Old Testament has many instances where LORD God appeared to intervene in various situations to depute and anoint a certain individual for a specific task. Every time the individual was commanded to take off his shoes for the ground became holy due to the presence of God. Taking off of shoes was a ritual to surrender personal rights and submit to the authority of the other. Moses surrendered to the LORD God and was then able to remain before the Almighty and seek all clarifications to all the issues that he raised about his task ahead. A believer is required to do this at the time of accepting Lord Jesus as his/her personal Savior. It is only after that, that God will step into our situation to help and guide in arriving at a solution for the problem.
Meaning of taking off or putting on of shoes by an individual – In Biblical ritual shoes serve altogether a different symbolic purpose and it differed for different situations. The Israelites were commanded to eat the Passover lamb on the night preceding their departure ‘with a belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand’ (Exodus 12:11). This was to be an act of faith that the promised deliverance was about to come through and represented preparation for immediate departure. ‘By faith Moses kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest He who destroyed the firstborn should touch them’ (Hebrews 11:28).
Being without shoes depicted enslavement or poverty – God commanded Prophet Isaiah to remove the ‘sackcloth from your body, and take your sandals off your feet’ to show the carrying away of the Egyptians and Ethiopians as prisoners by the king of Assyria (Isaiah 20:2-4).
Shoeless state was also a sign of mourning – Escaping from Jerusalem from his son Absalom’s rebellion, king David wept as he went up to the Mount of Olives, ‘and he had his head covered and went barefoot’ (2 Samuel 15:30).
Taking shoes off was necessary on entering the hallowed ground –God commanded Moses to take off his sandals while speaking to him from the burning bush and ‘Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God’ (Exodus 3:5-6).
A person’s clothing are part of himself and his very being and removal of these show his willingness to forego everything in life– The Israelites carried out business transactions at the city gate or publicly in the market place in the presence of all others or at least ten of the elders, who witnessed the deal. Any sale or transfer of property was thus witnessed by all and the seller would remove his sandal and toss it in the land to indicate permanent or temporary loss of all legal rights over that. This implied that he lifts up his hand or foot from it and the new owner was free to tread upon it. This became legal attestation of the deal and the Hebrews called it ‘halitza’.
‘Halitza’ also became a symbol of abdication of redeemer rights to property of ‘goel’ or a kinsman redeemer – The Law of Moses deals with the situation in a family where among the two brothers living together, ‘one dies and has no son’, the widow was not to be married outside the family but the husband’s brother was to take her as a wife (Deuteronomy 25: 5-10). The firstborn son born from this, then would carry the name of the dead brother. However if the brother did not agree, then the widow would take the case to the elders at the city gate and seek their help. They would speak to him and if he still disagreed, then the widow, in the presence of the elders, ‘shall remove his sandal from his foot, spit in his face’. That person’s home was thereafter called ‘the house of him who had his sandal removed’, a form of insult.
Ruth, the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi returned to Bethlehem with her and when Boaz wanted to marry the widow he had to first ask another close relative of Naomi to redeem their land and marry Ruth (Ruth 4:6-8). The discussion was about redeeming the inheritance of the family and marriage to Ruth was obligatory. But the close relative of Naomi refused to do so, ‘lest I ruin my own inheritance’ for he was afraid of division of his property and offered Boaz to redeem it ‘so he took off his sandal’. This ceremony of halitza made the widow free to marry whoever she desired, except for a cohen or a priest. This signified his abdication of all rights on the property and Boaz could then marry Ruth. God declared His exaltation over nations surrounding Israel, ‘Moab is my wash pot; over Edom I will cast my shoe’ (Psalm 60:8). Both nations were known for their pride and they were equated to a slave who comes to wash the feet and picks up the shoes tossed towards him, either in anger or contempt.
Putting on of shoes is about restoration of rights – The father of the prodigal son overruled his son’s confession and said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet’ (Luke 15:22). This signified his acceptance back into the family with all rights of a son given back. Lord Jesus as our Redeemer has forgiven all our transgressions by taking them on Himself and blessed us to be part of the heavenly family. We were expelled from the presence of God in the Garden of Eden and now brought back into His Divine presence by the Son of God.
Joshua removed his shoes – After circumcision of the Israelites, Joshua moved out to see Jericho and plan for its capture (Joshua 5:13-15). He saw a Man with a drawn sword in His hand and asked Him, ‘Are You for us or for our adversaries?’ The answer given was ‘no’, meaning for neither of the two purposes. ‘But as Commander of the army of the LORD I have now come. And Joshua fell on his face and worshipped Him’. Commander of Yahweh’s army is His Son, as God He accepted the worship and commanded Joshua to take off his sandals for the place was made holy by the Lord’s presence. Lord Jesus’ answer to Joshua was that I do not join your army, rather you surrender to me and come under My command. AS Joshua did so, the plan to conquer Jericho was given to him to go around once for six days and on the seventh day go seven times. The walls of the city would then collapse inwards to let the Israelites capture the place.
