The ‘golden-mouthed’ preacher

John Chrysostom (AD 349-407)


“John reminds us of the importance of the preaching and teaching ministries of the Church, and that pastors, elders and theologians must take this awesome and sacred duty of instructing God’s people seriously.”

THE ANTIOCH IN WHICH John was born was a city characterised by contradictions, at once stable and caught up by changes. Although Christianity was on the rise at the time, it was by no means the dominant religion. Christianity had to co-exist and even compete with the older pagan religions, the imperial cult and Judaism.

Even in cities where it was prominent and influential, Christianity was never homogenous and fringe practices were already developing. For instance, the belief and practice of venerating the relics of the saints and martyrs became quite popular among the Antiochian Christians. e bones and ashes of believers who have died for the faith were believed to possess special powers, and the places where they were found were considered sacred. In addition, scholars opined that despite its growing influence, Christianity did not bring about significant changes to society and the Hellenistic culture it embraced.

John’s mother, Anthusa, was a devout Christian. His father, who died at a relatively young age, was a successful civil servant in the bureau of the commander of military operations in the diocese of Oriens. As a woman of independent means, Anthusa was able to provide John with a good education.

Most notably, John came under the tutelage of the great pagan rhetorician Libanius to be trained as a professional orator. Given his family background and education, John appeared destined for the civil service. But soon after his graduation, John presented himself to Bishop Meletius for baptism, refused a secular career and became the bishop’s aide instead. After serving the bishop for three years, John left Antioch for an ascetic life in the mountains “to control the passions” under the guidance of a Syrian ascetic. He then withdrew to a cave for two years to study the Old and New Testaments, committing many passages to memory.

John then returned to serve as priest in the church in Antioch for 12 years before he was consecrated as Bishop of Constantinople, where he served for five years until his death in AD 407. John of Antioch was nicknamed “Chrysostom”, which means “golden-mouthed”, because of his eloquence as a preacher.

From his 900 extant sermons (the actual number is surely more), we can get a sense of the range of topics John addressed during his tenures in Antioch and Constantinople. They include the priesthood, the Christian’s response to the Games and the theatre, martyrdom, the return of Christ, and many more doctrinal and practical subjects. John typically preached according to the liturgical calendar, but apart from expository homilies, we also find in his oeuvre polemical and ethical discourses, elaborate homages to saints and martyrs, occasional homilies, and catecheses (both pre- and post-baptismal instructions). John’s rhetorical training is evident in the structure, content and delivery of his sermons. (It is unfortunate that we do not have information on how he prepared his sermons).

THERE IS MUCH THEOLOGY in John’s sermons. He taught, for instance, about the “four steps” that God has graciously made available so that sinners could return to him. e first is God’s revelation in the beauty of His creation that urges the sinner to consider the Creator. Recognising that the sinner is too weak to “climb the ladder” by this first step, God provides the second: Sacred Scripture. us, creation and Scripture complete one another. But in addition to these two “steps”, God further gives Himself to fallen men by taking upon Himself human flesh and by becoming their Emmanuel (“God-with-us”). And finally, God regenerates and sanctifies the sinner by His Holy Spirit. John was held in such high regard as the expositor of the Christian Faith that some have said that when he was seated upon the throne of Constantinople (the New Rome), he was seen as a second Paul, a Doctor (Teacher) of the universe!

But not all of John’s sermons were strictly doctrinal or theological. Many of them were profoundly practical. us, he warned his congregations of the dangers and trappings of wealth, pride and power and exhorted them to cultivate the virtue of humility. In his homily Against the Games and Theatres, he warned his parishioners (especially male parishioners) of the lure of secular entertainment provided by the palace-hippodrome complex situated not far from the Great Church. His homilies also dealt with issues like raising children (this before the days of suave parenting seminars!), warning parents in his congregations to take an interest in the spiritual nurture of their children because “it is precisely at this early age that inclinations to vice or virtue are manifest”.

John has much to teach the contemporary Church. He reminds us of the importance of the preaching and teaching ministries of the Church, and that pastors, elders and theologians must take this awesome and sacred duty of instructing God’s people seriously. In an age where the culture of entertainment is so pervasive, where the distinction between the “hippodrome” and the Church, so to speak, is sometimes blurred, John Chrysostom’s emphasis on the importance of the teaching office and ministry of the Church could not be more timely!

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.