James and the ‘Crown of Life’: the crown in the Ancient World.

Image result for ancient victor's crown

James wrote his New Testament epistle to scattered and persecuted Christians struggling to stand firm in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage and challenge them, offering practical wisdom on the outworking of their faith in their lives, the need to endure, and the reality that God changes the believer.

His short letter opens with a section dedicated to facing trials and temptations in God’s strength. He exhorts his readers to cling to spiritual provision (vs16-18) during times of great spiritual challenge and danger (vs13-15). In verse 12, James encourages his readers by looking forward together.

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:12 (NIV)

Blessed are those, writes James, who stand firm under pressure, who keep on in the trials and temptations of life, because at the end of all that is the crown of life. The prize, the goal, the crown of life. James’ words echo Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8, where the Apostle speaks of what lies in store for him, and those who are faithful to Christ.

there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing

2 Timothy 4:8

Both writers use the same Greek word to describe this crown – στέφανος – meaning crown, or wreath. And it was a word with majestic implications. Not as the crown of a king or queen as we might imagine today, but far more accessible, though just as noble.

The στέφανος in the Ancient World

The use of στέφανος in the ancient world is widespread, and by the time the New Testament was written, in the first century AD, the word had been used in the context of this crown/wreath for nearly a millennium. Homer (Il. 18.597) spoke of the crowns worn by girls in group dances and in the sixth century BC the Athenian playwright Euripides spoke of men garlanding their heads with wreaths of roses (Hipp. 73f). In the more immediate Roman context, Pliny (Hist. Nat. 18.2.6) records how certain priests, known as the Arvals, wear crowns at festivals, a tradition he suggests was instituted by Romulus himself.

The word then was well established. Indeed, it had far reaching popular connotations. I’ve long been taught that New Testament uses of this word were connected to the crowns given to victors in ancient sporting contests. Such an idea is often suggested alongside citation of 2 Cor 9:25 or 2 Tim 2:5. There is certainly truth in this, and this was a common use of the στέφανος, but the connotations of this word reach far further than just that. James uses the word because it is one with real weight and meaning behind it.

As suggested by some of the citations above, the ancient world attributed such crowns to religious settings. Wreaths or crowns often played roles in cultic celebrations, they were holy dress, worn by priests and linked in many cases directly to the gods.* Crowns extended beyond the priesthood in many cults of the ancient world through processions and feast celebrations. Again the ancient record is littered with references to specific people wearing wreaths and crowns on certain feast days or at certain festivals, in recognition of the god or goddess they worshipped. Such crowns seemed to carry connotations of salvation and protection in the ancient world as well. the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, in one comedy, describes a slave saved from a beating because he was wearing a crown (Pl. 21f), whilst the emperor Tiberius was known to wear laurel wreaths during thunderstorms because of their association with averting lightning (Plin., Hist. Nat. 15.134f).

Wreaths and crowns then, appeared in a myriad of contexts in the ancient world. But of course we must note their link to sporting contests. Victors were crowned with wreaths of olive, at the Olympic Games in Greece, such wreaths were cut from sacred olive trees with a golden sickle. The victor was crowned, and Xenophon (Mem. III.7.1) tells how after the Delphic Games, the victor was lauded in a procession which ended at his house, which was then also crowned in a wreath as an extra show of honour and victory! These crowns were immense honours, a sign of supreme earthly fortune, and often accompanied by rich prizes of gold or olive oil to represent that. To win such a crown was the greatest prize, a sign of quasi-immortality before all mankind.

There is more we could say on the στέφανος. These crowns played roles in the marriage ceremonies of the ancient Roman world, in the honouring of the dead, and in the oracles and Mystic Cults that abounded. But what is clear to see in all of these settings, the στέφανος was a very special prize. It was reserved for special individuals, on certain days or occasions, and carried with it connotations of salvation, glory, victory and completion.

The Στέφανος for James’ Audience

So what then, would this word have meant to the original readers of this letter? What would James’ readers, scattered former Jewish Christians facing intense persecution for their new faith, have made of this particular sentence?

James was telling battered and bruised believers, that no matter what they faced now, when they crossed that finish line, when they ran or stumbled or crawled over the line into the arms of their Saviour, that this crown awaited them.

The στέφανος was holy. It was set apart for specific people and specific contexts. And it was glorious. It embodied hope, victory, status, salvation. James didn’t use the word lightly when describing the prize his readers had in store for them. He knew their earthly experience was tough. Like the athlete sweating it out in the ancient games, or the worker toiling in the sun, longing for the day of rest that came with the next festival. Their στέφανος was a wonderful prize, one that signalled an end to their present suffering, and the awarding of all the good gifts that come with such a prize. But whilst an earthly crown of laurel or olive may fade away, James spoke of the στέφανος of life. Here was a crown that would never perish, spoil or fade. Here was a victory, a celebration, a religious moment that would never end. Here was the ultimate prize. James meant it when he said the one who carries on to that prize is truly blessed!

To a readership struggling under widespread persecution, social ostracism and the everyday sufferings of the ancient world, this crown of life must have leapt off of the page. An unimaginable prize described in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly exhilarating way.

