By: Dr Jürgen Bühler ICEJ President
A 2019 visit to Egypt by a group of ICEJ leaders opened our eyes about the amazing things God is doing there and the great plans He has for this ancient nation, including with regards to Israel.
After Israel, Egypt appears in the Bible more than any other nation. It is an extraordinary land with a widely influential culture which dates back earlier than even the history of Israel. Besides Babylon, Egypt was the first world empire to emerge after the Flood and in the following centuries it would greatly impact Jewish history. The Exodus from Egypt shaped the national identity of Israel like no other event. Egypt was also the only country besides Israel where Jesus lived. It thus has a rich Church history, with the Coptic Church as possibly the oldest existing church in the world. It takes its name from the Arabic word for Egypt, ‘qubt’.
No wonder the Hebrew prophets also predict a glorious end-time history for the nation of Egypt. But let us start from the beginning.
Israel’s ancient connection with Egypt
The biblical story of Egypt starts right after the Flood, when Egypt (or Mizraim) is introduced as one of the grandsons of Noah, and a son of Ham (Genesis 10:6). When God called Abraham out of Ur in Chaldea, he journeyed to the Promised Land. Yet soon after, a famine broke out in Canaan and he “went down to Egypt” (Genesis 12:10). When he arrived there, the great pyramids of Giza had already been built a few hundred years earlier – these massive stone structures which still puzzle engineers to this day. Once Abraham and Sarah left Egypt, they returned with “male and female servants” (Genesis 12:16, 16:1). One of them was the woman Hagar, who birthed a son by Abraham named Ishmael, who became the main ancestor of the Arab tribes of the Middle East.
Isaac, too, was tempted to escape a famine towards Egypt but the Lord instructed him to stay in the land “because I will bless you” (Genesis 26:2). But Isaac’s son Jacob would die in Egypt, together with all the twelve patriarchs of the tribes of Israel. Joseph, one of these patriarchs, even became the prime minister of the Egyptian empire and through his wise leadership saved not only his family but the entire world.
In Egypt, Israel grew to become a great people counting over a million souls. According to the rabbis, it was only during the Exodus from Egypt, when God brought His people out ‘with an outstretched hand’ to Mt Sinai, that Israel became a nation. Because of its system of slavery and oppression, the Bible usually refers to Egypt from then on as a sinful nation, representing human strength and efforts which fail to deliver (Isaiah 31:1- 3). Even the Book of Revelation refers to the fallen state of earthly Jerusalem as “Sodom and Egypt” (Revelation 11:8).
Yet throughout history, there was always a strong Jewish community in Egypt. The Bible reports Jews fleeing to Egypt during the Babylonian occupation of Israel (Jeremiah 40:6-8; 43:5-7). Later in the Greek period, a further influx of Jews to Egypt is reported. When Alexander the Great established the coastal city of Alexandria around 332 BC, a notable portion of its inhabitants were Jewish. The historian Josephus reports that the Jewish population of Alexandria and all of Egypt numbered up to one million people. It was so strong that Alexandria became a centre of Jewish thought and philosophy, with Philo (20 BC-50 CE) considered one the most influential thinkers of his time. Josephus reports that even a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem was built by Onia, the son of a high priest, on the Nile island of Elephantine. This structure was destroyed by Titus in 71 AD, shortly after Herod’s temple in Jerusalem was levelled, in order to prevent the rise of a new centre of Jewish worship.
But something else came out of Alexandria that would become a main tool to spread Christianity, and that was the first translation of the Tanach (Old Testament) into a foreign language – Greek. This translation was done on the order of Ptolemy II, an Egyptian ruler who felt strongly that the Hebrew Scriptures should be added to and made accessible in the legendary library of Alexandria. The translation is called the Septuagint, referring to the 70 Jewish translators. The Septuagint (or LXX) was then widely used by the early Church and many OT references in the Greek New Testament quote directly from this text. The significance of this translation of the Bible into a commonly-used language can hardly be overestimated and might be paralleled only by the translation of Luther almost 1800 years later into another common language – German. The Egyptian-spawned Septuagint became the book Paul and all the Apostles preached from when they travelled the world.
When Jesus was born, he in a way ‘relived’ the history of Israel in relation to Egypt. Like his ancestors he had to flee to Egypt – instructed by an angel – and would return only years later in order to fulfil the prophecy of Hosea… “out of Egypt I called My son” (Matthew 2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1). It is amazing to see the richness of the Coptic tradition today concerning the various places where the holy family lived and visited. Most of these places are linked to the extensive Jewish presence in ancient Egypt.
When the Gospel spread around the world decades later, it quickly reached Egypt, as Jews from Egypt had been present in Jerusalem to witness the unusual events on the Day of Pentecost (Act 2:10). According to tradition, the Evangelist Mark became the bishop in Alexandria and he may even have been the founder of the very first ‘Christian’ Bible school in the world. Today, the oldest New Testament parchment, the Ryland P52 fragment, dating to possibly the first century, was found in Egypt. When the Council of Nicaea later decreed to change the Passover celebration to Easter, it was the Church of the East – most prominently Alexandria – which resisted the longest this new anti-Jewish law from Constantine. But eventually, Egypt also was infected by the antisemitic trends of the Church and the Christian rulers of Alexandria expelled all Jews from the city.
