Take Off Your Shoes
On Holy Ground
And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.—Exodus 3:5
By Carl Hagensick
“And it came to pass, when Joshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn in his hand: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries? And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the LORD am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship, and said unto him, What saith my lord unto his servant? And the captain of the LORD‘s host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so”.—Joshua 5:13-15
Different cultures have different methods of showing respect. For instance, the Japanese bow, in polite English society the ladies curtsied, and here in the United States it is proper to doff one’s hat. In Old Testament times—and even today in the Muslim world—one takes off his shoes.
There are still further significances to this simple act of removing one’s shoes. For instance, the relinquishing of property rights was accompanied by the exchange of the shoe of the one giving up the property to the one who would assume the ownership.
We note this in the instance of Ruth, the Moabitess:
“Then said Boaz, What day thou buyest the field of the hand of Naomi, thou must buy it also of Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance. And the kinsman said, I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance: redeem thou my right to thyself; for I cannot redeem it. Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel. Therefore the kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for thee. So he drew off his shoe. And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people, Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, of the hand of Naomi. Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day.” —Ruth 4:5-10
This unusual passage of Scripture is an accurate usage of Jewish law, for we read in Deuteronomy 25:7, 10: “And if the man like not to take his brother’s wife, then let his brother’s wife go up to the gate unto the elders, and say, My husband’s brother refuseth to raise up unto his brother a name in Israel, he will not perform the duty of my husband’s brother. . . . Then shall his brother’s wife come unto him in the presence of the elders, and loose his shoe from off his foot, and spit in his face, and shall answer and say, So shall it be done unto that man that will not build up his brother’s house. And his name shall be called in Israel, The house of him that hath his shoe loosed” (Deut. 25:7, 9, 10).
This concept of removing one’s shoe to show transfer of property ownership also is found in the prophecies of the Bible. We will quote one example. In Psalm 60:8 we find the Messiah predicted to assume ownership of the human race, pictured in part by Edom, with these words: “Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe: Philistia, triumph thou because of me.”
To use a rough analogy, early American settlers claimed ownership of untitled land by fencing it off and staking claim to it. This was called homesteading. Ancient Israel had a similar custom, but instead of placing stakes in the ground, they would pace off the perimeters of the land they wished to claim. This was called “putting their foot” on the land. This practice is specifically described in the law in Deuteronomy 11:23, 24: “Then will the LORD drive out all these nations from before you, and ye shall possess greater nations and mightier than yourselves. Every place whereon the soles of your feet shall tread shall be yours: from the wilderness and Lebanon, from the river, the river Euphrates, even unto the uttermost sea shall your coast be.”
Notice the same custom in a prophetic allusion in Abraham yet inheriting the promised land: “And he gave him none inheritance in it,no, not so much as to set his foot on: yet he promised that he would give it to him for a possession, and to his seed after him, when as yet he had no child” (Acts 7:5).
The Feet of Jehovah
In a similar vein we see that when God once again takes controls of earth’s affairs, the same figure of speech is used. “And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, and there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south” (Zech. 14:4).
“Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?” (Isa. 66:1).
“The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will make the place of my feet glorious (Isa. 60:13).
The same thought is probably included in a familiar text often applied to Jesus, under the figure of Michael. “And at that time shall Michael stand up [or, put his feet down—take control], the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation even to that same time: and at that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book” (Dan. 12:1).
The Shoes of Jesus
With this background, notice the beauty to the statement of John the Baptist in John 1:26, 27, “John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”
In recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, the Baptist recognized his rights to all of the land of earth. That claim—those shoes—he could not unloose and remove.
The Lesson for Us
The shoes, then, represent the act of treading upon the land and the subsequent possession of that land. Moses was to particularly consider the land at the burning bush as God’s land; as was Joshua when recognizing the captain of the Lord’s host.
For the Christian, too, to stand in the presence of God is to relinquish all claims to human possessions, including his portion in anticipated future restitution blessings here on the earth. Earth must be given up for heaven to be attained. The Lord is saying to us, in effect, “For heaven’s sake, take your shoes off—and keep them off.”
