The Crown of life and the overcomer

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Crown of lifeI have already mentioned that the objective of the race and the fight is a crown, a reward, and now we will examine what the Word of God teaches specifically about crowns, more specifically that which Paul called the crown of righteousness or the crown of life.

In I Corinthians chapter 4, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers about the proper way to view God’s ministers.  The truth is that God calls all Christians to be ministers in God’s service.  However, often Christians harbor the notion that God constituted the Church with members who just come together and sit in the pews while a select group of a more dedicated class of Christians serves them by handing them the weekly bulletin, passing the offering plate, singing in the choir, and preaching a sermon to them.  Nowhere in the scriptures can we find such a model and as long as the great majority of Christians imagine that they have no responsibility in and to the local church, we will continue to delay the work of the gospel and each church will see only limited fruit.  Now Paul mentioned that there were people in the church that were unfavorably judging his ministry and his ministry team.  How often do such situations appear in churches today?  Not much has really changed since the first century!  Paul did not seem to be overly concerned about what others were saying about his ministry.  However, he did find it necessary to teach that unless where sin was involved; all ministers in the church are directly responsible to God.  God will evaluate the validity and quality of each minister and the resulting fruit and not the members of the church or other ministers.  He then warned against judging the work of others.

In 1 Corinthians 4:5, he taught:

“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.”

Every Christian can receive praise from God.  God chose to symbolize this praise with a crown. Not every Christian will receive praise from God, but every Christian may receive praise depending on whether or not they were faithful and pleasing to God through their ministry as Christian workers.  We can cross-reference this passage with the words of Jesus when he taught that not everyone who calls Him Lord would enter into the kingdom.

In Matthew 7:21-23 we read

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”

These “many” correspond to ministers and their ministries that call Jesus “Lord”, prophesied, cast out devils and performed many wonderful works in His name.  In other words, we may declare many ministers and ministries as successful and blessed of God and yet the Lord Himself, may not so recognize them on “that day”.  The Lord will call these ministers “workers of iniquity”.  Iniquity is not necessarily immorality or evil conduct.  Iniquity is simply “good things” that religious people do, which God has not commanded.  Ministers have the responsibility to do what the Spirit of God leads them to do, not what each one decided they would prefer to do.

Each Christian, each minister of God can look forward someday to receiving a crown of glory for the work they have done in obedience to the leading of God’s spirit and His Word.  This is a precious privilege.  The fact is that if each Christian neglects to fulfill his or her purpose as a minister of God’s will and blessing, he or she will reap unpleasant consequences.  Therefore, we should not lightly esteem the praise that He bestows on each one who is faithful until the end.

In Philippians 4:1, Paul brought up the subject of crowns when he spoke of the fact that his ministry had fruit measured in souls.  He said:

“Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.”

Here Paul called those people who came to the Lord through his preaching as his joy and crown.  The highest standard of measurement for Christian ministry today is the number of disciples that each of us has begotten in God and raised up as mature ministers in their own right.  Paul reaffirmed this principle again in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 where he wrote:

“For 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? ” 

The weight of our crown, which aside from praise from God, is also described as hope, joy and rejoicing, will be measured in terms of the number of disciples that we make during our time here on earth.  The great commission is a mission fulfilled by God’s people with God guiding the way and lending His power through every step of the way.  God does not need us to make disciples but He will make no disciples without our participation.  God is so gracious!  He provides the guidance, gives the power and when we follow His direction and present ourselves as His tools, He shares His glory with us when the fruit comes.  More often than not, we as God’s people overlook the glory, the praise, the crown that He so graciously offers us.  Why is this so often the case?  It is just another example of the difficulty that the very people of God have in understanding and accepting God’s grace.  Many Christians cannot bring themselves to the point of believing that God saves with no regard to merit.  Yet when they do perform some good work in the name of the Lord they imagine that they are somehow paying off a debt for their failures and shortcomings as Christians.  They cannot bear to think that it is proper to accept any praise, reward or crown because, in their own thinking, they will never arrive at the point of deserving anything.

In 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul shared his revelation of how the grace of God continues to work in us after salvation.

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”

In salvation, the grace of God works through us when all we do is believe and receive Christ’s work for us on the cross. In sanctification and holiness however, Paul understood that the grace of God works through our efforts, our praying, fasting, and our labor.  We must work, but at the same time, we need to recognize that it is not just man working!  God initiates His work in us, giving us all the resources; His guidance, His wisdom, His power, His Spirit; He provides all the resources to accomplish the task that He has elaborated to the end that He has determined.  The man of God is simply a tool in God’s hands.  The mind and the hand of the master do the work, but never without the tool.  Yet the glorious difference between the illustration of a craftsman and his tool is that a craftsman gets all the glory for his work, but the Christian in the hands of the master craftsman also is included in the recognition and the glory.  This is grace it is unexplainable!  It is nothing logical it is just grace!

