The first mention of a crown is in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: "Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run... I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified." The subject of most of chapter 9 is preaching the gospel. Paul is teaching spiritual truths using terminology very familiar to the Corinthians, intense physical training, exercising self-control in all things, keeping the body and mind in subjection to the will of God, in order to win the most people to the Lord. This is all "for the gospel's sake" as verse 23 reveals. The incorruptible crown is for those who keep running in the Christian race and are not rejected from the competition.
Next is the crown of rejoicing. "For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy." (1 Thessalonians 2:19, 20) Paul also referred to the Philippians believers as his "joy and crown." Paul had won these people to the Lord, and they had stood fast in spite of persecution and pressure. Paul was rejoicing that they had withstood the storms, and their tenacious faith he "wore" as a victor's wreath. The crown of rejoicing is for believers led to the Lord.
Next is the crown of righteousness. "Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing." (2 Timothy 4:8) This crown is for living righteously according to God's Word. Some who have heard and believed will "turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." (2 Timothy 4:4) Not everyone will love His appearing. J. Oswald Sanders writes, "This crown is awarded to those who have completed the Christian race with integrity, with eyes fixed on the coming Lord. It is the reward for fulfilling the ministry entrusted to one."
Next is the crown of life, mentioned in James 1:12: "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him."
James chapter one makes it clear that God's people will be besieged with temptations. Paul expressed his concern for believers in 1 Thessalonians 3:5: "For this reason, when I could no longer endure it, I sent to know your faith, lest by some means the tempter had tempted you, and our labor might be in vain." In Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed, there were those who hear God's Word, but immediately "the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart." (Matthew 13:19) The crown of life is awarded to those who persevere and resist temptations.
The crown of glory is mentioned last, and is for Christian leadership. "...when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away." (1 Peter 5:4) Peter exhorts overseers to shepherd the flock of God. The shepherd knows his sheep, guides, feeds, cherishes, protects and preserves them. This kind of pastoring is worthy of the unfading crown of glory.
New Testament Greek scholar, Kenneth Wuest makes the point that "The crown given to victors in either athletics or war was made of oak or ivy leaves, the festal garlands of the marriage feast, of flowers. These would wither and fade. But the victor's crown which the Lord Jesus will give His faithful under-shepherds will never wither or fade. What form this reward will take, is not stated." Although it is not known exactly what these crowns will be, only those who remain faithful will have the joy of receiving them. Revelation 3:11 says, "Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown."