John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 6: On the office of elder and the commercialization of Christmas

The sixth sermon in this series has no explicit treatment on God’s incomprehensibility, yet it is instructive in other ways. The sermon is a panegyric[1] delivered on the feast day of Philogonius.

In the sermon we see something of Chrysostom’s concept of the communion of the saints. The preacher is careful to emphasize that the remembrance of the departed saint does nothing to add to his glory in heaven. Instead, it is the living who draw encouragement and are even bettered by contemplating the lives of those departed saints (2,3).[2] Those saints who have gone onto heaven in no way need our prayers for they have entered perfect rest.

For today marks the anniversary of his entrance into a life of peace and calm in heaven. There, in heaven, he has moored his ship in a harbor in which there can be no suspicion of future shipwreck, fear, or pain. (3)

Chrysostom offers a meditation on Hebrews 12:22-23[3] and the themes of the church on earth and in heaven and on the celebration of feasts on earth and in heaven (5-10). The pinnacle of the differences is described by Chrysostom in paragraph 9:

Truly this is a marvelous festal gathering, What makes it greater than all others is the fact that, in the midst of the assembly, moves the king of all who are gathered there. After Paul[4] had said: “To countless angels in festal gatherings,” he went on to say: “And to God the judge of all.” And who ever saw a king coming to a festival? Here on earth no one has ever seen it. But those who are in heaven constantly behold their king, They can see him in their midst and they can also see how he sheds on all who are gathered there the brightness of his own glory.

The preacher does not mention it, but this actually relates to his earlier sermons in this series. The very first sermon was on the subject of man’s imperfect knowledge of God. Though barely mentioned, Chrysostom’s assumption throughout that sermon was that man’s knowledge would one day be “perfect.” In sermons three and four Chrysostom repeatedly asserted that the angles failure to “see” God meant they could not know God. So we begin to see that the beatific vision is reserved for those who have entered eternal rest. What is the true extent of that knowledge of God? Is it comprehensive? Chrysostom does not address these questions.

In remembering Philogonius Chrysostom has some very pastoral counsel for those who would seek greatness in the service of Christ:

Listen to the words Christ spoke to Peter after the resurrection. Christ asked him: “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter replied: “Lord, you know that I love you.” What did Christ then say? He did not say: Throw away your money. Fast from food. Live the hard life. Raise the dead, Drive out demons.” Christ did not bring forward or command any of these things or any other miracle or act of virtue. He passed all these by and said: “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Why did Christ say this? Because he wished to show us not only what is the strongest sign of love for him but also to point out the love which he himself shows for his sheep. So now he makes this the strongest proof which Peter can give of his love for him. For Christ’s words practically mean: “He who loves my sheep loves me.” (16)

Chrysostom continues blessing the office of the elder and Philogonius’ service in it (14-22), but of more interest to the modern hearer is what the preacher turns his attention to in the second half of his address (23-41). The feast day of Philogonius falls on December 20 which is, of course, just days before the celebration of Christmas. It is this celebration that Chrysostom devotes the rest of his sermon to.

I sometimes sympathize with those who question the celebration of Christmas. After all, no such observance is enjoined by Scripture and December 25 was almost certainly not the day Jesus was born. Yet in a very practical sense, Chrysostom is right to call it “the mother of all holy days” (23). Obviously,

Had Christ not been born in the flesh, he would not have been baptized, which is the Theophany or Manifestation; nor would he have been crucified, which is the Pasch; nor would he have sent down the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So it is that, just as different rivers arise from a source, these other feasts have their beginning from the birth of Christ. (24)

Chrysostom seems to look down into our own say when he seems to speak of the commercialization of Christmas. (Or perhaps, we should see that our day was not so different from his.) The preacher pinpoints why some care so little for the day:

Away with the business of the law courts! Away with the business of the City Council! Away with daily affairs together with their contracts and business deals! I wish to save my soul. “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his soul?” The magi went forth from Persia. You go forth from the affairs of daily life. Make your journey to Jesus; it is not far to travel if we are willing to make the trip. (34)

Indeed, the soul that contemplates the mystery of the Incarnation of the Messiah cannot help but to celebrate the day:

He became a man, he took upon himself the form of a servant, he was spat upon, he was slapped in the face, and, finally, he did not refuse to die the most shameful death. For he poured forth his blood on the cross. (17)
For the fact that Christ, who became man, also died was a consequence of his birth. Even though he was free from any sin, he did take upon himself a mortal body, and that should make us marvel. That he who is God was willing to become man, that he endured to accommodate himself to our weakness and come down to our level is too great for our minds to grasp. It makes us shudder with the deepest holy fear; it fills us with terror and trembling. (25)

So in a fitting pastoral application, especially for a year like this in which Christmas falls on Sunday, Chrysostom exhorts:

