Today is Nowruz, the spring equinox festival of the Iranians. To my Iranian friends, who have meant so much, hope you’ve had a good festival season (it runs about two weeks back in the old country.)
Last November I ran a piece about the Persian origin of the term “King of Kings,” which most Christians are unaware of. Since that time I’ve come to realise something else about the New Testament’s use of the title that I had never thought about, and I dare say most Christians hadn’t either.
Let me repeat the use of the title in Revelation:
From his mouth comes a sharp sword, with which ‘to smite the nations; and he will rule them with an iron rod.’ He ‘treads the grapes in the press’ of the maddening wine of the Wrath of Almighty God; and on his robe and on his thigh he has this name written– ‘KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.’ (Revelation 19:15-16 TCNT)
Any inspection of the maps at the back of the Bible will show that most of the action of the New Testament takes place in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. (See below.)
Facing that eastern half was the Persian Empire, first Parthian and later Sassanid. The two sparred for basically the same territory ISIS is fighting for today for about half a millennium, until the rise of Islam.
The Persians called their highest ruler the “King of Kings.” They could use this as a battle cry, as the Roman historian (who actually served in this theatre of war) Ammianus Marcellinus noted at the Battle of Amida in 359:
Our men extolled the prowess of Constantius Caesar, ‘lord of all things and of the world,’ while the Persians hailed Sapor as Saanshah and Peroz, titles which signify ‘king of kings’ and ‘conqueror in war.’ (Res Gestae, 19,2)
Coming back to John the Revelator, he states that Jesus Christ will come back as a conquering king using the title that the enemy in the east used for their ruler. This not only lifted up the lordship of Jesus Christ; it was highly subversive, and John’s readers in the seven churches would have picked up on that.
N.T. Wright emphasises that the early church’s message was that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. John’s use of a Persian title for the returning Messiah drove that message home in a way that believers–and those who persecuted them–would not miss.
And as for the Iranians today, it is my prayer that you will know the peace and love that comes from the eternal “King of Kings.”