What do you think of when you think “crown”?
Probably a gold circlet that rulers wear on top of their heads, possibly very elaborate and adored with gemstones. Or maybe you think of the crown, or top, of your head. You might think of it as a verb, too, in the sense of crowning someone when they ascend to a throne.
I’m guessing a victory laurel wasn’t the first thing you thought of. We don’t give winners in the Olympic games laurel crowns any more; we give them gold, silver, and bronze medals. Back in New Testament Bible times, though, when someone read the Greek word typically translated as “crown” they were just as likely to think of victory as authority.
That changes things a little, doesn’t it? When Paul talks about us earning a crown, he’s likely talking about victory rather than ruling power. When Jesus warns in Revelation, “Let no one take your crown,” He’s not talking about them stealing the crown jewels but robbing us of victory. When the soldiers put a crown of thorns on Jesus, it’s a mockery of the authority and victory that He claimed, which ironically turned into a symbol for both.
What actually is a crown?
The word translated “crown” throughout the New Testament “refers to a wreath … worn as a symbol of honor, victory, or as a badge of high office” (NET footnote on Rev. 3:11). This word stephanos (στέφανος) is both “a mark of royal or (in general) exalted rank” and “the wreath or garland which was given as a prize to victors in public games” (Thayer’s dictionary, G4735). While the royal imagery is included as part of the definition, in Classical Greek it was “not used of the kingly crown but of the crown of victory in games, of civic worth, military valor, nuptial joy, [and] festival gladness” (Zodhiates’s dictionary, G4735).
There were a few other words that Greek writers could have used for a similar idea. Stemma (στέμμα) comes from the same root as stephanos and means pretty much the same thing, but it only shows up once in the Bible (Acts 14:13, “garlands”). Diadema (διάδημα) is “a symbol of royal dignity,” but was more of a headband than a crown (Zodhiates, G1238). That word, diadema, appears in the Bible, but only in Revelation to refer to crowns worn by the dragon, the beast, and the triumphantly returning Jesus (Rev. 12:3; 13:1; 19:12). Korona (κορώνη) is where we get the modern word “crown,” but it doesn’t appear in the Bible. In contrast, stephanos appears 18 times in the New Testament, making it by far the most common word for “crown.” Here’s one of the passages where it’s used:
For he did not put the world to come, about which we are speaking, under the control of angels. Instead someone testified somewhere:
“What is man that you think of him or the son of man that you care for him?
You made him lower than the angels for a little while.
You crowned him with glory and honor.
You put all things under his control.”
For when he put all things under his control, he left nothing outside of his control. At present we do not yet see all things under his control, but we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by God’s grace he would experience death on behalf of everyone.
Hebrews 2:5-9, NET, bold italics a quotation from Psalm 8
Here, we see both the authority and victory meanings of stephanos. God granted to human beings a certain amount of authority at creation, but the one with all authority is Jesus Christ. He is also the one who gained victory by His suffering, earning a crown of glory and honor. And because He earned that crown, there’s an assurance that we can follow right along after Him and get a crown for ourselves.
Competition and Reward
Because crowns were awarded to victors in athletic games, Paul uses the word “crown” when talking about our Christian life as a competition. We’re “competitors” who “strive in the games” like athletes (1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 2:5). It’s not a competition where there’s only one winner, though–it’s more like the sort of thing where all who reach the goal are counted winners. We’re not “in competition” with other people, especially not other believers. But we are striving toward a victory.
Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.
So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27, NET
The word translated “competitor” here is agonizomai (ἀγωνίζομαι). It literally means “to contend for victory in the public games,” but it also took on a more figurative meaning: “straining every nerve to the uttermost towards the goal” (Zodhiates, G75). That’s the level of commitment we’re all supposed to have to following Jesus. And, as James points out, when we strive faithfully there is certainty of a reward at the end.
Happy is the one who endures testing, because when he has proven to be genuine, he will receive the crown of life that God promised to those who love him.
James 1:12, NET
This is a promise. If you compete well–in other words, strive faithfully to follow God–He will be faithful to give you the victor’s reward. Similarly, Peter tells leaders in the church that if they’re faithful and humble, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away” (1 Pet. 5:1-6, NET). In the letter to the church in Smyrna, Jesus promises, “Remain faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown that is life itself” (Rev. 4:10, NET). By the end of his life even Paul, who wrote about exercising rigorous self-discipline lest he be “disqualified,” knew for certain that the Lord would give him (and others) a crown of victory.
Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day—and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:8, NET
You Are Our Crown
There’s one more way that Paul uses the word “crown” in his New Testament writings.
So then, my brothers and sisters, dear friends whom I long to see, my joy and crown, stand in the Lord in this way, my dear friends!
Philippians 4:1, NET
For who is our hope or joy or crown to boast of before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not of course you? For you are our glory and joy!
1 Thessalonians 2:19-20, NET
If we still thought competing for the victory might imply some competition between believers, this should put that idea to rest. Paul calls his brothers and sisters in Christ his joy, crown, and glory! We’re not all Paul, of course, but I think we can relate to this statement as well (particularly since he says “our” in Thessalonians). This isn’t a statement only Paul can make; our fellow believers can (and should!) be a source of joy, victory, and glory to all of us.
I’ve thought about our Christian life as a battle before (I am, after all, working on final edits for my next study guide, The Armor of God). But I’d never thought about our relationships with other believers being connected with the crown of victory promised to those following Jesus Christ and God the Father. It’s a fascinating thought, and it ties us right back again to the post I wrote a couple weeks ago about the weight of glory and the connection C.S. Lewis drew between our glory and our neighbors. If we’re carrying each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2) and shouldering the weight of our neighbors’ glory (Lewis), then it makes sense we’d celebrate them as part of the anticipated victory.
Our future in God’s kingdom will involve a certain amount of authority, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the ultimate authority of the Father. We will, after all, judge angels and serve as priests (1 Cor. 6:2-4; Rev. 1: 6). But the focus now and in the future isn’t on our authority; it’s on service (Matt. 20:25-28; 23:10-12). Even the crowns we’re promised are symbols of victory and gladness more than symbols pointing out we’re in charge. It’s a humbling thing to think about, and also a joyful one. I imagine Jesus and the Father eagerly awaiting a celebration, wanting to welcome us into the family and crown us as victors who followed in Jesus’s footsteps to overcome the world. And I pray we’ll all be there together in glory and joy. Keep striving for victory! Let no one take your crown.
Featured image by James Chan from Pixabay