(Heavenly Rewards for the Christian)
Believer's crowns make an interesting study. There are five, or possibly six "crowns" referred to in the New Testament as being associated with the Christian life. And in each Bible passage, the word for "crown" is a special one. (The Greek word is stephanos.) That's not the Greek word for a kingly crown, the symbol of rulership, which is diadema. It's true we will reign with Christ (Rev. 5:10). But the stephanos crowns are for a different purpose. The Greek word means a garland, or a laurel wreath. And that puts us back into the setting of the ancient Olympic Games.
Back then, instead of a medal for the winner, a crowning wreath was presented, and placed upon the victor's head. It could be woven of oak, or ivy leaves. Or sometimes it was made of gold–but made to look like a wreath of leaves. That's the word used for the believer's crowns. It refers to a prize or award.
And it's of interest to us just what those crowns are to be awarded for. What kinds of things fall into the category of being worthy of eternal reward? Well, the crowns indicate that there are basically three areas of commendation–each of which has a couple of aspects to it. There may be other things recognized and rewarded. But these are the ones God tells us about. So, let's look at them briefly.
I. The Saint's Crowns
These are awarded for our sanctification–for holy living, in other words. God desires our progressive sanctification in daily life and experience. And the two aspects of that are: saying "No" to self (selfishness and self-will), and saying "Yes" to God.
A) And for the first of those there's what's called the Imperishable Crown, for saying "NO" to self, when we're tempted to indulge our fleshly desires. Scripture says:
"Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate [self-controlled, disciplined] in all things. Now they do it [that is, athletes do it] to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown....I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified [that is, disqualified from being awarded the crown]" (I Cor. 9:24-27).
We're to say no to fleshly desires, so we don't waste our energies on things of no eternal worth. That's the first aspect: saying no to self.
B) Then the Crown of Righteousness is awarded for saying "Yes" to God, showing our love for Him, by our faithfulness to duty. Paul says:
"I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure [my death] is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. [I've done all that God has asked of me.] Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. [In contrast, he says] Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world" (II Tim. 4:6-8, 10a).
So holy living involves a love for, and commitment to God. And the flip side of that is a rejection of selfish, self-centred, and carnal living. And both aspects will be recognized, before "the Judgment Seat of Christ" (Rom. 14:10). And another special word is used there. This is not the place where sinners are judged and condemned to eternal loss. (That is the Great White Throne, Rev. 20:11-15.) The Greek word for "judgment seat" is bema, meaning a judge's stand. Again, at the Olympic Games, this was where competitors stood to receive their awards.
II. The Servant's Crowns
These crowns are awarded specifically for our service for Christ. And the two aspects of that are our ministry to the unsaved, and to the saved–to our fellow-believers in the church of Christ. These two ministries correspond to what can be described as evangelism and edification.
A) First there's the Crown of Rejoicing, for a fruitful ministry of the gospel to the unsaved. And in a sense those who are born again through our witness are themselves our crown or reward–although I think there may well be a victory wreath awarded, as well. But in this case there's a concrete and human effect that can be seen in heaven. People who are there because of our witness.
Early in his first letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Paul says that when he preached the gospel to them, they turned to God from idols–they got saved (I Thess.1:5, 6, 9). And Paul says:
"What is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy" (I Thess. 2:19-20). And compare that to what the prophet Daniel says, "Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness [shall shine] like the stars forever and ever" (Dan. 12:3).
B) Then, combine that with the Crown of Glory, for a fruitful ministry to the Lord's people, in the church of Jesus Christ.
"Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers [says Peter], not by constraint but willingly, not for dishonest gain, but eagerly; nor as lords over [or, bossing around] those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd [Christ] appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away" (I Pet. 5:2-4).
So the servants of God will be rewarded–both for outreach to the unsaved (evangelism), and for faithful ministry to the people of God (edification, a building up).
III. The Sufferer's Crowns
There are special rewards for steadfastness in suffering, for exhibiting faith and patience in the midst of difficult and testing times of any kind. And also for suffering specifically for the cause of Christ–that is, for being persecuted for our faith. Both will earn the same crown.
A) The Crown of Life is awarded first for simply trusting God in our trials, bearing them, with grace and patience. This award is for our recognition that we can thank the Lord in our trials, for what He'll accomplish through them.
"My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience....Blessed is the man who endures temptation [or testing]; for when he has been proved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (Jas. 1:2-3, 12).
B) Then the Crown of Life will also be awarded to those who are faithful in times of persecution. Some even to the point of death–Rev. 2:10. In the context there, Christians take a stand against what's called the synagogue of Satan, and suffer for it. So the Lord says:
"Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer....Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life."
Well, there they are, in brief:
¤ The saint's crowns for godly living ¤ The servant's crowns for diligent service, ¤ The sufferer's crowns for faithfully bearing the trials of life
Those are the things I believe God looks upon as being especially worthy of eternal reward. But I want to conclude with one more point:
IV. The Church in Glory
It's described in Revelation, Chapter 4. John has just been caught up into heaven (vs. 1). And look what he sees.
"Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads" (Rev. 4:2-4).
Now, for a number of reasons we don't have space to go into here, it's quite likely that those "twenty-four elders" are meant to represent the church of Jesus Christ--or they're representatives of the church. There are quite a few commentators who hold that view. And without going into detail about it, let me take that to be the case–that the 24 elders are meant to picture or represent us, believers who have been raptured and rewarded, and now are seated before the throne of God.
And there we are, wearing our white robes, and crowns –same word as before–stephanos, our laurel wreaths of victory. And we're enveloped in an atmosphere of glorious praise. And look what happens:
"Whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: ‘You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power..." (Rev. 4:9-11a).
Some Bible versions simply say "when," in vs. 9. But "whenever" is a suitable translation– meaning as often as. So, John seems to be describing a heavenly ceremony of worship that we'll apparently perform many times, not just once. Whenever the glories of the Lord are proclaimed, our response will be to cast our laurel wreaths, our medals of honour, at His feet.
By that we'll be saying, in effect, "Lord, all the glory belongs to You, not to us. The blessings we enjoy are all of Your grace." And, of course, our attention will be drawn to Christ, God's Lamb. Look at Chapter 5:
"Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honour and glory and blessing!'" (Rev. 5:11-12).
The Lamb that once was crowned with thorns. That's the same word again. He received a laurel wreath of thorns. Jesus was "rewarded" with a painful wreath of thorns, that you and I might wear crowns of glory. And that's grace, God's unmerited favour. His brow was pierced, that yours and mine might be adorned with wreaths of gold. No wonder, time and again, we'll cast our crowns before Him. Oh, the grace in all that He's done for us! As the John Peterson song puts it:
Standing before Him at last,
Trials and troubles all past,
Crowns at His feet we will cast–
Jesus is coming again.