The Sermons of the Golden Mouth

Preaching Lessons from John Chrysostom

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Pastor, Burnsville, Minnesota

Spirit-filled preachers revel in the wonder of a mere mortal speaking for God. Of course, neither the privilege nor the sufficiency to do so rests with the preacher. And yet, the wonder and the terror of proclaiming God’s life-giving word, in the power of the Spirit, to souls redeemed by Christ fuels the preacher’s desire to hone his craft.

Today’s preachers have two thousand years of theoretical know-how and fine-tuned practical wisdom concerning the art of preaching. How well we steward this vast wealth is debatable, but preaching theory has certainly advanced to levels of sophistication unknown in earlier centuries. Further, technological innovations enable us not merely to read a renowned preacher’s sermons but to hear his recorded voice deliver them.

So, with all these resources at our fingertips, why bother with the preaching ministries of ancient pastors like John Chrysostom (347–407)? After all, John’s homilies exist only in written form. They lack many of the structural features today’s homileticians deem important. They were addressed to an audience with whom we share little in common. They were framed for a cultural milieu unlike our own. So, why consider John’s preaching?

First, for these very reasons. Despite the historical and cultural chasm that separates our day from his, patristic scholars still specialize in studying John’s ministry. Sixteen hundred years removed, his 640 extant sermons still yield gold to those who mine them.

Second, God used John’s preaching to awaken love for the Scriptures and to change lives. John preached the same word we preach. He was filled and used by the same Holy Spirit that empowers biblical preachers today. This word-centered, Spirit-enabled dynamic ties us to John as much as to any scheme or school of wisdom on sermon-craft we encounter today.

Monk Turned Preacher

John ministered in the eastern theater of imperial Rome during the post-Nicene era of church history. Christianity was legalized in 313, and the first ecumenical council set forth an orthodox Christology at Nicaea in 325. This means John ministered in the heady days of the church’s fresh liberation from persecution and exponential growth. Across the empire, pagan temples were converted to church buildings that teemed with professing Christians — many of them, however, still tethered to their pagan proclivities.

John was born into a moderately wealthy home in the cosmopolitan city of Antioch. Here he received a superb education, but he abandoned a promising legal career to become a monk, much to the dismay of his renowned tutor, Libanius (313–393).

For six years, John lived in the hills above Antioch, mostly among other hermits, but also with several lengthy stints of total isolation. This period of intense spiritual formation aided John’s quest against sexual temptation. It also ruined his health.

John returned to Antioch, where he ministered under the tutelage of Archbishop Flavian and Bishop Diodore. These men equipped John to defend Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism, and to embrace the Antiochean school of biblical interpretation vis-à-vis the Alexandrian school’s more allegorical methodology.1

John ministered faithfully in Antioch for two decades. By age fifty, he was a wildly popular preacher and author, seemingly positioned to complete a long, distinguished career in the city of his birth.

Unlikely Reformer

When the bishop of Constantinople died, however, eastern emperor Arcadius devised a ruse to all but kidnap John and make him the next bishop of that second-most important see in Christendom. Arcadius and his influential wife, Eudoxia, valued John’s orthodox Christology and gifted preaching, warmly receiving John as their spiritual advisor. It appeared a match made in heaven.

As bishop of Constantinople, John oversaw one hundred thousand parishioners and hundreds of church officials. He was tasked with adjudicating church matters locally, as well as cases brought to him from realms beyond his see.

Primarily by means of his sermons, John endeared himself to his parishioners. Such loyalty, however, was not forthcoming from the ecclesiastical or imperial power brokers in Constantinople. Palladius, a sympathetic historian, summarizes John’s agenda as “sweeping the stairs from the top.”2 In other words, the erstwhile hermit, the man committed to sexual purity, the austere, Bible-loving, zealous champion for Christ had landed in decadent Constantinople intent on cleaning house. The city teemed with church officials who did not share John’s passion for holiness. He arrived like an Amish farmer entering a nightclub.

Perhaps no believer has ever occupied a more powerful position in both church and government. But John’s efforts to overturn the status quo alienated him from the luminaries of man’s kingdom. Through a series of dramatic plot twists, enemies prevailed over John’s reformational efforts and political obtuseness. He died in 407 during a second torturous exile, orchestrated by the same emperor and empress who had brought him to the city. His last words were “Glory be to God in everything.”3

Lessons from the Golden Mouth

The moniker “Chrysostom” (Greek for “Golden-Mouthed”) was ascribed to John two centuries after his death. Despite his reform efforts and capacities as an overseer, theologian, and imperial delegate, he is remembered most for his preaching.

By today’s standards, John’s homilies evidence little structure — no obvious central theme, proposition, or outlining, for example. They are largely running commentaries of passages with fewer than fifteen verses. Yet they remain a source of timeless instruction for today’s preachers. Among the wealth of worthy lessons, consider the following five.