What about Us?

James wrote to encourage suffering believers to keep on, to lean on their Father, to live out their faith practically and well in the ancient world. He wrote to encourage them to press on in the trials of life towards a treasure that will never perish, spoil or fade. He wrote to encourage them towards their reward: the crown of life. His message rings true for us today. In a world where life can bear down on us, sufferings closing in from all around, and persecution for our faith can take many forms, James holds out the crown of life.

This στέφανος was a picture of the ultimate prize. A picture of rest from toil and struggle. A picture of a great and glorious reward after a bitter and long contest. A picture of victory. The wonderful news of the Gospel is that that same crown is held out to us today. The Gospel promises eternal life, eternal rest, eternal victory. Christ makes us heirs and coheirs of eternity. In Him, the Christian who endures is given a great and glorious rest, with Him for all eternity. And wonderfully, the Gospel promises (Romans 8:39) that God will keep his saints keeping on. The ultimate prize is there for the believer who perseveres. So lean on your Father, hide yourself in Him, and keep on until we claim the prize: an eternity with the God we love.

*Take for example Dionysus. Ivy was a sign of this god, and Euripides describes how the followers of Dionysus wear crowns of woven ivy in worship of him, signifying a fellowship of life and death (Bacc. 177)

‘Systematic exploitation’ and the freedom of Christ.

Image result for unbelievable tom holland tom wright

I recently watched the UnBelievable interview with Tom Holland and Tom Wright.

I enjoyed it immensely, and if you haven’t yet watched it, it’s a few years old but still an interesting conversation to listen in on.

One thing that stood out for me was the use of a particular phrase by the writer and historian Tom Holland. Holland claimed that the ancient world was built and sustained through the concept of what he called “systematic exploitation”.

Holland goes on… “the entire economy is founded on slave labour, the sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want anyway that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”

Holland’s comments reveal a cruel and oppressive nature in the ancient world, that, rightly, clashes with our own ways of looking at the world. This is not a blog post aimed at dissecting why it is we are so uncomfortable with such behaviour, though for a timeless book on such questions, I would recommend C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Oppression of Rome

Holland is speaking of Ancient Rome with these comments (he reflects them back to Greece as well – but his focus is the later ancient power). And the Rome he describes is the Rome in which Jesus lived and died, Paul wrote and travelled, and the Early Church was founded and grew. In the Italian peninsula alone, some studies suggest the slave population was around 3 million by 100 AD. Another study reckons between 5 and 6 million slaves empire wide by 260 AD. That’s nearly 15% of the entire imperial population, enslaved and oppressed.

Holland mentions the sexual oppression of the ancient world, and there was certainly a culture of manipulation and abuse in this regard. Prostitution, adultery and paedophilia were commonplace in the Roman world, some thought of as respectable, some regarded as crass. Little of it was considered wrong or evil.

The ancient world was built on the systematic oppression of the poor, vulnerable, alien and needy. Much of what went on in Ancient Rome ought to repulse us. But this was the everyday world of the Early Church. Before they became Christians, respectable men and women would have viewed sex completely differently, would have happily owned other people for the simple sake of household chores and business matters, and would have turned a blind eye to the brothels, slave markets and sexually licentious drinking parties that they both walked past and engaged in.

Christianity in Context

Such a context ought to shock us when we read passages like these of Paul…

“The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.”

1 Corinthians 6:13-17 (NIV)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

An open sexuality, prostitution and slavery were so commonplace in the ancient world. Let’s take these two cases in turn, because Paul has something to say about the oppression of Ancient Rome, and the way (and reason) Christians ought to respond to it.

Sexually: Christians must be different. Sex is God’s gift to mankind, to be wonderfully and joyfully embraced in marriage. Prostitution contorts this. It breaks this marriage bond, distorting God’s good gift into a broken thing. More than that, the Christian is now united not only with their spouse, but with Christ! The Christian is one with the Lord in Spirit. How could something so holy, pure and good be united with a prostitute? Paul is radical in this teaching. Prostitution isn’t a perfectly fine everyday occurrence, its a distortion of God’s pattern for relationships and the world, and the believer must flee from it. Paul speaks of the prostitute here too. Her body is united in sexual immorality. This is a concerned message. Prostitution, sexual licentiousness, it doesn’t just turn one person from a right view of and relationship with the Lord, it takes two. Paul is urging Christians to flee from this sexual oppression, for their own sake as well as the sake of those they would be oppressing.

Paul is just as radical with slavery. Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul urges masters to be kind to their slaves, forgiving them their errors and treating them justly. But here, Paul speaks to slaves themselves. Paul commands them to obey their masters, to work hard for them, as for the Lord. A radical teaching! It is not a command to flee their oppression, but rather to respond to it in gracious subservience. There is so much that could be said on these two passages, and both betray huge topics that must rightly be explored. But in Paul’s response, there is one unifying theme that stands starkly against the systematic exploitation of the Roman world in which he writes.

Freedom in Christ.

