There is a famous story about John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople facing persecution at the hands of Eudoxia and the Emperor Arcadius in the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century. First, Eudoxia threatens Chrysostom with banishment, to which he replies:
“You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house,” said John.
“But I will kill you,” the empress said.
“No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.”
“I will take away your treasures,” said Eudoxia.
“No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.”
“But I will drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left,” Eudoxia responded.
“No, you cannot,” said John, “for I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you. For there is nothing you can do to harm me.”
Is the Story True?
This is a fantastic sermon illustration on persecution. I found it in F. W. Boreham‘s book Mountains in the Mist, where Chrysostom is never mentioned. It has been quoted on The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur’s commentary, and many other sources.
The earliest source I have found for this quote is from 1874 (1). It is given in a Scottish commentary on Daniel. It gives a summary of something Chrysostom preached more than once, but it doesn’t appear that he said these words in dialogue with any of his persecutors.
Chrysostom was in fact banished under the emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia. He faced threats of violence more than once in his lifetime. In 1840, Henry Milman’s famous church history quotes Chrysostom as saying (2):
What can I fear? Death? “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Exile? “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” Confiscation? We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out of it. I fear not death. I desire to live only for your profit. . . .
Milman says this homily is uncertain. As will be shown, it seems that Chrysostom in fact said this, but not at the end of his life, but much earlier.
What Did Chrysostom Say While Facing Banishment?
What Chrysostom did say when facing banishment is very similar to this quote, but much longer. Phillip Schaff, in his biography of Chrysostom, gives the following from a letter from Chrysostom to Bishop Cyriacus (3):
When driven from the city, I cared nothing for it. But I said to myself, if the empress wishes to banish me, let her banish me—”the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” If she would saw me in sunder, let her saw me in sunder—I have Isaiah for a pattern. If she would plunge me in the sea—I remember Jonah. If she would thrust me into the fiery furnace—I see the three children enduring that. If she would cast me to wild beasts—I call to mind Daniel in the den of lions. If she would stone me, let her stone me—I have before me, Stephen the protomartyr. If she would take my head from me, let her take it—I have John the Baptist. If she would deprive me of my worldly goods, let her do it—naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. . . .
It appears that, because he here quotes Psalm 24 and Job 1, to the same effect, the two quotations have been conflated. Below, you will find the original sermon (or homily) in which Chrysostom did in fact say something very similar to the quote that is passed around today. If anything, his original words state his invicibility more strongly, and more scripturally.
Chrysostom Protects Eutropius
The rabbit hole keeps going. Mosheim’s church history (4) appears to be the first to point out the significant quotation as an example of eloquence. He recommends Montfaucon’s 13-volume edition of Chrysostom’s works (5). Thanks to Google, Internet Archive, and my Latin teacher, I found there the two homilies on Eutropius, which are the original source of the famous anecdote (6). The second homily (7) contains the following words:
For what is terrible? Death? Nay, this is not terrible: for we speedily reach the unruffled haven. Or spoliation of goods? “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart” (Job 1:21); or exile? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1); or false accusation? “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Mt. 5:12). (8)
This also has been included in Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 9, which is widely available. It seems a volume set like this is so large, we hardly know what is there.
So here’s what we know about the story: It is a homily—not a dialogue—that Chrysostom wrote about Eutropius, who had found sanctuary in his church from Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor, Arcadius. Eutropius was a consul who had fallen out of favor with Byzantine royalty, and it seems he had great trust in John Chrysostom, whom he had previously nominated for Archbishop of Constantinople. When Eutropius fled to the church, armed soldiers entered, demanding that Chrysostom release him. Chrysostom told them to leave, and appealed to the emperor, claiming that he would not give up his church’s right to be a place of sanctuary. After he left the church, Eutropius was eventually apprehended, sentenced, and beheaded.
Within a few days after Eutropius fled the church, Chrysostom gave two homilies related to the events, which you can read in English with an introduction here. It seems that the story was variously paraphrased in the mid-19th century, and while the speaker is correctly given as Chrysostom, it was not his heroic reply to an emperor or empress; it was his exhortation to believers while he was still in a place of great influence as Archbishop of Constantinople. Now that you know the context, here is a fuller quotation. (8)
“I Saw the Swords and I Meditated on Heaven”
Walls are shattered by barbarians, but over the Church even demons do not prevail. And that my words are no mere vaunt there is the evidence of facts. How many have assailed the Church, and yet the assailants have perished while the Church herself has soared beyond the sky? Such might hath the Church: when she is assailed she conquers: when snares are laid for her she prevails: when she is insulted her prosperity increases: she is wounded yet sinks not under her wounds; tossed by waves yet not submerged; vexed by storms yet suffers no shipwreck; she wrestles and is not worsted, fights but is not vanquished. Wherefore then did she suffer this war to be? That she might make more manifest the splendour of her triumph. Ye were present on that day, and ye saw what weapons were set in motion against her, and how the rage of the soldiers burned more fiercely than fire, and I was hurried away to the imperial palace. But what of that? By the grace of God none of those things dismayed me.
Now I say these things in order that ye too may follow my example. But wherefore was I not dismayed? Because I do not fear any present terrors. For what is terrible? Death? Nay, this is not terrible: for we speedily reach the unruffled haven. Or spoliation of goods? “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart” (Job 1:21); or exile? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1); or false accusation? “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Mt. 5:12).
I saw the swords and I meditated on Heaven; I expected death, and I bethought me of the resurrection; I beheld the sufferings of this lower world, and I took account of the heavenly prizes; I observed the devices of the enemy, and I meditated on the heavenly crown: for the occasion of the contest was sufficient for encouragement and consolation. True! I was being forcibly dragged away, but I suffered no insult from the act; for there is only one real insult, namely sin: and should the whole world insult thee, yet if thou dost not insult thyself thou art not insulted. The only real betrayal is the betrayal of the conscience: betray not thy own conscience, and no one can betray thee.
(1) November 1874 issue of The Original Secession Magazine of the Church of Scotland, on page 839.
(2) Henry Milman. History of Christianity, vol. 3, p. 229.
(3) Phillip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 9, p. 14.
(4) The original title of this book was Institvtiones Historiae Ecclesiasticae Novi Testamenti, published in 1727 in Frankfurt.
(5) Mosheim points this out in footnote 17 on page 241-242 of the English edition.
(6) Montfaucon. Opera Omnia Quae Exstant, etc. volume 3, page 454. (This PDF file is over 1,000 pages.)
(7) The translation of these homilies is by W. R. W. Stephens. You can read them here in the original Greek.
(8) Phillip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 9, p. 14.