In Practical Terms
This admonition was taken to heart very literally by the early church. They actually sold their possessions and put the assets in a common fund, “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:32-35).
In doing this they were copying the way in which Jesus had operated while living with them, when there needs were met out of a common “bag” which was under the charge of a group treasurer, Judas Iscariot (John 13:29.
In point of fact, this arrangement did not work out for long and was soon abandoned. This was not, however, because the motivation behind it was wrong but because it was found impracticable under the administration of imperfect men. The enforcement by God of the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is an indicator of divine approval.
While it may not be practical for Christians today to live in such communal conditions, it is certainly proper for them to view their temporal assets as not their own, but belonging to Christ and his service. As those disciples of old we should view nought as our own, but as a possession of God. No longer should we think of our home; our car; our finances; our time; nor even our thoughts or our privacy. We are merely stewards over them as the Master’s belongings.
But this thought of taking off our shoes to stand on holy ground does not mean that we are to go barefoot. Rather we are to wear new shoes, shoes of the Master’s giving.
“And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15). The Christian’s footwear is described not as peace, nor yet the gospel of peace; but the preparation of the gospel of peace. The peace of which our gospel announces is nothing less than the total reconciliation of all mankind to enjoy forever the provisions of a perfect earth—the same perfect earth to which we have renounced personal possession when we symbolically took off our shoes and put on new shoes.
Our current walk is to learn those lessons which will prepare us for that future reconciliation of God and man. The Apostle Paul takes up this theme in 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.”
If we are to have part in the future ministry of reconciliation it is incumbent that we be active now in our use of the word of reconciliation.
Shoes or No Shoes
It is worthy of note that when Jesus sent forth his disciples two by two he told them to leave most possessions at home, but to wear their sandals. “And commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no scrip, no bread, no money in their purse: But be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats” (Mark 6:8, 9).
Reading the parallel account in Matthew 10:10, however, gives a far different impression. “Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.”
The harmony between these two further illustrates our lesson. The sandals (Greek sandalion) which they were to take were loose leather tongs that were strictly used for cross country walking. While the shoes (Greek hupodema) which they were not to take was a more permanently constructed shoe. Thus the Christian is to renounce the permanence of his use of earthly things, but is a steward of them in the meantime.
When the Apostle Peter was imprisoned and delivered miraculously by the angel of the Lord, he was told to resume his work as a minister of the gospel of peace. He was told to “bind on his sandals.” And the angel said unto him, “Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me” (Acts 12:8).
But, though shoes are meant for traveling, they do not serve to keep the feel clean. The dusty roads of the mid-East soiled the travelers’ feet and it was customary for the host of travelers to either wash the feet of his guests, or at least provide for that eventuality.
This furnishes the basis for many of the lessons which Jesus taught, both of humility and of servitude. The anointing of his own feet by the two Marys are well-known examples of this (Luke 7:38; John 12:3). But none of the lessons of this type are more forceful than the Master’s own example of humble servitude when, on the last night of his life, he washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:4-10).
Completing this act, he then makes clear his lesson in the following words: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14, 15).
A final lesson with somewhat the same import is found in the Song of Solomon, chapter five, the second and third verses. Here we find a woman sound asleep hearing the knock of her beloved on the door. Her response is: “I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?”
How typical it is of the lethargy that follows a deep sleep to think of the work of cleaning up again. But all activity involves risk of defilement. The Lord wants us to be busy in our work of the preparation of the gospel of peace. True, their may be pitfalls and dangers. We are subject to making mistakes in his service and defiling ourselves. But his command is “Go, I have need of you.” Let us be strong and be doing, leaving our inadvertent errors in the hands of a loving, knowing, and forgiving Heavenly Father.
Let us take off the shoes of personal claim to this earth to stand on holy ground where we can don the sandals of the preparation of the gospel of peace in active service of our Lord and Master.
“How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.”—Canticles 7:1