The Christian scriptures use two different terms for the word “crown” – stephanos which refers to a crown of leaves or flowers and which was given for great accomplishments such as athletic and military victories, and diadema which was primarily used of the crown of royalty. When speaking of the crowns to be given to believers, the New Testament scriptures always speak of the first kind – the stephanos – which was given as a reward for accomplishments rather than the royal crown handed down merely by descent. They also speak of different types of the stephanos crown of accomplishment in discussing the reward of the faithful.
Some of the references to crowns simply speak of conditions pertaining to them. For example, Paul tells us that the crown of leaves sought by athletic exertion: “…will not last, but we … get a crown that will last forever” (1 Corinthians 9:25). This does not seem to be listing an “imperishable” type crown, it is just a statement that our crown is imperishable. There are, however, three different types of crown mentioned in the New Testament which seem to be linked to different rewards. In all three cases, each type of crown is said to be a reward for a particular accomplishment and a related spiritual trait:
1. The Crown of Righteousness (associated with obedient faith): 2 Timothy 4:8-9 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me ...” Here Paul associates this crown with faithful accomplishment.
2. The Crown of Life (associated with persistent hope): James 1:12 “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” Revelation 2:10 “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”
3. The Crown of Glory (associated with serving love): 1 Peter 5:1-4 “…Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them –not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve … And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
Whether these crowns are meant to be understood literally or metaphorically (see, for example, 1 Thessalonians 2:19) is beside the point. What is important and of great encouragement to every Christian is to see that the very things the believer must struggle to master in this life – obedient faith, persistent hope, serving love – are the very rewards that we are promised. It is as if the crowns are the perfect future manifestation of the things for which we now strive. But we need not be concerned as to what the exact reality of the promised crowns of scripture may be. The lesson of the verses that speak of the three crowns clearly relates to their value and how we need to continue to the point they are given to us. It is a message clearly summarized by the apostle John: “… Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown” (Revelation 3:11B).