Jesus’s promises to the assembly in Philadelphia included crowns and a throne, rewards that may seem anachronistic to those of us who never grew up with kings and queens in our governments. So, how do we understand what Jesus is saying to people like us, today?
Crowns show up pretty regularly in the Greek scriptures, probably because crowns had a number of relevant contexts.
Crown of Thorns
Perhaps the crown that leaps to mind first is the mockery of the soldiers who tortured Jesus before His crucifixion.
After twisting some thorns into a crown they [the soldiers] put it on his [Jesus’s] head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”Matthew 27:29 (NRSV)
There was already someone who positioned himself as the king of the Jews—Herod Antipas. It was not his actual title, because Rome had taken that away. Technically, Herod was a tetrarch, a “ruler of a quarter,” over Galilee and Perea as a client state of the Roman Empire.
But Jesus had answered in the affirmative to Pontius Pilate, that He was indeed a king. However,
“My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”Jesus to Pilate, John 18:36 (NRSV)
The soldiers in the room guarding Jesus as Pilate interviewed Him used this piece of information as part of their own burlesque of Christ. And it was this ‘crowned’ Messiah the crowd saw when Pilate brought Jesus back out and displayed Him to the people saying, “Behold the man.”
My Joy and Crown
In his letter to the believers in Philippi, the apostle Paul commended them as ones he loved and longed for, and enjoined them to stand firm in the Lord, for they were his joy and crown. Paul again used this metaphor in one of his letters to the Thessalonian Christians.
But it is in Paul’s final letter to Timothy that we get a better idea of what Paul was meaning. He had been encouraging Timothy to be strong in the grace that is Christ Jesus, and to entrust Paul’s teaching to faithful people who would continue to teach these things. Finally, he told Timothy, share in the suffering of what it means to follow Jesus, because
In the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules.2 Timothy 2:5 (NRSV)
This kind of crown referred most likely to the wreath of laurels winners wore at the games and races in antiquity. The bay laurel tree is an evergreen with aromatic leaves, branches of which were woven together to create a victor’s crown for athletes and military leaders. Even today we have poet laureates, master poets who wear the crown of achievement for their writings. And we have a saying about “resting on one’s laurels” for those who have done something masterful and may now relax and enjoy their success.
The success described in each of these contexts has to do with telling and teaching the good news of salvation, and it is most likely this crown Peter also meant when he wrote,
And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.1 Peter 5:4 (NRSV)
Paul echoed this truth in his letter to the Christians in Corinth.
Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:25 (NRSV)
Unlike the laurel wreath, this crown would remain fresh and aromatic for all eternity, for the success of the Gospel is forever.
Crown of Righteousness
Later, in the same letter to Timothy, Paul spoke of another kind of crown.
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.2 Timothy 4:8 (NRSV)
Apostle Paul spoke in terms of the Day of the Lord, the last days of humankind’s story as we now know it, the Day of Judgment. It was a time all the apostles spoke of, and the first century church anticipated with great longing. The return of Christ, the full realization of the Kingdom of God, the cleansing and renewal of the entire cosmos would bring about such vast change that, essentially, there would be a new universe completely and utterly freed from the corruption of evil.
Paul, and all those who long for that day, will receive this crown of righteousness, the symbol of God’s complete sanctification of all that is.
Crown of Glory and Honor
The writer of Hebrews spoke of this royal diadem worn by humankind, and also by Jesus.
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are humans that you are mindful of them
or mortals that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under their feet.”
Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.Hebrews 2:5-9 (NRSV)
God is preparing this recreated cosmos for humankind, and a recreated humankind for the world to come. Jesus is the forerunner, the pioneer, and His glory and honor helps us to understand what this Crown of Glory will be when once God places this honor upon each person who has put their faith in Christ.
Crown of Life
James, a brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem assemblies, spoke of a different kind of coronet, one that connoted perseverance, enduring anguish even into martyrdom.
Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.James 1:12 (NRSV)
Jesus also spoke of this kind of testing.
They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.
But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.Jesus, Matthew 24:9-14 (NRSV)
Jesus explained that those who tried to save their lives would actually lose true life, eternal life. But those who were ready to surrender their lives into God’s care through faith in Christ would actually gain life, eternity with the Giver of Life. This is the crown James indicated.
The Crowns of Revelation
Now we have a context for the Crown of Life Jesus promised to the assembly in Smyrna. Be faithful until death, Jesus told them, and I will give you the crown of life. Jesus had come to them as the First and the Last, who was dead and came to life. When you and I “put on Christ” we are, in a sense, putting on the crown of life, for Jesus is The Way, the Truth, and The Life.
And we have a context for the crown Jesus adjured the Philadelphian believers to anticipate as they hung onto the little they had (which was enough). Their crown would be all these things, the very great reward that awaits every believer.