Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated Reading Time: 8 min., 32 sec.
Did you know that God promises a crown of righteousness to all those who love Jesus’ appearing?
Not only are Christians to look for it but they are to love it. This presents a different dimension for believers as they patiently await the soon coming of their Lord. Just what did the apostle Paul mean by this phrase? Observant Christians around the globe will soon observe the Festival of Trumpets, which represents, by typology, Jesus’ Second Coming after seven trumpet plagues. This Digging Deeper explores Paul’s phrase about loving His appearing to gain a deeper appreciation for how Christians should await the coming of our Lord while we prepare for the next Holy Day.
Our focus verse is: “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8 KJV throughout). This verse comes near the end of Paul’s last epistle in our New Testament. He is suffering deplorable conditions in a Roman prison awaiting his execution during a time of growing anti-Christian activism in the Roman government. In this epistle, Paul gives final instructions to his young protégé, Timothy, to carry on preaching the gospel and caring for the Churches of God in Paul’s absence. Paul knows his time is very short and that he had almost finished his apostolic work. The bottom line was that he had “kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7).
Fighting and Running
Verses 7 and 8 are based figuratively on athletic competition, like the Olympics today, that was popular in the Greek and Roman Empires, including in the city of Corinth. In verse 7, Paul declares: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7 KJV). The image he portrays is that of the first-century boxer in fierce combat. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible describes this combat: “Boxing (1 Corinthians 9:26–27), one of the most popular Greek competitions, was violent. Boxers’ leather gloves protected most of their forearms but left the fingers bare. A still more violent version was a form of combat known as the pankration, which mixed boxing with wrestling. Its only rules were against gouging the eyes of one’s adversary and biting” (Tecarta Bible App). Of course, Paul meant he had fought a fierce spiritual battle.
In the next phrase, Paul declared he had finished his course, referring to a foot racecourse. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words defines this Greek word for course: “dromos (G1408), properly, ‘a running, a race’ (from edramon, ‘to run’), hence, metaphorically, denotes ‘a career, course of occupation, or of life,’ viewed in a special aspect, Acts 13:25; Acts 20:24; 2 Timothy 4:7” (e-Sword 13.0). Earlier, Paul stated he desired to finish his course with joy (Acts 20:24).
Competing for the Crown
The reward for finishing first in a contest was a crown. The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible defines it as: “A wreath (Greek stephanos, not the kingly diadēma) was awarded for first place in a race (v. 7), like a gold medal today” (Tecarta Bible App). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible explains these material crowns: “Victors’ crowns at Greek competitions were wreaths: wild olive for the Olympics and pine or withered celery for the Isthmian Games” (Tecarta Bible App). David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary suggests how this Greek word likely brought back a painful memory to Paul: “Before Paul was a Christian he supervised the execution of the first martyr and then began to kill as many other Christians as he could. But now at the end of his life he was ready to receive a crown – a stephanos. It is likely that he remembered the name of the first martyr, who died at Paul’s own hands: Stephanos (Stephen)” (e-Sword 13.0).
Various crowns are assured Christians in the New Testament, as described by The Defender’s Study Bible: “This is one of the crowns symbolizing rewards for faithful service, which Christ will award at His judgment seat (2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 3:14). These include: ‘an incorruptible [crown]’ (1 Corinthians 9:25), the ‘crown of rejoicing’ (1 Thessalonians 2:19), ‘the crown of life’ (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10), and ‘a crown of glory’ (1 Peter 5:4)” (e-Sword 13.0).
But the one Paul mentions in our focus verse is the crown of righteousness. This phrase has been understood with different senses as explained by the NIV Study Bible: “He could be referring to (1) a crown given as a reward for a righteous life, (2) a crown consisting of righteousness or (3) a crown given righteously (justly) by the righteous Judge” (Tecarta Bible App). Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible connects Christ the Righteous Judge with a judge in Roman games: “He alludes here to the brabeus, or umpire in the Grecian games, whose office it was to declare the victor, and to give the crown” (e-Sword 13.0).
Only one winner?
Albert Barnes Notes on the Bible comments that only one person won the prize in these games: “At the Grecian games, but one could obtain the prize; 1 Corinthians 9:24. All the rest who contended in those games, no matter how numerous they were, or how skillfully they contended, or how much effort they made, were of course subjected to the mortification of a failure, and to all the ill-feeling and envy to which such a failure might give rise” (e-Sword 13.0). By contrast, in the Christian “athletic games,” all potentially could be awarded, as Barnes continues: “No matter how numerous the competitors, or how worthy any one of them may be, or how pre-eminent above his brethren, yet all may obtain the prize … No one is excluded because another is successful; no one fails of the reward because another obtains it. Who, then, would not make an effort to win the immortal crown” (Ibid.)?
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible explains Christ’s reasoning why all could receive this prize: “Here is a reward, but it is a reward not of debt but of grace; for it is by the grace of God that even an apostle is fitted for glory. And this reward is common to the faithful; it is given, not only to apostles, but to all them that love his appearing. This crown is laid up – it is in view, but not in possession” (e-Sword 13.0). The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable describe the proper attitude for receiving such a reward: “An expectation of reward is also a recognition of God’s grace. Those who anticipate reward will not be able to boast, ‘Look at my accomplishments.’ They should be able to offer praise to God by saying, ‘Thank you, Lord, for what you have produced in me.’ The very expectation of reward is an acknowledgment of God’s grace'” (e-Sword 13.0).
Love His Appearing
In verse 8, the words that day have a special significance as explained by the NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible: “A time of final reckoning, for good or ill. See 1:12,18; see also note on 1:12. Jesus spoke of ‘that day’ over a dozen times, both as judgment (Luke 21:34) and as a joyful time of reward (Luke 6:23) and reunion with Christ (Matt 26:29)” (Tecarta Bible App).
Receiving such a reward by all Christians is dependent on their loving His appearing, as explained by The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable: “This reward (victor’s crown, Gr. stephanos) will go to all Christians like Paul who, by the way they lived, demonstrated a longing for the Lord’s return. Not all Christians are anxious for the Lord to return since some know they need to change their way of living” (e-Sword 13.0).
Sir W. Robertson Nicoll’s The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts portrays various attitudes Christians may express towards the prospect of Jesus’ return: “There are four attitudes of mind in which we may stand respecting the ‘appearing’ of Christ. By far the worst is ‘indifference’; and that indifference may be either the dullness of ignorance, or the apathy or the deadness of the moral feelings. The next state is, ‘fear’. There is always something very good when there is ‘fear’. It requires faith to ‘fear’. But above ‘fear’ is ‘hope’. ‘Hope’ is expectation with desire: knowledge enough to be able to anticipate and grace enough to be able to wish it And here the ladder is generally cut off; but God carries it one step higher—’love’. ‘Love’ is as much above ‘hope’ as ‘hope’ is above ‘fear’—for ‘hope’ may be selfish, ‘love’ cannot be; ‘hope’ may be for what a person gives, ‘love’ must be for the person himself” (e-Sword 13.0).
Christians are to prepare for Jesus’ return. They need to examine themselves regarding their attitude to Jesus’ coming, as expressed in these four different attitudes from our previous quotation. Christians should examine themselves in springtime before Passover, but they also should examine themselves in autumn before the Festival of Trumpets. In this festival season, absorb and meditate upon these words from the apostle John: “And now, little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:28).
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.