John Chrysostom, the Golden-Tongued Preacher

The Greatest Preacher of the Early Church

Saint John Chrysostom from Mosaic
Saint John Chrysostom from Mosaic of San Paolo Fuori le Mura by Edward Burne-Jones.

Araldo De Luca / Getty Images

John Chrysostom was one of the most articulate and influential preachers of the early Christian church. A native of Antioch, Chrysostom was elected Patriarch of Constantinople in AD 398, although he was named to the post against his wishes. His eloquent and uncompromising preaching was so extraordinary that 150 years after his death, he was given the surname Chrysostom, meaning “the golden mouth” or “the golden tongue.”

Fast Facts: John Chrysostom

  • Also Known As: John of Antioch
  • Known For: Golden-tongued, fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, most famous for his numerous and eloquent sermons and letters
  • Parents: Secundus and Anthusa of Antioch
  • Born: AD 347 in Antioch, Syria
  • Died: September 14, 407, in Comana, Northeastern Turkey
  • Notable Quote: “Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue, too, disappears.”

Early Life

John of Antioch (the name he was known by among his contemporaries) was born around AD 347 in Antioch, the city where believers in Jesus Christ first were called Christians (Acts 11:26). His father, Secundus, was a distinguished military officer in the imperial army of Syria. He died when John was an infant. John’s mother, Anthusa, was a devout Christian woman and only 20 years old when she became a widow.

In Antioch, the capital of Syria and one of the foremost educational centers of the day, Chrysostom studied rhetoric, literature, and law under the pagan teacher Libanius. For a brief period after completing his studies, Chrysostom practiced law, but he soon began to feel called to serve God. He was baptized into the Christian faith at 23 and underwent a radical renunciation of the world and dedication to Christ.

John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, today Istanbul (Turkey). adoc-photos / Getty Images 

Chrysostom the Monk

Initially, Chrysostom pursued monastic life. During his time as a monk (AD 374-380), he spent two years living in a cave, standing continually, scarcely sleeping, and memorizing the entire Bible. As a result of this extreme self-mortification, his health was severely undermined, and he had to abandon the life of asceticism.

After returning from the monastery, Chrysostom became active in the church of Antioch, serving under Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, and Diodorus, the leader of a catechetical school in the city. In AD 381, Chrysostom was ordained a deacon by Meletius, and then, five years later, he was ordained a priest by Flavian. Immediately, his eloquent preaching and earnest character gained him the admiration and respect of the whole church in Antioch.

Chrysostom’s clear, practical, and powerful sermons attracted huge crowds and made a significant impact on the religious and political communities in Antioch. His enthusiasm and clarity of communication appealed to ordinary people, who often pushed their way to the front of the church to hear him better. But his confrontational teaching frequently got him into trouble with the ecclesiastical and political leaders of his day.

A recurring theme of Chrysostom's sermons was the Christian essential to care for the needy. “It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing,” he pressed in one sermon, “and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with the cold so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.”

Patriarch of Constantinople

On February 26, 398, against his own objections, Chrysostom became Archbishop of Constantinople. By the command of Eutropius, a government official, he was taken by military force to Constantinople and consecrated as archbishop. Eutropius believed the church of the capital city deserved to have the finest of all orators. Chrysostom had not sought the patriarchal position, but he accepted it as God’s divine will.

Chrysostom, now minister of one of the largest churches in Christendom, became increasingly famous as a preacher while simultaneously controversial for his disapproving criticism of the wealthy and their ongoing exploitation of the poor. His words stung the ears of the rich and powerful as he denounced their wicked abuses of authority. Piercing even more than his words was his lifestyle, which he continued to live in austerity, using his substantial household allowance to minister to the poor and build hospitals.

Soon Chrysostom fell out of favor with the court at Constantinople, particularly the Empress Eudoxia, who was personally offended by his moral reprimands. She wanted Chrysostom silenced and decided to have him banished. Only six years after his appointment to Archbishop, on June 20, 404, John Chrysostom was escorted away from Constantinople, never to return. The remainder of his days were lived in exile.

