“Put on the whole PPE of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Of course, this is a slight variation from the original verse 11 of today’s epistle, but given today’s context, it means the same thing. Unless you’re in the NFL or playing paint ball, you probably don’t “put on” such things as armor, helmets and breastplates like a typical Roman soldier. So personal protective equipment (PPE) has more contemporary relevance than obscure references to outfits worn by first-century foot soldiers. If the apostle Paul were writing today, he’d probably talk about PPE and Covid-19 instead of battlefield protection and flaming arrows.
Paul was writing this letter to the Ephesians during his first imprisonment, which was much easier to bear than his second confinement. At this point, he’s basically wearing an ankle bracelet while under house arrest. Still, he must have seen Roman soldiers and jailers of every rank and stripe on a daily basis. He was familiar with their weapons and the PPE they donned every day. And as a Roman citizen who had been thrown into Roman jails and subjected to Roman beatings, he was intimately aware of military hierarchies and their punitive measures. This is why he could describe the appearance of a Roman soldier so well.
When the incarcerated apostle comes to the end of his letter, he reminds his readers of the powers arrayed against them and uses the image of a Roman soldier in battle against his foe. For Paul, the enemies were formidable: “rulers … authorities … powers of this dark world … spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (v. 12). This urgent reminder is one of the last things Paul underscores; his readers will remember best what is freshest in the mind. His letter had begun with a lengthy and glorious oration about being “blessed in heavenly realms” (1:3). But even as we are blessed in heavenly places, we are also beset in heavenly places; therefore, we must be vigilant during the struggle against evil “in the heavenly places.”
Paul leaves this message about PPE to the last because he’s dead serious; he’s saying remember this. His words have the urgency of health care workers who post signs about the mandatory use of PPE. It’s not voluntary. You wear a mask. You practice social distancing. You wash your hands. No ifs, ands or buts. That’s if you’re smart and want to live. So, what are God’s protection protocols?
Let’s assume that there is general agreement about the need for spiritual PPE. I say this because we all know there are some people in our communities who are anti-maskers, and some of these anti-maskers are embroiled in dark conspiracy theories about the crisis we’ve endured for the past 18 months. Putting this discussion aside, we’re going to assume that we can at least agree with Paul when he says that we’re involved in a cosmic struggle. Let’s agree that there’s a need for spiritual PPE.
To protect ourselves from our spiritual “enemies,” we don the equipment we need. The apostle uses a military metaphor, speaking of helmets, swords, breastplates and so on. I’m going to use bio-tech metaphors that refer to a different set of enemies and link to important tools in our fight, such as the word of God, the truth, righteousness, salvation and faith.
For a list of these enemies or threats, we turn to the University of California-Merced. Health care researchers there have identified five areas of vulnerability — points of entry for nasty, wicked little viruses of all kinds. They are the eyes and face, hands, body, respiratory system and ears. Therefore, we need: eye and face protection, hand protection, body protection, respiratory protection, and hearing protection.
Each of these categories has corresponding safety equipment, and there’s a right way and a wrong way to don this apparel. For example, when putting on a face mask, the nose and mouth must be covered, not just the mouth. And it should fit snugly. There’s a proper way to wash one’s hands as well. You get the idea.
Eyes and Face PPE: Let’s get real. Sexually explicit material is a huge problem in our culture, and it’s destroying lives, reputations and marriages, not to speak of sucking the spiritual life out of its victims. “Face” PPE can be a metaphor for the things we turn to, what we prefer, our priorities and values. We need PPE to help preserve our values and prevent us from being infected by a sex-crazed culture that attacks our immune system and renders us helpless and weak.
PPE tools? The word of God (“How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word” Psalm 119:11), and praying without ceasing (see Romans 12:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and Philippians 4:6). In fact, Paul mentions the importance of prayer in today’s reading: “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere …” (v. 18).
Hand Protection PPE: This refers to our actions, what we do. The Bible speaks often about the value of clean hands. “So wash your hands. Make yourselves clean. Get your evil actions out of my sight! Stop doing what is wrong! Learn to do what is right! Treat people fairly. Give hope to those who are beaten down. Cheer them up. Stand up in court for children whose fathers have died. And do the same thing for widows” (Isaiah 1:16-17, NIRV). “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:3-4). And you thought all this time I was just saying a cute, little rhyme at the close of worship.
PPE tools? Washing. The Bible speaks of the importance of washing one’s hands, and today health care professionals do the same. Washing one’s hands is crucial. Throughout the day, we touch people, surfaces and objects and therefore accumulate legions of germs on our hands. We can infect ourselves with these nasty microbes by touching our eyes, nose or mouth, and we might spread the germs to others as well. So, we’re supposed to wash our hands before doing certain things (like preparing food or eating, treating wounds or caring for a sick person). We’re told to wash our hands after doing other things (like changing a diaper, using the bathroom, touching an animal, being in contact with a sick person, coughing or sneezing, or handling garbage).