Not all Christians will receive a crown.  This is because not all Christians present themselves as a living sacrifice, holy acceptable to God, which is their reasonable service.  In other words, not all Christians present themselves as tools in God’s hands.  We are children of God called to be His ministers (His tools).  Many Christians either do not understand this or do not accept it.  A characteristic of those Christians who understand and accept their role as God’s ministers and vessels is that they look forward to Christ’s return.  In II Timothy 4:7, 8 Paul told his disciple Timothy that he had accomplished everything that God expected of him and was ready for Christ’s coming.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  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.”

Those who have served the Lord faithfully and purposefully in the way and manner that the Lord prescribed in His Word love His appearing!  The crown is for all those that love His appearing, His return.  Many have no love for the idea of Christ’s return.  Christians who are busy with their own agendas and projects and would rather that Christ not come so soon.  This is not the heart of a true servant of God.  God disqualifies such Christians from receiving a crown because they do not care about His work and interests.  They have their own priorities.  These Christians receive the grace of God to do the work of God in vain because while the power and resources to do the Lord’s work are available to them they neglect this grace and remain inactive for the Lord’s purposes.

Another characteristic of those ministers of God who will receive their crown from the Lord are those who endure testing and hardships because of the Lord’s work.

The apostle James wrote in his epistle in chapter 1 verse 12

“Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.”

Here the apostle James confirms the words of Paul in stating that God will try, test, and judge all Christians.  Only those who endure temptation and the difficulties associated with making disciples are apt to receive the crown of life.  This testing necessitates endurance and tears as the psalmist described in Psalm 126:6

“He who continually goes forth weeping, Bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, Bringing his sheaves with him.”

There is rejoicing, but first there is weeping.  These servants of God couple their enduring of temptation with their loving the Lord.  Only those who truly love the Lord will patiently endure the testing.  Most Christians do not endure the testing even to be trained and molded and shaped until they have attained a pattern worthy of being replicated in the lives of others and thus show that their love for the Lord is limited.  However, those that endure will receive a lasting reward at the appearing of the chief Shepherd as Peter attested to in 1 Peter 5:4.

“and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”

Some Christians will endure until the point of death.  The words of the resurrected Jesus that appeared to John on the island of Patmos reveal that at least a group of disciples will endure suffering in prison, tribulation and even death because of the gospel.  This may very well be the description of the experience of those Christians that were initially not ready for the Lord’s coming as a thief before the great tribulation and as a result had to go through the hardships of the persecution of the Anti-Christ.  Yet these Christians depending on their testimony during this most difficult time can also enter into the praise and joy of the Lord’s crowning glory at the judgment seat after the great tribulation and just before the millennium.  John described this experience in Revelation 2:10

“Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

Finally, a somewhat sobering thought, is that there is a good chance that there is a limited amount of crowns available to the ministers that have served the Lord down the ages.  This makes sense since the kingdom will be limited in scope: on the earth for one thousand years.  I would imagine that there will be many positions of honor and glory available for those who will reign with Christ during the millennium but there will not be an infinite amount of crowns.  From the words of the risen Lord in Revelation 3:11 we can easily conclude that although at one point we were qualified to receive it, it is possible for someone to take our crown.  However, this will only happen if someone else became more fruitful or more faithful that us, and the Lord decided that he or she would do better in His service than we would.

“Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.”

We must remember that during the kingdom age the Lord will be governing through a political system as well as a spiritual one.  The Lord’s government must be efficient.  In order for justice to prevail, His ministers must be the most competent and effective possible.  This will necessitate the need to place only the best ministers in each position and responsibility.  Today in the church age, the age of grace, many times and in many places the Lord is limited to use inferior ministers.  Men like Noah, who faithfully built the ark during 500 years before the first rain came and destroyed the earth in the flood, others like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel the Apostles, the great reformers and evangelists and thousands of others throughout the ages will be among those that are chose for these positions.  The Word teaches us that many are called but few are chosen.  These few are the ones that will receive the crowns.  While we must admit that relatively few Christians will be qualified to receive a crown, it is of utmost importance that we understand that we all have the opportunity and thus we must heed Paul’s exhortation to run the race to win the crown.  The sad fact is that very few people desire to run with such force and endurance.  However, the invitation is to all.

We have seen that the context of each passage of scripture that we have examined concerning receiving a crown is that of being qualified, of striving, of doing something in order to receive the crown.  In no portion of scripture are rewards and crowns, glory and honor associated with salvation.  The bible does not support the teaching that all Christians will receive a crown irrespective of their works.  This idea is a product of sloppy theology based on an incomplete understanding of the earthly kingdom of Christ and its purpose in the grand scheme of history.  So why be holy if salvation is by grace only?  We can add to our answer.  Holiness is the only path to a crown of glory and the crown of life in the kingdom of heaven.

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