And this is why I ask and beg all of you to be here in church for that feast with all zeal and alacrity. Let each of us leave his house empty so that we may see our master wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This is a sight which is filled with holy fear and trembling. It is incredible beyond our every expectation.
What defense or excuse will we have when, for our sake, he comes down from heaven, but we do not even leave our homes to come to him? The magi were strangers and foreigners from Persia. Yet they came to see him lying in the manger. Can you, a Christian, not bear to give a brief measure of time to enjoy this blessed sight? (26-27)


[1] A panegyric is a festival speech. It is classified as epideictic rhetoric. “Epideictic is perhaps best regarded as including any discourse, oral or written, that does not aim at a specific action or decision but seek to enhance knowledge, understanding, or belief, often through praise or blame, whether of persons, things, or values.” G.A. Kennedy, “The Genres of Rhetoric,” in S.E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C-A.D. 400 (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 43-50 cited in David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 162.

[2] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[3] But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (ESV)

[4] Chrysostom, as with most patristic writers, attributed authorship of Hebrews to Paul.

Looking for a City

 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  Hebrews 11:8-10

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.  Hebrews 11:13-16

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.  Hebrews 12:22-24

This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken–that is, things that have been made–in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. Hebrews 12:27-29

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Hebrews 13:12-14

When I sense the need for food for the soul I often turn to Hebrews. A theme that I have frequently meditated on is “the city” in Hebrews.

Dispensationalists are fond of saying that Israel was God’s earthly people, while the church is God’s heavenly people. But like so many other Dispensational teachings, such a notion is flatly contradicted by the New Testament. Yes, Abraham journeyed to the land of promise. And yes, there is a land of promise. But Abraham did it because he was looking for the eternal city- not any on earth.

Such a desire characterized all the Old Testament faithful. Even those who lived their entire lives in the “promised land” desired something better: a heavenly country. They clung to the promise that God was building them a city. Think about it, if living in the Promised Land was the ultimate blessing of God, what need was there for faith? If they already had all that God promised, why look forward to anything else?

The church too, as sons of Abraham by faith (Rom. 2:28, 29; 4:11-16; Gal. 3:7-9, 13-14), “seek the city that is to come.” Yet the church has the awesome privilege of partaking of the blessings of that city spiritually now. The church, as she gathers for worship, is not alone. She is not isolated. The church gathered for worship is spiritually joined by angels and the souls of the departed in the great heavenly worship of God.

“The city” is the result of the fall. I like to say the first city was founded by a murderer and it went downhill from there (Gen. 4:17). The city is a feeble substitute for the relationship, provision, and security that man once had in God. As kooky as one-world government conspiracy theorists are, there is a biblical foundation to such concern. When men seeks to unite, it is for the purpose of uniting against God.

But God redeems the city. In His grace he is gathering together a multitude from every nation, tripe, people, and language. With one voice they will all join together saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” This is the city that people of faith long for. This is the city that people of faith anticipate as they gather together to worship.

 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. Revelation 21:2-3


I have commented on several occasions about the Bible reading plan I am using and the benefit it offers of seeing the Scripture in multiple places. Today the first 3 readings struck a chord.

First up was Luke 5. Jesus told the disciples to drop in their nets for a catch. Peter, an experienced fisherman, wondered at the point since they had toiled all night and caught nothing. But he considered the source, “But at your word I will let down the nets.” Peter knew it was pointless, but he also knew the One who gave the command. A man with leprosy came to Jesus knowing the Lord could heal him. A paralytic was brought to Jesus by his friends. Jesus saw their faith and forgave the paralytics sin. And then Jesus healed the man to show that he was indeed God who could forgive sins.

Next up was Numbers 13. After seeing the ten plagues the Lord visited on Egypt; after seeing the Red Sea parted; after seeing the Lord come down on Sinai; after eating the Manna; after seeing the Lord judge the sin of Nadab and Abihu, of Miriam and Aaron; the people come to the border of the promised land. Ten of the spies sent into the Lord falter in their faith, give a bad report, and discourage the people from entering the land.


The third passage was Hebrews 11. I trust that little needs to be said about such a well known chapter. In all three places the message is the same: faith works. Peter dropped the nets into an empty lake because he had faith in the Lord who commanded. The children of Israel failed to enter God’s rest because they did not believe the God who promised. By faith Abel offered; Noah constructed; Abraham obeyed and offered; Moses left and returned to Egypt…and left again; Rahab welcomed the spies.

Faith is not something merely abstract, intellectual, internal, or even spiritual. Faith can be seen. Faith shows itself. It works. Faith is not something instantaneous or self-contained. It continues. It is tenacious. Faith continues to work even when the Lord does not miraculously provide, heal, or deliver. For it is by faith:

 Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated– of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

Faith abides.

