries preceding him, John rejected the Alexandrian school of allegorical interpretation. He studied the text with the historical, literal hermeneutic, as many did in the Antiochian school of interpretation. By a measurable standard, this hermeneutic had an infinitely better impact upon the Church than the allegorical strand. This hermeneutic was criticized heavily by the church, yet John was so adamant about it that he even converted Jerome to this kind of interpretation, prompting the latter to abandon allegorical preaching.
- To this day, people read John’s sermons and weep because he re-created the “world” of the text with such realism. He believed the Bible to be literally true and that the message from God was plainly in the text. There was no need to equate two coins from the Samaritan with the Old and New Testament. The message was clear from the context (love your neighbor).
- John’s sermons sounded like a commentary being read, and he was a careful exegete. He thought it was important to apply the text and to exhort others to obey. However, he engaged listeners closely, sometimes almost dialoguing with them. Sometimes they were so moved that applause erupted for long periods of time. In other words, part of his gift in preaching narrative was due to having his audience–the common people–involved in the story. He also excelled in preaching the Pauline letters because he would use Old Testament stories to illustrate Paul’s straightforward points.
On his role as a preacher
- Chrysostom considered his role as a preacher to be an extension of the Holy Spirit’s work, that of exhorting people to live their lives in ways consistent with their Christian calling. He gave great moral and spiritual examples.
- John taught that it was not enough to simply know what Christians believe, but that one must think rightly about God and the Bible, and thus make their faith their own. That is, their reflections must impact their core beliefs and convictions, and so make those the motivating force in their lives.
- He preached against Arianism and neo-Arianism (Antinomianism), thus defending the deity of Christ. He also preached against Christians who practiced Jewish ceremonial practices.
- John wrote commentaries on Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, John, and six other NT letters, and managed to preach through all of them as well (Romans, 1 Corinthians & 2 Corinthians are still completely preserved).
- He used many illustrations in his sermons, especially relying on images from athletics, military, and agriculture of his day.
- The power of John’s preaching came from his focus on Christ, even when his sermons would delve into other topics related to the Christian life. Still, one writer states, “By far the most frequent theological issue that John addressed was the person of Christ, the relationship of the Father to Son, the particularities of the incarnate life of the Son, and the relationship of the human and divine natures.” He was enamored with the deity of Christ, and His condescension to take on human flesh. In our day and age, where Christianity has been reduced to a form of “self-help,” John reminds preachers to focus on Christ more than personal growth or self- Christianity is Christ.
- He taught his disciples that the only way to become a better preacher is through more and more practice as well as by living a holy life and engaging in both study of the Word and prayer. This is an encouraging fact to know about such a gifted speaker, as it shows that he grew over the years and that preaching is a skill that can be learned.
His passion for preaching
- John was known for having an intense passion for holiness. Many believe that his care for a pure heart, integrity, and morality fueled his preaching with such passion.
- His high standards – for both preaching and moral living – got him in trouble because he privately and publicly rebuked immorality, even those of great political rulers and important officials.
- John rebuked wealth and said the rich should give to the poor.
- He also preached on many political issues, and thus saw how the Bible addressed all of Namely, he recognized that spirituality could not be compartmentalized.
- After a mob overturned statues of the royal family in protest of raised taxes, he preached a powerful sermon-series called “On the Statues.” There was bloodshed and rioting during this revolt as well. Order was eventually restored, with a number of executions as a result, but John’s teachings still impacted the city such that the emperor forewent exacting more revenge (a significant change, as attacking a statue of the emperor was treason during this period). He integrated faith and living, theology and practicality, the Word of God with the circumstances of life, much like a parent does when teaching the Bible to children. He guided the city in how to respond, and in how to make restoration. In guiding them through this crisis, John told the local people to be full of good works. John behaved like someone preaching about capital punishment, death, sin, salvation, repentance, and family during the Laci Peterson trial in Modesto, California.
Love with zeal
- While he was a powerful preacher who adhered to high standards, he was also known as being very loving. He used to call his congregation “love” throughout his sermons.
- He held a strong zeal alongside his love, however, and did not have tact or compromise in his He was offended by the laxity of the clerical morality and by the greed he often witnessed. It was enough that he even attacked empress Eudoxia for her immorality. Needless to say, he was bold, and was not afraid to talk about Christ as Judge, or to exhort people to focus on the next life more than this one.
- John offended many when he preached against chariot races or gladiatorial games as well as against those who skipped church to do so (a good topic for those who go to football games or golf instead of church). He preached feverishly against swearing and the need for purity in speech. John was notorious for bringing God’s Word to bear on common life issues.
- While some feel John jumped around too much, he said he did this in his preaching so that there was something in it for everyone. He preached on one verse in 1 Timothy but then used six OT scriptures for illustrations and went down rabbit trails. He also probably wanted to show them the unity of the Scripture, the proof of one Ultimate Author.
- John Chrysostom was later named the “patron saint of preachers,” and is considered one of the greatest church fathers, second only to Augustine.
- He was a prolific writer and speaker, taking up about 7 volumes in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series of books, which is more than all other writers during this period combined (except Augustine). He had written many sermons, homiletical commentaries, treatises, and letters.
- John once said, “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.” He was explaining his view of ministry, but also showing great humility.
[bctt tweet=”The key to John Chrysostom is his sound biblical expression, practical and contemporary application, combined with Christ-centered theology and preaching, and the preacher’s lifestyle of holiness.” username=”anglican_pastor”]
The key to John Chrysostom is his sound biblical expression, practical and contemporary application, combined with Christ-centered theology and preaching, and the preacher’s lifestyle of holiness.
“Preachers of the Past” is a four-part series written by The Rev. Canon David Roseberry and his study assistant.
Canon Roseberry is the President of LeaderWorks and, along with Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council hosts RSVP (Rectors’ Summit for Vision and Planning), a four-day intensive retreat for Rectors of Anglican Churches. Information about RSVP’s annual retreat in December can be found at RectorsSummit.com.
Stay tuned for future posts on:
- Martin Luther
- Phillips Brooks
- G. Campbell Morgan