One of the early church leaders, later claimed to be one of the later church fathers, was John Chrysostom. Like others who, in the passage of time, have been claimed as “father” of the church, but whose lives and teachings were a rebuke to the church of their time, Chrysostom, even in his day, recognized the importance of understanding the true nature of the church.
Born in A.D. 350, Chrysostom is best known for his Christian preaching. An eloquent teacher, he became the bishop of the church at Constantinople in 398. Later, expelled from his bishopric and relegated into misery, suffering much ignominy, he was eventually banished. Though later released, he died not long after, in 408, as a result of the hardship and trials that he had been forced to endue. By imperial edict, those Christians who followed his teachings were greatly persecuted. At that time, the state sponsored church required of all that they attend their services. Those who chose to follow the principles taught by John refused to do so. Instead of listening to their enemies, they would gather in a secluded meeting place on the farthest outskirts of the city. They were constantly watched, however; and when their place of meeting was discovered, a report was quickly taken to the authorities. A squad of soldiers would be promptly sent to the place; and with sticks and stones, they would disperse the meeting, robbing those who had assembled of their goods and apprehending such as could not make their escape. Finding it impossible to hold public meetings of any kind, they chose voluntary banishment.
Theologians believe that they know a great deal about Chrysostom, as some of his teachings and exhortations have been preserved and passed down to us. From them we learn that he not only understood the coming of the spirit of antichrist within the professed church, but the nature of the true church of Christ.
We know that he taught against cruelty, tyranny, war, and bloodshed, maintaining that it is altogether improper for Christians to wage war and that peace and quiet are to be taught in the kingdom of Christ. “Christ,” he says, “compels not, drives not away, oppresses not, but accords to each his free will, saying: ‘If any man will.’”
Expounding on Matthew 13, he explained that the tares (to which the heretics were compared) are not to be rooted out; for, speaking of them, he said, “Christ spoke for the purpose of preventing and forbidding war and bloodshed; no violence is to be employed in heavenly things. The wicked teachings which have proceeded from heretics are to be reprehended and anathematized, but the man we must spare.”
He also opposed worshipping saints, saying, “God is not like the tyrants with whom intercession is necessary.: Concerning Matthew 23, he taught, “With human doctrines we serve God in vain, that there is no other testimony of the truth, no other certain test of heresy than the Holy Scriptures, and no other way by which we may know which is the Christian Church.”
Chrysostom believed that, “When the Roman Empire shall be put down, then shall antichrist come.” Speaking on Matthew 224, he said, “He speaks not unreasonably, who by the abomination of desolation understands antichrist, who it is thought will shortly afterward rise and occupy the holy place of the church, under the name of Christ.” With regard to II Thessalonians 2, he said, “When the Empire shall be waste and vacant, then antichrist shall occupy it and endeavor to draw to him the kingdom of God and men.” Further, on Matthew 24, he said; “Beloved, be not moved when antichrist does the works of Christ and in the sight of Christians performs all the offices of Christ; for Satan himself can transform himself into an angel of light. What wonder then, that his servants assume the garb of servants of righteousness and a semblance of Christianity.”
Chrysostom also taught, “The Jewish abomination is to be understood as having reference not only to the Jewish war, but in a spiritual sense, also to antichrist, who in the last times shall sit in the holy place occupying the chief places of the church and leading the souls of men away from God. This is very likely the one of whom Paul says; ‘He shall oppose and exalt himself above all that is called God or that is worshipped so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God showing himself that he is God.’ He, standing in the Holy Place, has laid waste the church of God with multitudes of heresies.”
Chrysostom also understood the importance of understanding the true nature of the church, and that a failure to do so could prove disastrous in the experience of the believer. “Since the Lord Jesus knew what great destruction would come in the last days. He commanded that the Christians who are in Christendom, if they would always continue in the true faith, should resort only to the Holy Scriptures; for if they would look to other things, they would be offended and corrupted and not understand what the true church is; and, in that way, fall into that horrible abomination which sitteth in the holy place of the church.”
Like others of the early Christian teachers who lived during the time of the development of the great apostasy in Christianity, Chrysostom did not understand all things. There are some points on which he was mistaken, but it is amazing how many points of prophecy in Christianity about which he had a clear understanding.
Another early church leader, who, like Chrysostom, understood the prophecies to point to the rise of the antichrist within the professed church of Christ, was Jerome. Of the antichrist, Jerome said, “And do we not know that the coming of antichrist is nigh at hand? He shall sit in the temple of God, that is to say, in Jerusalem, or in the church, as I apprehended with more truth. Antichrist shall war against the heathen and overcome them.” Jerome understood the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom and taught that it was not the place of the church to compel the conscience. He said that he who is spiritual never persecutes him who is carnal. “I have learned,” said he, “from the command of the apostles to avoid a heretic, but not to burn him. Christ came not to smite, but to be smitten. He who is smitten follows Christ; but he who smites, follows antichrist.”
Concerning the Lord’s Supper, he said that “with this bread, Christ intended to prefigure, represent, and show the truth of His body.” In many places, he calls the cup a figure of the blood.
Regarding Matthew 16, he taught that the priests have no more power or just as little power to bind or to loose as the priests of the Old Testament had to pronounce lepers clean or unclean. The words of the priests made them neither clean nor unclean, but simply indicated who, according to the law of Moses, was leprous and who was not. He believed that, in like manner, according to the law of Christ, it only devolved upon the priest to pronounce whose sins are retained and whose are forgiven.
Concerning the nature of the church, he taught that the Roman Church was not to be esteemed more highly than the church of the whole world, regardless of where it might be found, but that each was to worship one Christ and have One Ruler or Teacher of the truth. This he understood to constitute the true church of God on earth.