A crown is a symbol of power, authority, and kingship. But in Revelation, both the folks on God's side and the guys on the other side wear crowns. What gives? Can two opposing sides rule equally as kings? Well, not for long.
As much as it annoys the Christians who are being persecuted by Rome, the emperors are still in charge. They are kings on Earth and they've got the power. They've also got the crowns to prove it.
This is probably why John gives a few of the bad guys some crowns to wear. For example,
• the locusts wear "what look[s] like crowns of gold" (9:7). We're guessing that they might tarnish a little over time.
• the Dragon wears seven diadems on seven heads (12:3). You know, when one crown just won't do.
• the Sea Beast has ten diadems on his ten horns (13:1). Now that's just overkill.
Revelation also talks about other creepy kings like "the king of the bottomless pit" (9:11) and the Beast's kingdom in Rome. The other kings of the world also don't take to kindly to God. They weep for the Whore of Babylon when she is destroyed and join with the Dragon to do battle with Heaven the final time.
So yeah, these guys are all kings, but it's clear that Revelation doesn't think they're legit. They're also not going to last long. Sure, they have earthly authority, but God has divine authority. They might think they are powerful and mighty, but that was before the Four Horsemen descended from the sky. Hold onto your ill-gotten crowns, guys. You're in for a bumpy ride.
So who's really in charge?
This one is no surprise—it's the one who sits on the throne himself. God and his buds are often seen sporting crowns, but this time, they're for real:
• The martyrs will get a crown for their victory (2:10, 3:11). In this case, victory means dying.
• In Heaven, the 24 elders wear crowns (4:4). Daily crown polishing is big job for the angels.
• The Woman Clothed with the Sun wears a crown of stars (12:1). Nice.
• Jesus wears different crowns for different occasions (14:14, 19:12). After all, his reaping crown clashes so badly with his battle outfit.
God is also spoken of in terms of a king. He sits on a throne and reigns over a kingdom (1:6). Jesus, too, gets the fancy title "Lord of lords and King of kings" (17:14), which isn't too shabby.
Revelation is clearly trying to say that these are the real kings. They are juxtaposed to the kings of Earth who are greedy and vain and ignorant of the truth about God. The crowned ones in Heaven will do battle with the crowned ones on Earth and it is not going to turn out pretty for the guys from Earth. Plagues. Rivers of blood. Giant hailstones. You know the deal.
So real and imposter kings appear in other places in art and literature:
• Emperor Palpatine may be an emperor, but he is not on the right side of the Force. He also doesn't wear a crown, but the hood kind of strikes fear into our hearts.
• In Doctor Who, the sinister Daleks have their own emperor who also has a bit of a God complex. Meaning he thinks he is one.
• In Robin Hood, Prince John wears an oversized crown that keeps falling down his head. Maybe he should think it over next time he tries to take the place of the real king.
• The Return of the King is pretty much all about, well, the return of the king. Aragon comes back to take his crown and his rightful place and order is restored. Huzzah!
• At the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children are all crowned and rule as kings and queens of Narnia. That is, of course, once they've overthrown that usurper, the White Witch.
• Tangled revolves around a stolen crown, which turns out to belong to the heroine, who was herself stolen away from her rightful place as princess.
• Because he's a super humble guy, George Washington declined the title "His Highness the President of the United States of America" and settled instead on the simple, decidedly less regal, "Mr. President" (source).