Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. – Rev 4:4 (ESV)
There are two words that get translated “crowns” in the New Testament: diadēma and stephanos. Diadema are the types of crowns we usually think of kings and queens wearing. They usually signify authority and power and very few people have the privilege of wearing them. Stephanos, on the other hand, is a very different type of crown. The most famous type of Stephanos is the type made from an olive branch, made into a wreath, and placed upon the head of the winner of the Olympic games. It is not a crown of power, but of victory. It is the stephanos that the 24 elders wear in the throne room of God and that the believers are given in John’s vision of heaven.
Remember what Christ said to the churches? He said “to those who are overcoming…” will be given the blessings of God, including a crown (stephanos) of life (Rev. 2:10). Paul tells us in 1Corinthians 9:24-27 “24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath (stephanos), but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Life is like a marathon, and we have to keep running, keep fighting the good fight against temptation and evil, for those who quit before reaching the finish line cannot receive the prize.
However, this is not a race where we shove one another out of the way trying to reach the rewards of heaven. We follow the example of the perfect runner, Jesus Christ, who laid aside his glory and humbled Himself to serve and suffer for others. He too received a stephanos at the end of his race, and it was made of thorns. God transformed that mockery of a crown into a crown of life as Jesus claimed victory over sin and temptation, and even death. He is the runner whose path we follow.
In Revelation 4:10, the saints show us that even after facing their own deaths for the sake of Christ, they prize God’s presence more than their trophies of victory. They do not continue to wear their stephanos in eternity, nor does it get hung up on a mantleplace or put into a trophy cabinet in memory of their hard work and sacrifice. In Revelation 4:10, the Scripture says they cast their crowns at the feet of God, as praise and offering to Him. Perhaps they know even then that the victory they won could not have been won without God’s grace in their life.
How then should we run? With persistence, with humility, and perhaps most of all with God. With God we can do all things, but without Him, we can do nothing.