So when the Bible speaks of washing one’s hands in a figurative sense, and knowing that ancient washing rituals were very important, especially in first-century Judaism, we need to stop and listen. And how do we figuratively wash our hands? From the verses I just mentioned we can extrapolate the following:
Avoidance. To protect our hands, we avoid situations that might infect, pollute or endanger our spiritual health.
Good works. We do the right things with our hands. Our actions are honorable; we do not lie or treat people unfairly.
Right crowd. We hang out with the right people, and we offer our praise and thanks to God. This regular association strengthens us and helps to keep our hands clean.
Body Protection PPE: Medical staff who must treat infectious patients like those with coronavirus symptoms take care to cover up as much as possible. Depending on the degree of danger, they might don lab coats, barrier coats or even hazmat suits.
This is a reminder of two things: First, the body is a temple. “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people’” (2 Corinthians 6:16).
The Bible attaches great importance to how we treat our bodies. The ancient Israelites observed strict rules as to what went into their bodies. Paul says not only that our bodies are temples of God, but that it is possible to “glorify God” in our bodies. Keeping our bodies pure and healthy is a tangible way to use personal protection protocols that help keep us safe.
Second, when the apostle Paul speaks of the body as a metaphor (see 1 Corinthians 12-14), he uses it to illustrate the importance of wholistic health. It’s not okay if one’s legs are working but the arms are not. Something’s wrong with the body if the eyes are 20-20, but the ears are stone-cold deaf. Here we might allude to the importance of keeping our communities healthy, and especially the community of faith, the church.
PPE tools? You’re not going to actually don hazmat suits to keep your body safe. But you will keep in mind that it’s possible to sin in our bodies. It’s possible to misuse our bodies and to dishonor God by doing so. Our PPE tools for deflecting danger to our bodies include being intentional about our behavior, and — knowing we cannot wear an actual hazmat suit — donning righteousness and holiness instead robes.
Respiratory Protection PPE: Breathing. The problem here is twofold: Not only are we at risk of inhaling a microscopic virus, but once infected, we may need a ventilator that will do our breathing for us.
The spiritual link is obvious. Paul argues that we’re in a battle against the unseen and the powerful, against “cosmic powers” and forces. Sounds like an evil, mutant virus. We need to be careful, then, about the environment in which we live. What can we do to live in an atmosphere in which good has a chance to overcome evil, in which godly thinking prevails against silly, profane and godless thinking, in which adhering to the teaching of God’s word takes precedence over the so-called wisdom of the world?
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes such an environment this way: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (vv. 8-9). Spiritual breathing without anxiety is possible when we learn to live like this.
PPE tools? In spiritual terms, now is no time to forgo a mask. A mask evokes the image of Paul’s shield in verse 16, the “shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” In addition to the mask of faith, we need all the tools available, because it is our respiratory system that is most vulnerable. So, we need the “belt of truth,” and righteousness, and certainly the protective power of the Holy Spirit, “which is the word of God” (v. 17).
Hearing Protection PPE: Hearing protection is not really relevant in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic. But it is important in terms of other professions, especially construction work or any kind of activity in which decibel levels exceed industry minimums. Safety equipment may be required.
But the Bible is not concerned with decibel levels. The sacred writers often believed that, rather than being too loud, the word of God was not loud enough. The problem is not a hearing problem, but a listening one. This conclusion was based on the fact that the people of God evidently could not hear what God was saying. Perhaps God is not speaking loud enough. The psalmist’s description of heathen idols applies here: “They have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths” (Psalm 135:17).
Jesus seems to imply (especially in Matthew 13) that not everyone is tuned into the right frequency to hear the voice of God: “Let those who have ears, listen! The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand. … You will indeed listen, but never understand’ … For this people’s … ears are hard of hearing … But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. … Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:9, 13-16, 43). In other words, God is still speaking. Are we listening?
In today’s world, we need PPE. We need it for the eyes and face, our hands, our bodies, the respiratory system and our ears. If we distilled the message of health care professionals to four words, it would be this: “Protect yourself and others.” So, the message I leave with you is to protect yourself and others. Even as the apostle Paul believed that he and the church were besieged by spiritual forces in heavenly places, we, too, need to be protected from the influences of our age, which sap our spiritual strength, and keep us from protecting others, especially those who cannot protect themselves. Therefore, to quote the apostle, let us “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” Amen!