The Contribution of John Chrysostom

By Trevin Wax

How much do you know about the greatest preacher of all the early church fathers? Trevin Wax expounds on why the Archbishop of Constantinople's ministry has been more impactful to you than you may realize.

Same Scripture, Different Approach

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” That’s one of my favorite quotes about history. It comes from a 1953 L.P. Hartley novel.

When you read the sermons of pastors and church leaders from the 300s and 400s, sometimes you feel like you’re in a foreign country. Of course, there are plenty of familiar sites and similarities with today. After all, they’re usually expounding on the same Scriptural texts we are. But often they notice things that we overlook. Or they take strange detours and make different choices.

The Golden-Mouth Legacy

John Chrysostom (sometimes pronounced ChrysOstom or ChrYsostom) lived from 349 to 407 A.D. He became the bishop of Constantinople in 398. He didn’t really start to preach regularly until later in life, when he was nearly 40 years old. He’s still considered the greatest preacher out of all the early church fathers. That’s where “chrysostom” comes from. It means “John the Golden-Mouthed.”

John made several contributions to Christian preaching that still bring spiritual benefit today. First, he was expositional. He focused more on the literal interpretation of the text than the allegorical interpretations. Additionally, he preached through books of the Bible, at a time when this wasn’t the most common approach. He loved all the books of the Bible, but he said he loved the Apostle Paul most of all; “the trumpet of heaven,” he called him. This focus on the literal sense of Scripture is one of the reasons the Reformers loved John Chrysostom. If you’re an expository preacher, your roots go back to John Chrysostom whether you realize it or not. He’s an ancient model of this way of preaching.

Scripture as Focal Point

Secondly, John made Scripture the focal point of his ministry. Here’s something he told his congregation: “I also always entreat you, and do not cease entreating you, not only to pay attention here to what I say, but also when you are at home, to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures.” He knew he was just a speaker, someone tasked with delivering God’s Word, and he expected his people to study the Word on their own, to not let his own oratorical skills as preacher detract from giving attention to the text itself. He may have gotten the nickname “Golden Mouth,” but he’d say the gold was in the Scriptures themselves.

Third, John could be strident and confrontational in his preaching. He didn’t shy away from controversy, and his preaching made enemies. He was prophetic, even when it cost him something. He preached against abortion, gluttony, abuses of wealth and power, swearing, and the fact people got more excited about horse racing than hearing from God. (I wonder what he’d say about American enthusiasm for football!)

Imperfect, yet Impactful

Looking back at his work, we can see areas in which he could be significantly off in his biblical interpretation, particularly in some of the demeaning things he said about women or the Jews. His example reminds us that just because he was able to see some sins very clearly, he remained blind to other sinful tendencies that were common in his day.

But lastly, John put into practice what he preached. He didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk. Those in poverty loved to hear him speak. He was involved with the early movement of building and spreading hospitals. He was later given the title of “Doctor of the Church” because of the profound and still valuable teaching found in more than 600 sermons and 200 letters that survive to the present day.

Learn from the Legacy

I love reading John the Golden-Mouth’s sermons. Consider this excerpt about the coming of Christ:

What then could ever be equal to these good tidings?

God on earth, man in Heaven;

and all became mingled together,

angels joined the choirs of men,

men had fellowship with the angels, and with the other powers above:

and one might see the long war brought to an end,

and reconciliation made between God and our nature,

the devil brought to shame, demons in flight,

death destroyed, Paradise opened,

the curse blotted out, sin put out of the way,

error driven off, truth returning,

the word of godliness everywhere sown, and flourishing in its growth,

the polity of those above planted on the earth,

those powers in secure intercourse with us,

and on earth angels continually haunting,

and hope abundant touching things to come.

Do yourself a favor and familiarize yourself with this ancient preacher. You’ll receive spiritual benefit from reading his sermons and hearing his story. Let his wisdom influence your preaching today.

Adapted from a session of the Preaching Masterclass. Take this free course here

Published September 25, 2023

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Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is Vice President of Resources and Marketing at the North American Mission Board and a visiting professor at Cedarville University. A former missionary to Romania, Trevin is a regular columnist at The Gospel Coalition and has contributed to The Washington Post, Religion News Service, World, and Christianity Today. He has taught courses on mission and ministry at Wheaton College and has lectured on Christianity and culture at Oxford University. He is a founding editor of The Gospel Project, has served as publisher for the Christian Standard Bible, and is the author of multiple books, including The Thrill of Orthodoxy, The Multi-Directional Leader, Rethink Your Self, This Is Our Time, and Gospel Centered Teaching. His podcast is Reconstructing Faith. He and his wife, Corina, have three children.