1. Know why you preach.

John’s preaching targeted the glory of God and the edification of the saints.4 He saw preaching as a labor to fuel holiness by transforming heart affections through biblical doxology. He preached to shepherd his hearers one step closer to truth, to godliness, to Christ. John confessed that he struggled with pride in the pulpit. Yet his congregation knew that his preaching was all about God and the good of God’s people, not about himself.

2. Capture the author’s meaning.

John Calvin considered John “the greatest exegete of either the Greek or the Latin Church” and consciously emulated his practice of lectio continua. On occasion, John delivered a topical sermon, such as on a saint’s feast day or during a political crisis. But his mainstay was “continuous exposition of complete books of the Bible.”5

A medieval tradition posited that while preaching through Paul’s epistles, John received a vision in which the apostle explicated his writings to the bishop.6 We may infer from the myth that John never used Paul’s words as a springboard to say what he wished, nor did he pretend to supply some advance on Paul’s meaning. John so channeled Paul that it seemed the apostle whispered in his ear as he preached.

John’s fidelity to the biblical text is evidenced in his practice of pointing the church’s attention to a single word or phrase in order to emphasize or preserve its meaning. This habit can become tedious if overused. But strategically applied, it teaches a church how to read the Bible and to respect the divine origin of every word.

3. Explain complexities as succinctly as possible.

John’s sermons provide repeated examples of stating a debated point and then succinctly explaining his position. Quite willing to acknowledge and interact with conflicting interpretations, John was averse to losing his audience in detailed minutiae.7 He knew that lengthy, detailed theological argumentation in sermons typically creates as much confusion as clarity.

4. Use vivid illustrations and analogies.

These sermons pulsate with riveting imagery and illustrative material. These elements never overwhelm the biblical content; they only color and enliven it. For instance, during a season of political pressure on his church at Constantinople, John rallied the assembly with vivid metaphors:

On every side wolves surround you, but your flock is not destroyed. A surging sea, storms, and waves have constantly encircled this sacred ship, but those who sail on it are not engulfed by the waters. The fires of heresy threaten with their encircling flames on every side, but those who are in the midst of the furnace enjoy the blessing of a heavenly dew.8

He habitually employed such riveting language to help his congregation see and feel the point at hand.

5. Develop provocative, concrete applications.

John did not dabble in generalities or broker in indirect speech. He spoke directly to his hearers in a conversational tone, always willing to improvise as he persuaded them to honor God.9 Even in written form, one easily imagines the striking effect of his exhortations. In one moment of pointed application, for example, John contends against sexual impurity with bold specificity:

If you see a shameless woman in the theater . . . flaunting her soft sensuality, singing immoral songs, throwing her limbs about in the dance, and making shameless speeches . . . do you still dare to say that nothing human happens to you then? Long after the theater is closed . . . those images still float before your soul, their words, their conduct, their glances, their walk, their positions, their excitation, their unchaste limbs — and as for you, you go home . . . but not alone — the whore goes with you . . . in your heart, and in your conscience, and there within you she kindles the Babylonian furnace . . . in which the peace of your home, the purity of your heart, the happiness of your marriage will be burnt up.10

No theatergoing man left church that day wondering what the sermon had to do with him!

Treasure Trove for Preachers

While few preachers today will find opportunity to read all of John’s sermons, they stand as a treasure trove of instruction for anyone willing to wade into them. Taken together, they display painstaking efforts to achieve a deep understanding of the texts he preached, a loving zeal for the holiness of his flock, and a singular devotion to Christ that fueled great courage.

We aspire not to be remembered as the “Golden-Mouthed.” Yet as we consider one who was so recognized, may we also rejoice to hone the craft of proclaiming God’s word in the power of the Spirit, for the joy of his people.

  1. J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom — Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 95; Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 91, 94. 

  2. Palladius, Dialogue on the Life of St. John Chrysostom, v. 

  3. This biography was culled from several church-history volumes but leans most heavily on Kelly, Golden Mouth

  4. Geoffrey Wainwright, “Preaching as Worship,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 326. Wainwright draws this assertion directly from John’s most widely read treatise, On the Priesthood

  5. Geoffrey Wainwright, “The Sermon and the Liturgy,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 28, no. 4 (Winter 1983): 337. 

  6. James Davie Butler, “Life of John Chrysostom,” Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review 1, no. 4 (January 1844): 686. 

  7. See, e.g., his treatment of “firstborn” in his homily on Colossians 1:15–18. John Chrysostom, “Colossians 1:15–18,” section 1, accessed November 23, 2023, 

  8. Saint John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, trans. Paul W. Harkins, The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 72 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 271. 

  9. Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: From Constantine the Great to Gregory the Great, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 936, 939. 

  10. Robert A. Krupp, “Golden Tongue and Iron Will” Christian History 44, no. 13 (1994): 10. 

(DMin, TEDS) has served as lead pastor of Eden Baptist Church in Burnsville, Minnesota, since 1989. He grew up in the Philadelphia area before returning as a young man to the state of his birth. Dan is happily married to Beth, and God has blessed their union with four adult children and a growing gaggle of grandchildren.