Occasionally I end up staying with children in Sunday school at our church in Jos and so sometimes end up hearing some of the stories and memory verses. Memory verse are a fundamental part of Sunday should for children in Nigeria and they will often patiently practice and repeat them for 20 minutes or so until children can repeat it. This has often given me an opportunity to ponder translation issues in those verses.
James 1:12. Blessed are those who persevere under trial because when they have stood the test they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
(Whatever translation the Sunday School used, quite likely NIV.)
There are some terminology and logic problems I think my 4 and 6 year old children would struggle with here for this to be meaningful. Despite liking indirect communication, I do prefer to keep the tough parts for the most important and meaningful part of the communication so that the effort of understanding pays greatest suitable dividends. So this is one effort:
God loves it when people keep going strong when they face a hard test. When they have passed the test without giving up, God will honour and reward them with real life just as he promised to do to people who love him.
(Disclaimer: produced while Sunday school was going on, so without any other resources at my disposal)
But I haven’t really dealt with logic and timeline confusions that might go on here. So here are the bare elements with limited connections.
Logic and time:
- God has promised to give a prize to people who love him. [Time: past]
- People will face hard tests. [Time: future or unspecified]
- Some people will stand the test without giving up.
- God loves that. [Time: habitual/unspec?]
- Those are the people God will give his reward to.
- The reward (prize) will be life.
I’m thinking I might use this to talk it through with my girls to make sure they understand the connections. We might even try adding logical connectors that 4-6 year-olds understand.
Terminology: What about the crown of life?
But you might ask what happened to ‘crown of life’, perhaps the most notable element of this verse.
It is commonly held that of indicates possession. Clearly that’s not the full story. ‘Noun of noun‘ expressions need to be learned either individually or to fit a standard pattern determined by one or both nouns or category of noun. So let’s investigate the possibilities that English gives us, both for a fixed idiom or a category-based template for understanding the meaning of the phrase crown of life:
Common English patterns:
- Crown of UK.
- Crown of <country>
- It’s a symbol of rulership, royalty.
- Crown of the king/queen.
- Crown of <ruler>
- Literally what they wear. Figuratively, their rulership, perhaps.
- Crown of the/a hill / crown of someone’s head.
- Crown of <something with a top>
- The top part.
Those were all of the senses that came to mind for ‘crown of’ (not just ‘crown’).
However, there was another less idiomatic but just about imaginable figurative sense:
- Crown/wreath of a winner.
- Meaning a prize. Medal. Honour. Reward.
Of course taking the ‘of’ and the ‘crown’ both literally and separately gives a couple of options:
- crown belonging to life?
- crown which gives life?
My conclusion (I later discover supported by NIDNTT) is that the only plausible option is to take crown as a prize won by or presented to someone. But rather than ‘life’ being that someone, we have a missing (implied) recipient, and the literal manifestation of the figurative ‘crown’ is explained as being life. So in other words, life is a prize or honour or reward promised by God to those he loves and given to those who struggle on through.
How did I choose that?
Well, taking the 3 kinds of categories of meaning for ‘crown of…’, I find ‘life’ doesn’t fit any standard categories. It isn’t a country, isn’t a ruler, isn’t something with a top part. So then knowing that Paul in the Greek context sometimes is thinkinga bout races and laurel wreaths etc, we try the figurative sense of crown as an honour. But unless we understand ‘of’ as denoting the recipient being ‘life’ (=nonsense, because a recipient must be a person) then we have to understand the recipient to be already in our minds, implied by the context – it is the people who persevere through hard tests. And then the ‘of’ doesn’t indicate possession, but a more literal description. This is sometimes called ‘epexegetical’. It explains a figure of speech in a plain way, or gives another angle on it.
And the conclusion
All that to say, ‘crown of life’ is really problematic, because it doesn’t use phrases or words in the way that English does. This means we’re either going to not understand anything or spend a lot of time trying to puzzle it out. And I really don’t think it’s supposed to be a riddle, but something pretty plain. Hence my own translation which tries to use English more properly and less perversely.
So undoubtedly it is different. But is the meaning actually different?
Comparing the original and any translation…
- What is the main focus?
- Is it clearly a blessing exhortation (like Psalm 1, and the Beattitudes) showing what God approves of?
- Is it clear that God promised first the reward which is life, so that grace comes before faith?
- Is it clear how this exhortation should encourage people to struggle through and remain faithful to Christ, even if they risk death?
That’s one for the comments section, I think.