The Trinity in Scripture: Hebrews 3:7-14

The book of Hebrews can be viewed as built around multiple warnings to continue in the faith and against falling away from the faith (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:26-39; 12:15-17; 12:25-29). Just as in the first warning to hear the message of God declared in his Son by attestation of the Holy Spirit; the author of Hebrews forms his second warning in a Trinitarian manner.

 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'” Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:7-14)

Whereas the first warning in Hebrews was to pay attention to the message delivered by the Trinity, this second warning begins to explain how we know we are paying attention to that message. The teaching is accurately summarized by the maxim, be doers of the word and not hearers only.

The person who will inherit the rest of God is the one that perseveres until the end. This emphasis of continuing “to the end” is directly from Jesus: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 10:22 & 24:13). How does one continue to the end? The way to continue to the end is to exhort fellow believers daily. While Hebrews 10:25 is often used in support of faithful church attendance, it should not be read apart from Hebrews 3:13 and the instruction to practice exhortation “every day.” Unfortunately we separate these two verses from one another and from the centuries-long practice of the early church.

The sure sign of a believing heart is not the exuberant youth caught up in the “original confidence” of trusting Christ. The sure sign of a believing heart is the 80 year old widow who has remained faithful in tangibly supporting the ministry of her church.

What does it mean to fall away from God? What does it mean to lose fellowship with Christ? Whatever it may or may not mean, the surest indication that one has done so is that he stops fellowshipping with God’s people. That is why the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

The larger context of this passage is also important for formulating a proper understanding of the nature of Scripture. Hebrews 3:7 unmistakably indicates a super-natural source for Scripture: the words of Psalm 95 are the words of the Holy Spirit. In the following verses, the author Hebrews continues to explain Psalm 95 and in 4:7 asserts that the words of the Psalm came “through David.”

This does not answer all of our questions about the nature of Scripture, indeed it perhaps arouses even more. Even so, the author of Hebrews presents Scripture (at least Psalm 95) as the product of the Holy Spirit speaking through men.

The Trinity in Scripture: Hebrews 2:1-4 The Final Word of the Trinity

Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:1-4)

The first chapter break in Hebrews is somewhat unfortunate. As we have it numbered, the first four verses of chapter 2 serve to summarize all of chapter 1. Perhaps more people would see this if they were labeled 1:15-18 rather than 2:1-4!

Hebrews 1:1-2:4 begins the book as many modern systematic theologies do: with a discussion of revelation. The first three verses make it clear that Jesus Christ is the supreme and unsurpassable Word of God. There is no clearer communication possible. In verse 4 the author transitions into a discussion of the Son’s superiority to angels. This seems a little strange: what does the Son’s superiority to angels have to do with him being God’s ultimate revelation?

The first four verses of chapter two answer that question by returning to the subject of revelation. One of the “many ways” in which God gave his word to the Old Testament prophets was through the mediation of angels (2:2; cf. Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19). This word was considered God’s word and disobedience was punishable by death. So if a word from God given by angels is so dreadfully binding, what can be said of a word that is given by God’s only Son who is himself the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature?

If death was the punishment for breaking the Old Testament law given through angels, how much more severe is the punishment for breaking the New Testament law given through the Son?

Yet, just when you think the author of Hebrews cannot impress upon us any more clearly the danger of rejecting God’s word of salvation: he does just that. This great salvation was not something that the Son just dreamed up on his own. This word of salvation was declared by the Son who preached “Repent…”; “Come unto me…”; “I am…” It was validated by the Father who proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son…” He who blackened earth at the Son’s crucifixion. He who gave new light at the Son’s rising. It is propagated by the generosity of the Holy Spirit who gives gracious gifts for the building of the church.

The Son is God’s supreme Word to mankind. But his voice is not alone. The Father testifies by wondrous works. The Spirit testifies by gracious gifts.

The Trinity has spoken.

What more can he say?



Something to keep in mind while reading Hebrews from Herman Bavinck

People can only know whether they are predestined from their having persevered to the end. God has included in the membership of the church some people who are not elect and do not persevere in order that the predestined should not be proud and seek out a false peace.
Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, v. II, p. 351

The book of Hebrews is noted for having multiple warnings against falling away from the faith. While the above quote does not come from a discussion about the book of Hebrews, I believe it is a helpful guideline for those who might struggle with some of the difficult passages the book contains.

The Bible speaks very clearly about the eternal security of the believer. It warns just as clearly about the danger of falling away. Bavinck’s statement does a good job of reconciling those two strands of data.

Clement of Rome: Author of Hebrews?

The author of the book of Hebrews remains one of the enticing mysteries of the New Testament.  Upon reading the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (hereafter 1 Clement), it is not hard to see why he has been suggested as an author.  Eusebius quotes Origen as stating, “But who wrote the epistle, in truth, God knows. The statement of some who have gone before us is that Clement, bishop of the Romans, wrote the epistle, and of others that Luke, the author of the Gospel and the Acts, wrote it.” (Ecclesiastical History VI.25.11-14)

After stating in the introduction to his commentary on Hebrews, “I, indeed, can adduce no reason to show that Paul was its author,” John Calvin concludes in commenting on 13:23 with the statement, “…it is very probable that either Luke or Clement was the author of this Epistle.”

