In the late summer of 480 B.C. the Persian king Xerxes defeated the Greeks at a place called Thermopylae. When the king began to interrogate his captives he chanced upon a curious piece of information about the character of his enemy. In the Olympic Games going on that same summer, Greek athletes were not competing for a prize of gold. Instead, the cherished prize was a wreath of olive branches to wear upon the head. “What manner of men are these we fight?” cried one of the king’s men. “Tis not for money they contend, but for the glory of achievement!” (Herodotus, VIII, 26).
Their simple wreath was called a stephanos (STEFF ah noss), or what we translate a “crown.” Sometimes also made of ivy, oak leaves, laurel, or parsley, the stephanos was awarded to victorious athletes, triumphant soldiers, and important leaders in government. Their crown proclaimed their achievement. It was a symbol of their victory.
In the New Testament we find the stephanos in two contexts for the victorious Christian. The more obvious crown for us, perhaps, is the crown of life awaiting us in heaven (Rev 2:10). But we have a foretaste of heaven in another crown we wear. Paul told his beloved Philippians they were his crown -- his source of pride, his symbol of achievement (Phil 4:1; see also 1 Thess 2:19).
For the veteran missionary or preacher, the stephanos is a faithful convert. For the weary professor at the end of the college year, the stephanos is a talented graduate. A prize to be proud of, an object to be loved, a foretaste of heaven -- this is our hope, our joy, our stephanos!