The Isaiah 19 Highway
All this indicates that in a very unique way God’s hand seems to be on the nation of Egypt throughout history. Egypt became an agent of deliverance for Israel, but also a subject of God’s judgment because so many times they failed the people of God. But God always seemed to give special attention to Egypt. The prophet Isaiah, in chapter 19, foresees – like no other prophet – the purpose of God for Egypt and with it for the entire Middle East.
Isaiah’s vision starts with “God coming to Egypt” (Isaiah 19:1). The immediate result is not revival and blessing but a season of immense shaking and turmoil. Political chaos with “Egyptians turning against Egyptians” and the rise of a ‘hard master’ who will rule over the nation. In all this time of hopelessness, Egypt will call upon the LORD and this will trigger a sequence of seven astonishing developments (Isaiah 19:16-24): 1. Egypt will fear the Lord and the nation of Israel; 2. Five cities will speak the language of Canaan; 3. There will be an altar to the Lord; 4. He will send a saviour to defend and deliver them; 5. The LORD will make Himself known to the Egyptians; 6. The LORD will strike Egypt and they will call upon Him and He will heal them; and 7. There will be a highway of blessing reaching from Egypt to Assyria via Israel.
ICEJ Leadership Team in Egypt
While we did not see the total fulfilment of the Isaiah 19 vision during our recent visit, we did see and hear first-hand some amazing developments in Egypt today which appear to be a powerful foreshadowing of the incredible things to come.
After the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the turmoil which followed, many churches in Egypt were attacked by radical Muslim groups. The government initially did very little to protect the churches. Soon, an Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood-led government came to power (with Western support) which erased any hope for religious freedom in the nation. Yet amidst this persecution, on 11 November 2011 the Church of Egypt assembled for an historic prayer gathering attended by tens of thousands of believers in Cairo’s out-of-the-ordinary “Cave Church”. This was the beginning of a prayer movement which would spread over many cities of Egypt. Not just one altar, but many prayer altars have been built across the nation. God answered their prayers when in 2013 Egypt witnessed the largest political protests in world history, as some 30 million people went to the streets across the country to demonstrate for a new, freer government. The global media failed to report the true significance of these historic demonstrations, which led to the more open government of Abdel Fattah alSisi. The situation for the Church in Egypt became more tolerable and the country made a considerable shift in its attitude towards Israel.
While there is still pressure and occasional violence from Islamist groups, the churches are growing. Particularly among Muslims, God is revealing Himself in visions and dreams. But what is equally amazing is that a significant shift in theology has been taking place in recent years. While many of the churches held strong views of Replacement theology concerning Israel, today there is a refreshing shift. There are no cities yet who speak the ‘language of Canaan’, but there are many born-again believers – some of whom we met – who, because of the vision of Isaiah 19, now study Hebrew. One worship leader we met told us how, not long ago, he was praising and interceding with other Egyptian brothers when “the spirit of God took hold of me” and for almost an hour he sang in perfect Hebrew, a language that he never spoke before.
Another amazing thing we learned while in Egypt is that over recent years believers there have started celebrating the biblical feasts. For instance, a network of over 700 Egyptian Christians have been gathering in various places each year to hold Passover Seder meals during the Easter season.
This finally brings me to the main reason we travelled to Egypt this Spring. The LORD has been speaking to us in recent years about the prophecy in Zechariah 14:16-19 of the nations coming to Jerusalem to “keep the Feast of Tabernacles”. Interestingly, the only nation mentioned by name is Egypt. “If the family of Egypt will not come up and enter in, they shall have no rain; they shall receive the plague with which the Lord strikes the nations who do not come up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.” (Zechariah 14:18) The LORD placed it on our hearts to pray that God would open a door for Egyptian brothers and sisters to come and celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with us in Jerusalem. The word of God gives a warning about the nations not coming to celebrate the Feast and he mentions Egypt in particular. But I like to look at it the other way around: If they do come for Tabernacles, then God will give their nation rain. We took this to mean that it would release a special blessing on the nation of Egypt. This was a historic year for Egypt and Israel, as 2019 marked the 40th anniversary since Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty between their nations.
Finally, please join us in praying for all the Arab countries. Pray with us for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on these nations, and that we might have a greater understanding and revelation of God’s purposes for Egypt and Assyria in our day. No doubt, the purpose of God for Egypt is to bring them to a point where God can say: “Egypt My people”! For the nations which comprise today the ancient Assyrian empire (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and even into Iran, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), His declared purpose is to bring them to a point where God can declare: “Assyria, the work of My hands”! And all of them, together with Israel, will be a blessing in the midst of the earth (Isaiah 19:24-25). This gives us a strategic way to pray, as well as an incredible vision of hope for the future.