Saint John Chrysostom confronting the Empress Eudoxia by Jean Paul Laurens
Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, confronting the Empress Eudoxia. It shows the patriarch blaming the Empress of the West, Eudoxia (Aelia Eudoxia), for her life of luxury and splendor. Painting by Jean Paul Laurens, 1893. Augustins Museum, Toulouse, France.  

Golden Tongue’s Legacy

John Chrysostom’s most significant contribution to Christian history was to hand down more words than any other Greek-speaking early church father. He did this through his numerous biblical commentaries, homilies, letters, and sermons. More than 800 of them are still available today.

Chrysostom was by far the most articulate and influential Christian preacher of his era. With an extraordinary gift for explanation and personal application, his works include some of the finest expositions on the books of the Bible, especially Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Acts, and the epistles of Paul. His exegetical works on the Book of Acts are the only surviving commentary on the book from the first thousand years of Christianity.

Besides his sermons, other lasting works include an early discourse, Against Those Who Oppose the Monastic Life, written for parents whose sons were considering a monastic vocation. He also wrote Instructions to Catechumens, On the Incomprehensibility of the Divine Nature, and On the Priesthood, in which he dedicated two chapters to the art of preaching.

John of Antioch was given the posthumous title of “Chrysostom,” or “golden tongue,” 15 decades after his death. To the Roman Catholic Church, John Chrysostom is considered a “Doctor of the Church.” In 1908, Pope Pius X designated him the patron saint of Christian orators, preachers, and speakers. The Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches also esteem him as a saint.

In Prolegomena: The Life and Work of St. John Chrysostom, historian Philip Schaff describes Chrysostom as “one of those rare men who combine greatness and goodness, genius and piety, and continue to exercise by their writings and example a happy influence upon the Christian church. He was a man for his time and for all times. But we must look at the spirit rather than the form of his piety, which bore the stamp of his age.”

Death in Exile

Saint John Chrysostom remains
ISTANBUL, TURKEY: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (L) sits near the relics during the ceremony in St. George church at Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, 27 November 2004. The relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom, stolen during the fourth crusade in the 13th century, had been returned to the Eucumenial Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Batholomew I by the Pope John Paul II during a mass in Rome earlier in the day. MUSTAFA OZER / Getty Images 

John Chrysostom spent three brutal years in exile under armed guard in the remote town of Cucusus, in the mountains of Armenia. Even as his health rapidly failed, he remained steadfast in his devotion to Christ, writing letters of encouragement to friends and receiving visits from loyal followers. While being transferred to a remote village on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, Chrysostom collapsed and was taken to a small chapel near Comana, in northeastern Turkey, where he died.

Thirty-one years after his death, John’s remains were transported back to Constantinople and buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. During the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, Chrysostom’s relics were looted by Catholic marauders and taken to Rome, where they were placed in the medieval Church of St. Peter's at the Vatican. After 800 years, his remains were transferred to the new Basilica of St. Peter’s where they stayed for another 400 years.

In November of 2004, amid continuing efforts toward reconciliation between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, Pope John Paul II returned Chrysostom’s bones to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity. The ceremony began at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City on Saturday, November 27, 2004, and continued later in the day as Chrysostom remains were reinstated in a solemn ceremony at the Church of St. George in Istanbul, Turkey.

Sources

  • “Golden Tongue and Iron Will.” Christian History Magazine-Issue 44: John Chrysostom: Legendary Early Church Preacher.
  • “Preaching in Historical Perspective.” Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (p. 24).
  • “Anthusa.” The Gallery—Other Women of the Early Church. Christian History Magazine-Issue 17: Women in the Early Church.
  • “John Chrysostom.” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (p. 83).
  • “The Genius of Chrysostom’s Preaching.” Christian History Magazine-Issue 44: John Chrysostom: Legendary Early Church Preacher.
  • “John Chrysostom.” The Westminster Dictionary of Theologians (First edition, p. 193).
  • Saint Chrysostom: On the Priesthood, Ascetic Treatises, Select Homilies and Letters, Homilies on the Statues (Vol. 9, p. 16).