The crown of life is mentioned twice in the New Testament—once in James and once in Revelations. In both instances, the crown is received by those who stand the test through perseverance in the faith.
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. (James 1:12)
Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Revelations 2:10)
What Is the Crown?
When James and John allude to the “crown of life,” they aren’t thinking of some literal, physical crown. The “crown of life” refers to eternal life itself. It’s not just a bonus reward that only some people get in the eternal kingdom, but rather the prize received by all entrants into heaven.
This particular phrase uses what is known in Greek grammar as the genitive of apposition or epexegetical genitive. The genitive of apposition is often used when the head noun (here, “crown”) is metaphorical. The substantive in the genitive case that follows (here, “of life”) refers roughly to the same thing as the head noun (“crown”). (For more detail, check out this chart).
Put in simple terms, “crown of life” means more specifically “the crown that is life.” Life itself is the future reward. In keeping with the genitive of apposition, “crown” is a metaphorical reference that is further clarified by “of life.” So, the “crown of life” is simply another way to say “eternal life.”
This same concept applies to other “crowns” mentioned in the epistles. We read of a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8) and a “crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4). Just as with the crown of life, righteousness and glory are the rewards themselves. This makes perfect sense. When we enter heaven, we will be forever justified (found righteous) and glorified.
Conditions Upon Receiving Eternal Life
According to James, the crown will be given only to those who are approved after persevering under trial. The trial, of course, is a testing. It reveals the quality of that which is tested, in this case the Christian. After being tested by various trials, we will be either be approved or rejected. Those that are approved will receive eternal life (represented by the crown of life).
This crown has been promised to those who love God. Those who persevere and stand approved have been shown to truly love God, and thus receive eternal life. The one who is approved through perseverance and the one who loves God are one and the same. If you love God, you will persevere. If you persevere through trials, you show your love for God. They are different perspectives of the same reality.
The other reference in Revelations is completely consistent with the teaching in James. They both reinforce each other and communicate the same message. John, relaying the words of Jesus, writes that those who “remain faithful until death” will receive eternal life. Those who persevere until the day they die are those who are tested and found approved. They truly love God, as evidenced by their willingness to lay down their lives for Him. They walk in the same footsteps of Jesus as true disciples, loving as Jesus loved. As such, they receive the crown of life, which symbolizes eternal life.
This perseverance until our death isn’t in our strength alone, but with God’s help as we walk in obedience with Him. He will strengthen and guide us to the end, no matter what the trials. However, we must remain in Him through daily laying down our lives in service to God and others. If we are continually faithful in the small matters, he will strengthen us to remain faithful when faced with trials no mortal could withstand without divine help. And once we have overcome, we will receive the crown of life—life forever with God.
The words of Paul speak to this reality of God’s support as we abide in Him:
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass. (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)