Like many men throughout history, God shaped the life of John Chrysostom to accomplish special things for his Kingdom. It is important that we reflect back on the lives of these men of the faith so that we can learn from their mistakes and triumphs.
God shaped John into being perhaps one of the greatest preachers in church history. He was a good exegete of scripture. His preaching and teaching would leave its mark on the history of the church.
Chrysostom was born in Antioch of Syria. He was most likely born in the year A.D. 349, to his father Sekundos and his mother Anthousa. Sekundos died shortly after John’s birth, leaving his mother a widow. When Chrysostom was probably around seven years old he was put into one of the traditional Greco-Roman schools where there were three levels of education. The first was elementary school, then grammar school, then the school of rhetoric. This last school was the important one for the purposes of his later ministry because Chrysostom’s eloquent speaking ability is what would later give him the name "Golden Mouth". In the school of rhetoric Libanios taught Chrysostom the art of rhetoric. Chrysostom, like all boys, started when he was fourteen or fifteen years old. He would have been trained in public speaking and the arts of composition. Chrysostom excelled over all of his classmates. In fact he was so good that after he left the school, Libanios, speaking in regards to who would succeed him in his chair in the school, said, “It ought to have been John had not the Christians stolen him from us.”
At the age of 18, around the year A.D. 367, Chrysostom graduated from the school of Rhetoric, after which the Nicene Bishop Meletius baptized him. With Chrysostom’s first class education, he was going to become one of the clerks of the sacra scrinai, which was a very sought after position, which was above the one his father held at one time. This, however, never happened because his good friend Basil talked him into leading a life of ascetism and learning Christianity, what they referred to as the “true philosophy.” Chrysostom showed some hesitancy and moments of indecision which hurt his friendship with Basil. Eventually Chrysostom changed his mind and began attending a school run by a Christian ascetic named Diodore where Basil also was attending.
This school was not exactly what Basil wanted; he wanted to go away and live where there were no people. This was a popular practice at the time but Chrysostom’s mom talked him out of going so they had to settle for the school of Diodore.
Chrysostom was also made an assistant to Meletius for three years. During this time, he was also still a frequent attendant of the school of Diodore. After this period of three years Chysostom was made lector, but John became unsatisfied with this and went into a life of Monsasticism. After this, Chrysostom went to the Silipios Mountains in Syria for four years and studied under an unnamed ascetic. Afther this period of time he went off by himself for two years. During this time he performed many of the rigors of self-denial such as not eating very much, denying himself sleep for days at a time, and standing continuously. It was during this time that Chrysostom would memorize the Old and New Testaments, which would later contribute to his preaching.
It appears that he came down from his hermitage because of ill health which came from the harshness which the ascetic would inflict upon their own bodies. The main reason he came down was probably because he felt that service to the people of God was more important than Monasticism. To worry about self-denial more than the flock of the Christian church was to John an act of self-centeredness. So he joined a local congregation headed by Meletius.
Chrysostom was ordained as a deacon by Meletius in 381. As a deacon, he had a very impressive literary output that prepared him for expositing the text. He wrote many homilies on Biblical books and became a very good exegete for his time period. John’s ordination for the priesthood should probably be placed early in 386 around the time of the opening of Lent, February 15. Although he was quite able exegetically in his preaching, it was his speaking ability that made him famous. He was known for the way he could talk to his congregation and captivate his audience with the utmost seriousness. It was his preaching that brought him distinction as “Golden Mouth.”
The school of biblical interpretation that Chrysostom belonged to was the what has become known as the school of Antioch. This school can be distinguished from what is known as the Alexandrian school of biblical interpretation with its allegorical method of exegesis which always looked beyond the literal meaning to a higher spiritual meaning. The school at Antioch, however, put the literal meaning first. Chrysostom did not totally ignore the allegorical sense of scripture, but he used it only when the text would indicate that it was to be taken in that sense. Chrysostom followed this method as is shown in his homilies on Matthew, John, Acts, and all the Pauline letters. While his homilies tended to be drawn out, he never strayed from his school of interpretation.
Chrysostom’s life would end tragically. After he became a deacon he was forced to become a bishop against his will in 397. His attempts at moral reform and critique of the upper echelons of the empire and the church made him a enemy of many. Empress Eudoxia was the one that took his attacks the most seriously. Along with some churchmen, Eudoxia had him exiled at the “synod of the Oak” in 403. Chrysostom was called back the next day because of the angry mob that showed support for him. He would later be exiled again in 404. This exile was the end of his life, for he died in 407.
Chrysostom should be recognized as one of the greatest preachers in Church History. His expository and exegesis of scripture was excellent. He should be a model to all emerging preachers on how to interpret and apply the Greek bible to our everyday lives.
He had courage that many Christians in our world are lacking -- if only God could give us another John Chrysostom!
J.N.D. Kelley, Golden Mouth: The story of John Chrysostom -Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995, 4.
Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen, John Chrysostom, vol.5 of Routledge The Early Church Fathers, ed. Carol Harrison ( London and New York: Rougledge publishers, 2000), 5
Stephen Neil, Chrysostom and His Message: A Selection from the Sermons of St. John Chrysostom of Antioch and Costantinople (New York: Association Press, 1962), 10-11
Chrysostomus Baur, O.S.B., Antioch, Vol.1 of John Chrysostom and his Time(London: Sands & Com LTD, 1959), 104-113
Chrysostomus Baur, transcribed. by Mike Humphrey. St. John Chrysostom. New Advent[on-line],accessed 25 Sept. 2003, <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08452b.htm>; Internet. Also Kelly, Golden Mouth, 38.
Baur, Antioch, 206
F.F. Bruce, “The History of New Testament Study,” in New Testament Interpretation, ed. I. Howard Marshall (UK: Paternoster Press,1977), 26-27
Justo L. Gonzalez, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Vol.1 of The Story of Christianity (New York: HarperSanFransisco, 1987), 199-200