There are some striking similarities between Hebrews and 1 Clement.

Hebrews 11:7
By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.

1 Clement 9
Noah, being found faithful, by his ministration preached regeneration unto the world, and through him the Master saved the living creatures that entered into the ark in concord.

Hebrews 11:31
By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish with those who did not believe, when she had received the spies with peace.

1 Clement 12
For her faith and hospitality Rahab the harlot was saved.

Heb 1:3-13 (portions)
…who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person…having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.  For to which of the angels did He ever say: “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.” And of the angels He says: “Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.” But to the Son He says: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your Kingdom.  But to which of the angels has He ever said: “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool”?

1 Clement 36
Who being the brightness of His majesty is so much greater than angels, as He hath inherited a more excellent name.  For so it is written; Who maketh His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire; but of His Son the Master said thus; Thou art My Son, I this day have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will give Thee the Gentiles for Thine inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Thy possession. And again He saith unto Him; Sit Thou on My right hand until I make Thine enemies a footstool for Thy feet.

Furthermore, both books have a similar way of citing Scripture.  Hebrews 2:6 introduces a quotation, “But one testified in a certain place, saying…” and 4:4 introduces a quotation, “For He has spoken in a certain place…”  In chapters 15 and 21 Clement introduces Scripture quotations with the phrase, “For he saith in a certain place.”   Furthermore both works have a tendency to connect multiple Scripture quotations with the simple phrase, “and again.” (Heb. 1:5; 2:13; 4:5; 10:30 cf. 1 Clement 15; 16).

In addition, I see a striking similarity in flow of argument in Hebrews 11-12 and 1 Clement 9-21.  Hebrews 11 is the well known chapter listing so many examples of the faithful.  1 Clement 9 states, “Let us fix our eyes on them that ministered perfectly unto His excellent glory.”  And then proceeds to mention, in order, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Lot, Rahab, and “those who went about in goatskins and sheepskins” (cf. Heb. 11:37). Toward the conclusion of both lists of holy examples, both works mention those who “obtained a good report.” (Heb. 11:39; 1 Clem. 17; 19.)

Both works move from example to application in similar ways.  Heb 11:39-40 states:

And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.

While 1 Clement 19 states:

The humility therefore and the submissiveness of so many and so great men, who have thus obtained a good report, hath through obedience made better not only us but also the generations which were before us, even them that received His oracles in fear and truth.

So both works encourage us to not just remember the examples of those before us; but to consider and reckon a true unity with those who have gone before us.  In Hebrews, they are not complete without us.  In 1 Clement we are bettered by them.

Hebrews 12:1-2 continues:

Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

While 1 Clement 19 continues:

Seeing then that we have been partakers of many great and glorious doings, let us hasten to return unto the goal of peace which hath been handed down to us from the beginning, and let us look stedfastly unto the Father and Maker of the whole world, and cleave unto His splendid and excellent gifts of peace and benefits. Let us behold Him in our mind, and let us look with the eyes of our soul unto His long-suffering will.

In both we are to consider our place, and look with patience at the life we are called to lead.

In concluding the argument, Hebrews 12:25 warns:

See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven.

While 1 Clement 21 warns:

Look ye, brethren, lest His benefits, which are many, turn unto judgment to all of us, if we walk not worthily of Him, and do those things which are good and well-pleasing in His sight with concord.

Did Clement of Rome write the book of Hebrews?  I do not think so.  In fact, I hope he did not.  For if Clement of Rome did not write the book of Hebrews, his work to the Corinthians stands as a sterling example of a mind saturated with Scripture.  It is clear that Clement had not only allowed Scripture to influence how he talked, but how he thought as well.  May our minds be as dominated by the words of God.

ADDENDUM: Reasons Clement did not write Hebrews.

  1. Style of Greek. It is a good day when I can translate much more than a phrase. So like most people I just have to accept the word of scholars on this one.
  2. Lack of clear early support. Like pretty much every background issue of Hebrews, the original destination of the letter is disputed. Many commentators make a good case for a Roman destination. (Some others argue for a Roman origin). In either case it seems odd that Rome, a church eager to accrue glory to itself would not celebrate Hebrews as the product of one of its bishops. The fact that the West didn’t fully embrace Hebrews until Jerome and Augustine attributed it to Paul argues against Clement’s authorship. Would Rome keep this secret or forget so quickly?
  3. Concept of priesthood. Clement portrays believers as carrying on the Aaronic priesthood. Hebrews views that priesthood as rendered obsolete by the work of Christ.