From within the burning bush, the all-knowing God commanded Moses to surrender to Him so that he could then be used, to lead the Israelites from out of the slavery of Egypt (Exodus 3:5-6). Once he did so, God removed all his objections to send him back to Egypt.
The prodigal son clothed by his father – The prodigal son had already ceded all his rights of being a son by claiming his share in the father’s property, which would have come to him only on the father’s death. Whatever he had, he had further lost to the lusts of the flesh (Luke 15:17-22). ‘But when he came to himself’ he found himself to be in a position inferior even to his father’s servants. His awareness of his state and return was with the aim to be a ‘hired servant’ at his father’s house. The two parables before this in the chapter were told by Lord Jesus to teach the Pharisees about grace, for they took pride in their self generated righteousness to earn entry into heaven. The one lost sheep and the lost coin of the woman, represented the lost sinner whose return to God the Father was celebrated in heaven.
We have been blessed by our heavenly Father in the same manner for we had also all gone astray in sin and our Redeemer brought us back into His family. We are also given the robe of righteousness of the Lord after forgiveness of all sins, His ring of authority to use His name to ask anything and command demonic forces to flee. Finally He has given us the right to get back into the blessed state of the Garden of Eden and God’s presence.
The elder son, who had the double portion of the inheritance, was angry with the father and refused to join in the celebrations. His reason was that he had ‘served’ the father these many years, obeyed all his commands and never received anything to celebrate with his friends. The Pharisees’ objection to Lord Jesus’ accepting the tax collectors and sinners was the same, for they prided in their self righteousness and obedience to Torah commands. Lord Jesus’ acts were equating them with the sinners who had done nothing to merit forgiveness, and their objections were the same as the elder son.
In the early church, the objection of the Judaisers, about acceptance of the Gentiles into faith without circumcision was on similar grounds that they must earn to become part of God’s family. The father’s assurance to the elder son that ‘all I have is yours’ for you are always with me was not only about the inheritance but also about the joy of being with the father. As a believer when we start putting conditions for someone to be accepted into the faith, we act like the Pharisees and the Jewish elders. No one is saved by his own efforts but by the grace of God, that is freely given to all those who are ready to take off their shoes to be in His presence and surrender.
Do we take off our shoes on entering the church? The eastern religious practices demand the taking off of shoes before entering a place of worship and this practice was probably introduced by the clergy to ensure cleanliness. A similar practice was the washing of feet of the guests by a servant or a slave to remove the dust of the street from the feet, for the sandals worn due to heat protect the soles of the feet but not from the dust and all sit on the floor to eat. One member of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit dwells in us and we are always in God’s presence. The Jewish skull cap, kippah or yarmulke, worn by all males is a reminder of God’s presence with them for that is the promise of God (Deuteronomy 31:6-8).
When we enter the Church building we join others in prayer and worship. In many churches the custom is still to sit on the floor to accommodate more people and out of necessity the shoes must be removed outside. However in a church where benches or chairs are available for sitting, this may not be required. Lord Jesus taught the Samaritan woman on the well about the worship to be in ‘the spirit and truth’ (John 4:23). The Shema command of Moses is to ‘love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might’ and Lord Jesus added ‘with all your mind’ to it and the word ‘might’ means in totality of being. Worship would then be in thoughts, feelings, emotions and an expression of the same is love where the whole being is totally involved.
The spirit is our spirit or the Holy Spirit? Lord Jesus told, ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit’ (John 3:6).
John Piper, the famous American preacher says, ‘True worship comes only from spirits made alive and sensitive by quickening of the individual’s spirit by the Spirit of God’. In truth means worship that is with full knowledge of who we are worshipping. And both are necessary for worship that honors God and is from deep within the heart and for this neither posture nor any other ritualistic pattern matter.
However when we move forward for the Holy Communion the situation is different. The Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine, while retaining their physical appearance, turn into the actual body and blood of Lord Jesus. Some others believe that the bread and wine are only filled with the spiritual blessings of the Lord’s sacrifice while retaining their original state. Still some others believe that this is only a ritual in remembrance of the Lord’s sacrifice for us. Either way while proceeding to the Lord’s Table, it is necessary to completely surrender oneself to the presence of the Lord and shoes may be taken off. It may be done also to not affect the religious sentiments of others. Apostle Paul’s teaching to ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts’ is the right thing for all believers (Romans 13:14). In this we surrender to His absolute control over our body soul and spirit to be led and guided by His Spirit.
All believers have been blessed to be part of God’s Divine family and thus can rightfully enter into His presence. But we must never forget that we stand before God who is the Creator of the universe and in whom everything exists. King David, ‘the man with God’s heart’, could therefore say, ‘Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling’ (Psalm 2:11). Only those will receive His blessings, who stand before God like His own beloved Son, who surrendered to the Father completely to suffer death, even death of the cross. This surrender is needed of every believer.