December 1938: Several leaders of major Korean Christian denominations, under incredible pressure from the Japanese colonial government and their Japanese Christian counterparts, were brought to Japan in order to pay homage to the Japanese Emperor at two major Shinto Shrines where the Emperor’s family and ancestry are worshipped. The militarist, Imperial government had convinced (and sometimes coerced) the majority of Japanese Christian churches to succumb to a new denomination under government control. The new denomination adopted the practice of bowing to a photo of the emperor and declaring reverence and obedience to him as part of every church service. The same hymns were sung, the same messages about the Savior proclaimed, but now a new element was added to the newly “nationalized” Japanese church: the reverence (or worship) of the Emperor, the supposedly direct descendant of the Great Japanese ancestor, Jinmu, the “founder” of the Japanese race, and according to the mythology, a descendant of the sun-goddess, Amaterasu. Some of the Korean church leaders followed the example of their Japanese counterparts and submitted to their Japanese political masters – thank God, many others did not.
Only God knows what was going on in the individual believer’s soul, but as a corporate body, the Japanese churches had compromised with a practice that seems to me to be clearly idolatrous. What’s more, the majority of non-Christians certainly understood it this way as well, that the Christians also honored the Emperor as being somehow divine. Yet, most Christian leaders did not see it that way; they wrote major statements about how this kind of reverence could be incorporated without compromising the Christian faith. How could this happen? How could so many pastors, teachers, and leaders be so deceived?
In December 2008, on the 70th anniversary of this forced humiliation of Korean church leaders I was privileged to participate in a joint Japanese-Korean prayer mission, in which key representatives visited these same Shinto shrines in order to repent and to pray for revival in Japan and Korea. At a meeting in Miyazaki Prefecture, close to the supposed landing place of Emperor Jinmu (660 BC?), the Holy Spirit powerfully highlighted to me a Hebrew term, brit am (covenant of the people), that is found only twice in the Tanakh, Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8. Both chapters are a full revelation about the mission of the Messiah (and thus his followers as well!) to bring justice to the “ends of the earth,” and to be a “light to the nations.” From that moment on, I began a journey of investigation and prayer into ancestor worship, replacement theology, the role of the Messianic Remnant, and the end times.
One of the great demonic strongholds over the peoples of East Asia (China, Japan, Korea, and SE Asia) is ancestor worship. Whether it is the Japanese Emperor, Chairman Mao (China), the King of Thailand, Ho Chi Min (Vietnam) or Kim Il Sung (N. Korea), there is a strong tendency among these peoples to look for their national, or ethnic roots of identity and meaning in a great and powerful – even quasi-divine – ancestor figure. Even under a supposedly atheistic Communist philosophy imported from the West, modern nations like China, Vietnam, and N. Korea have gravitated toward a kind of fusion of “Strong arm” Communism with a “Great Man,” Confucian-style ancestor worship. Today, the nation of N. Korea can be understood as an entire polity built around the worship of the one they call the “Great Father,” Kim Il Sung – who only died 16 years ago! The ultimate roots of this stronghold can be traced to the “Central Kingdom” of China, and the system of filial/ancestral piety, which was given its greatest expression and codification by the 6th century BC philosopher, Confucius.
Here is my working definition of ancestor worship. 1) The Great National Ancestor: the source of the nation’s identity is rooted in a kind of mythos surrounding a great tribal ancestor, usually a male to who are attributed great power and wisdom. This pantheistic mythos, also teaches that this great man, or his pedigree, is somehow supernatural, or descended from the gods. 2) This kind of reverence is then multiplied over and over again on a smaller scale in each locality, where familial and tribal shrines are erected to facilitate prayers and offerings to the deceased ancestors.
How are we to understand this phenomenon in the light of biblical revelation? Do the Scriptures allow for a kind of reverence of great ancestors? Most of my readers, I’m certain, would agree that we are forbidden to worship them; but what does it mean to honor them in light of the 5th commandment (Deut 5:16)? Where does one draw the line exactly, between worshipping and honoring? On the surface, it is clear that we Jews certainly make much of our ancestors and our relationship to them: the Scriptures and Jewish tradition are full of references to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and many others). The New Covenant Scriptures also make much of our “faith-connection” to the great ancestral patriarch, Abraham; or of the examples of the “heroes” of faith in the Tanakh, as in Hebrews 11.
Asian-style ancestor worship contains the following positive elements: 1) The longing for connection with a supernatural god-man from the past – as the basis for a supernatural future that overcomes death; 2) Reverence, honoring of parents, ancestors; 3) An understanding that a people’s justification for their corporate identity, including the right to dwell in their ancestral homeland, requires a kind of unbroken “covenantal continuity” from a great ancestor(s).
Asian-style ancestor worship contains the following negative elements: 1) They’ve got the wrong god-man! The God of Israel was very careful to maintain the absolute uniqueness and unity of Biblical Revelation, by entrusting it to one people, and promising the one true “man from heaven,” and confirming Him by raising Him from the dead. Covenant-style adoration of wrong god-men (false messiahs) results in bondage, not freedom; 2) It is no coincidence that the Biblical commandment enjoins us to honor “mother and father”, and not “fathers” or “ancestors.” It is a lot easier to worship someone after they are dead and gone. While they are alive and while we can see that they are all too human, just like us, it is not so easy to worship them.
In short, every people group is looking for covenant rootedness in the past that ensures a future inheritance of hope and life for their offspring. I call this “brit-am.” Because of the foundational revelation of the first chapters of Genesis, which teach the uniqueness of God, and the transcendent distinction between God and man, we know that we must never worship ancestors, as they do in East Asia; rather, the Scriptures constantly enjoin us to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as the source of all life, identity, and blessing. The biblical covenants provide us with the pure and holy understanding of how we relate to God and our ancestors. Thus, full-orbed biblical faith, for both Jew and Gentile, finds its source in the great God-Man Yeshua, who in His humanity is forever rooted in an identity that proceeds from God’s covenant with the Patriarchs.