In the Roman world, freedom was a big deal. Paul repeatedly used his freedom as a Roman citizen as defence in Acts, and citizenship (as discussed in my earlier blog) was a big deal. But even such freedom came with the recognition that you were part of the Roman machine. You were subservient to the Emperor, the elites, the laws and cultural quirks of Rome. True freedom, taught the Early Church, is only found in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

Christ has set the believer free. Free from sin, shame, oppression and evil. Free from serving and doing what is wrong. Free from the final and ultimate punishment that our broken and sinful hearts deserve. Christ has set us free to live for Him.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

1 Peter 2:16 (NIV)

The Christian in the Roman world, and the Christian today, is called to a wonderful freedom in Christ. But that freedom is a calling from a life of sinful slavery. So, urges Paul and Peter, don’t use your freedom to carry on as you were. Live different.

Paul urged men and women to live sexually pure lives, they are now free in Christ to pursue sex in its right place, in marriage. They are now free to show love to the oppressed by treating them lovingly, not abusively. And Paul commanded slaves to live humble, hardworking lives. Because they are free to do so. Free to honour their masters, submitting to them as though to the Lord, because they are free to live for Him. Knowing, as every Christian knows, that their freedom is eternal and far outlasts the cares and worries of this earth, no matter how great they may be.

The Roman world was built on a systematic oppression of minorities, the impoverished and the vulnerable. Christ’s Church is built of free men and women, of brothers and sisters born not of the same earthly parent, but won through the wondrous actions of Christ on the cross. The Roman world was never truly free. But in the Early Church, men and women were living truly free lives in the ancient world. Living different, living free.

‘Food sacrificed to idols.’ 1 Corinthians 8 in Context.

This blog is a little different. My church recently had a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8. In this chapter Paul addresses the response of the Corinthian believer to the problem of food that has been sacrificed to idols (vs1).

The pastor who preached this sermon was really helpful in unpacking the cultural background Paul is writing in and this blog is my effort to put those thoughts down on screen for people to engage with.

Paul’s argument in this chapter is that this sacrificed food is as an issue of strong/weak believers. In a similar manner to his teaching in Romans 14 and 15, Paul encourages believers for whom this food is not an issue to be wary of the impact it may have on believers who may still see such food as defiled. If it could be a stumbling block for someone, Paul says he would never eat meat again, rather than defile a brother with sin!

But why is this an issue? Whether preaching this text in church or tackling it in a personal devotional, let me flesh out the cultural background to Paul’s instruction.

Roman religion was transactional. If one wanted to thank the gods for something, or ask the gods for something, or even to apologise to the gods, then they had to give something. Sacrifice. The worshipper parted with a sacrificial item in return for the good favour or grace of the god or goddess to whom their worship was aimed.

And food was a common sacrifice in the Roman world. The gods feasted on the action of giving and the aroma of the sacrifice. A portion of the food may have been burnt in order to send up to heaven this fragrance of sacrifice, but the food “sacrificed to idols” that Paul was concerned with would have been more than just what was consumed by the fire. The food would be a gift to the gods, left in the temple and consecrated as holy to a particular god or goddess. But the food could then go on to be part of a sacrificial feast which the people shared with the gods.

Food sacrifices could include bread, grains, wine, fruit, meat, cakes and much more. It could even include whole animals, which would be roasted over a fire, part consumed by the flames and part by the priest and the people.

So what was the problem facing Christians in this setting? Temples, idols and altars were everywhere. Think of Paul in Acts 17. In verses 22-23 Paul talks of how he walked round the city seeing their many “objects of worship”, so many in fact they even have an altar to an unknown god!

Because it was so widespread, the Christian couldn’t avoid the religion of the Roman world, and in the food sacrificed in the temples of the ancient world, they were faced with a moral dilemma. Could they eat it? The Christian knew such food, which was available all over the towns and cities they lived in, was sacrificed to gods that didn’t exist and thus had no power or meaning. But they also knew such food was defiled (1 Cor 8:7). It was offered to false gods and idols. It was food of pagan religion. Could the Christian eat it?

Paul says yes.

But should they?

Paul says maybe.

If it would cause the weaker brother, unable to move past the purpose of the food sacrifice, to stumble into the sin of eating food offered to a god who is not God, then it ought to be rejected. But if those involved recognised that food “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (vs8), then they were free to eat, what difference does it make asks Paul?

Food was sacrificed to idols as part and parcel of pagan religion in the ancient world. Much of that food was then kept and distributed by the priests and temple workers, it was often free to take and eat.


Should the Christian get involved? Paul says this is a matter of freedom, but also of showing grace to the weaker brother.

We ought to read this passage as a challenge to our own freedoms. By God’s wonderful grace we are eternally free in Him. There is much we can do as we live for Him. This specific example, food sacrificed to idols, though an issue for the Corinthian church, is rarely an issue for the modern church. But Paul’s point translates directly. Are we to put exercising our freedoms above looking our for the moral purity of our brothers and sisters? By no means. Just because we are free to do something, might not mean it is right. If it were to cause our brother to sin, we ought to mirror Paul in his meat eating example of vs13. If doing ‘x’ might cause our weaker brother to sin? Then it would be better that we never do ‘x’ again!

In grace we are free. But in our freedom we can extend grace.