For centuries, Iran was known as Persia, becoming one of the largest empires the world had ever seen. Persia's empire included not only modern Iran but Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and many others.
In light of the present hostility between Iran and Israel, most of us today, including Iranians, are not aware that biblical Jewish history and the history of Iran intersect at profound levels. The Hebrew Bible contains 240 references to Iran and the Persian people, including prophecies, royalty, epic battles and history-making decrees that changed the world.
The scriptures describe in detail how both Persia and the Jewish people helped to fulfill an extraordinary promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12. God used the Persian people in a significant way to bring hope and healing to the world. Even more surprising to some is that the Jewish people became one of the favored people groups of the Persian empire.
The Prophecy of a Persian King
While living in Jerusalem, Isaiah prophesied that the Lord would use a future king of the Persians named Cyrus, whom he called “the anointed one,” meaning “messiah” (Isaiah 45:1). When Isaiah calls Cyrus the Messiah, which is typically only used to reference kings, it was a metaphor to indicate this was a person whom God would use for a special purpose in His plan.
No one could have imagined how the future King Cyrus would help to fulfill the 70-year-old prophecy of Jeremiah to free the Jewish people.
Early in 500 B.C., the ruling dynasty of Babylon conquered the Jewish people and deported them back to the city of Babylon, where they remained in exile when Cyrus became the king of Persia.
After remarkably overthrowing Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree; one that completely changed the way kings rule over conquered people. Cyrus gave the Jewish people permission to return to Jerusalem and commissioned them to rebuild the temple. This new foreign policy would begin to open the way for God’s promise of blessing to the world.
Even today in the 21st century, 70% of the population of the world lives in countries where they don’t have freedom of worship. But Cyrus, the great Persian king, was an open-minded, tolerant leader who allowed the people he had conquered to worship God in the ways that they wanted. King Cyrus was the first to install freedom of religion and freedom of worship more than 2,500 years ago. The “Cyrus Cylinder” is the first human rights manifesto ever written.
The Lion Tamer
Though the prophet Daniel began his ministry under Babylonian rule, it continued under the Persians. He prophesied their rise to power (Daniel 5:1-31) and King Darius placed him in a significant position of authority within the Persian Empire. Although Daniel was cast into the lions’ den when he prayed to God rather than to the Persian king, Darius declared upon Daniel’s miraculous rescue, “I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. For He is the living God and He endures forever; His kingdom will not be destroyed, His dominion will never end. He rescues and He saves; He performs signs and wonders in Heaven and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions” (Daniel 6:26).
At this time, the Persian Empire stretched from Egypt through the Middle East and Pakistan to parts of India and Central Asia. Hundreds of people groups, speaking hundreds of languages, read what Darius wrote. Because of Daniel’s prayers, the 10/40 window of that day knew that Daniel’s living God rescues, performs miracles and has an everlasting dominion.
Persians at Pentecost
Persian influence continues in the New Testament, such as when Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), using a word for Heaven derived from the Persian term for “garden.”
The Bible tells us that a few weeks after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, as his disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, the spirit of God fell on them. Acts 2 records that people had come from all over the world to celebrate the Jewish feast in Jerusalem. The first three people groups mentioned in Acts 2:9 were from Iran: Parthians, Medes and Elamites.
It’s important to remember that Iranian people were present in Jerusalem and had come to faith in the true God because of their contacts with the Jewish community. Even more, they were filled with the spirit of God. We know that when Iranians went back to their home countries, they took the message of the good news of Jesus the Messiah to their own people. Hundreds of years later, church history shows that hundreds of churches existed in Iran and that Iranians took the good news of Jesus to China through the Silk Road. In fact, the Chinese people called Christianity the Persian religion, because they had heard the gospel from Persian followers of Christ.
A Great Awakening
In the Bible, all Persian kings are mentioned in a very positive way. There is not one negative comment about them in the Bible. God used the Persians as His agents to return His people to the Promised Land so that Jesus the Messiah could be born there.
Sadly, when Islam was introduced to the Middle East during the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, it grew increasingly violent toward the Jewish people, regarding them as enemies. Today, the Islamic leaders in modern Iran continue this tradition of extreme hostility toward the Jewish people. This hatred is not shared by the people of Iran. As a matter of fact, just like the Jews were in captivity when Cyrus the Persian king set them free in 570 B.C., Iranians are now captive in their own home country under the rule of the Islamic government.
With the imminent threat of nuclear weapons in play, followers of Jesus should pray for divine intervention and for the people of Iran to develop a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Iran is in the heart of the Middle East and has significant influence over the rest of the Muslim world. When Iran becomes a Christian nation, the rest of the Middle East is likely to follow suit.
God is working in this region of the world and there’s a great awakening happening among the people of Iran. It may look messy from our side of history right now, but we have faith in God’s purpose to bless the nations and establish peace. The Lord wants to set His throne in Elam according to the prophecy in Jeremiah 49:38, but He needs us to partner with him to set Iran free from the grip of the enemy.
God is stirring up new interest in the spiritual needs of the Persian people. May this review of biblical history increase your appreciation for how God used Persians in the past, excite you about what He’s doing in the present and urge you to pray for what He will do in the future. You, too, can be a part of God’s plan to set His Throne in Iran.
Dr. Hormoz Shariat is the founder of Iran Alive Ministries, which utilizes Satellite TV to reach the millions of lost and broken people in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. Today, they broadcast the Gospel 24/7 from their studio in Dallas to Iran and the Middle East, trusting the Lord to use them to transform an Islamic nation, which is responding to the Gospel unlike any other time in history, to a Christian nation. Dr. Shariat firmly believes that Iran will be the first Islamic nation that turns to Christ. He is the author of the book “Iran’s Great Awakening,” which is the No. 1 source of information about what is happening in Iran today, and how the Bible prophecies align with the current events.