"A Fellowship of Joy"
1 John 1:1-4
(Delivered Sunday, October 21, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Just before Jesus went to the cross, He prayed a wonderful prayer. It was a prayer that the disciples heard Him pray; and that was recorded for us in the Gospel of John. It's a prayer that should be of great interest to you and me, because we're mentioned in it.
In this prayer - sometimes called Jesus' 'High-Priestly prayer' - Jesus prayed to His Father for the testimony that His disciples would bear to the world about Himself. And it was in praying this prayer that He reveals to us the remarkable depth of fellowship the almighty God wants to enjoy with us. Jesus said;
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).
The heart desire of both Jesus and His Father is for fellowship with us. Think of it, dear brother or sister in Christ! God the Father, the almighty Creator of heaven and earth, loves you and me as much as He loves His own blessed Son Jesus. He actually wants to have fellowship with us - a fellowship that is far deeper than anything we can even begin to grasp! Jesus enjoyed such a glorious fellowship with His Father from before the world began (John 17:5); but now, He invites us to join in that fellowship with Him.
While we were still in our sins, we were God's enemies (Col. 1:21). We were separated from any kind of fellowship with God by a deep chasm of sin (Isa. 59:1-2). But Jesus, God's Son, became a human being like us in order to die on the cross for us. He removed the barrier of our sins for us, and bridged the gap between God and ourselves. And now, in this wonderful prayer, Jesus prays that we'll enter into the full experience of the fellowship He died to make possible. It's a fellowship that He describes in these breath-taking terms: we being in Him, and He in us, and He in the Father, and we in the Father, and we being altogether "perfect in one" in the Father and the Son! Can there be a closer fellowship than that? How much He must love us, to want that deep of a fellowship with us!!
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Let's take it down to a more personal level. Did you know that God wanted to have such communion with you, dear fellow believer? Perhaps you serve Him in church, or minister in His name. Perhaps you've sacrificed a lot of money and effort in gaining a good Christian education; and perhaps you've devoted years of labor to His cause. But did you know that He wants your fellowship most of all? He genuinely loves you; and far more than your talents, far more than your gifts, far more than your service and labor, He wants you. He made the universe and all it contains in six days without you; so He certainly isn't in desperate need of your service. He certainly welcomes your service; but He longs for your fellowship above all else. He sent His Son to die for you, so that fellowship with you would be made possible. And Jesus was willing to make that sacrifice for you too, because He wants that fellowship with you as well.
I know of many professing Christians who are very hard working and devoted in their labors for the cause of Christ - so much so, in fact, that I feel humbled whenever I'm around them. Many of them are exceptionally bright people who know much more about theology than I, or about church history, or even about what the Bible says in the original languages. But I have found that many of them - and I say this in genuine love - have grown to look upon their Christian faith as largely a matter of "knowing" and "doing". They haven't seemed to grasp that Christian living - above all else - boils down to a deep, satisfying, personal love-relationship with God the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
And yet, this fellowship with us is what Jesus longs for most of all. Without it, none of these other things -as important as they may seem to be - really matter to Him. It's ultimately our fellowship with Jesus Christ - and not those other things - that empowers us to make a difference in the world. When the apostles Peter and John were arrested and brought before the authorities in Jerusalem for their preaching, it wasn't their ministerial skills and vast stores of knowledge that impressed and astounded the religious leaders. The Bible says, "Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus" (Acts 4:13).
This wonderful fellowship with God - what it means to be in such fellowship with Him, what it looks like, how to enjoy the fullness of it, and how to be confident and assured in it - is what the little New Testament epistle of 1 John is all about. At the very beginning of his letter, the apostle John tells us that the assurance of fellowship with God is its great theme;
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life - the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us - that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full (1 John 1:1-4).
John shares together in the witness of all the apostles in declaring the manifestation of Jesus - the Word of life; and his purpose in doing so is that we might have fellowship with those who bear this witness. And John adds this: "And truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ".
Nothing makes an impact upon this world like a group of people who enjoy a deep, continual, personal fellowship with God - and with one another - through His Son Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself prayed that we would experience the full joy of that fellowship; and John wrote this little letter to teach us how to have the assurance of what Jesus prayed for.
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There's a relationship between this letter and the gospel that John wrote. Sometimes the connection is pretty striking. John began his gospel - in words very similar to the ones that begin his letter - by telling us about "That which was from the beginning":
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:1-5).
And John also wrote about how this eternal Word became manifest to men who could bear eye-witness testimony to Him. John writes; "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (v. 14). This is also similar to the words John used at the beginning of his little letter.
John wrote his gospel to introduce lost people to the amazing fact that the eternal Word of God became flesh and blood, dwelt among us, died on a cross, was raised from death, and ever lives to save those who believe on Him. He summed up his purpose for writing his gospel in these words: "... These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31).
But John expressed a slightly different reason for writing his letter. He wrote it to people who had already believed on Jesus, and who already possessed life in His name. He summed up his purpose for writing his letter with these words: "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God" (1 John 5:13).
John's gospel, then, was written to those who didn't believe, so that they would believe on Jesus and would have eternal life; and this letter was written to those of us who have believed, so that we would know that we have eternal life. In other words, John's gospel calls us to an assurance of faith in Jesus Christ; and his letter calls us to an assurance of fellowship with the very Jesus upon whom we've believed. I like how Dr. C.I. Scofield summed up this difference in his introductory notes to this letter: "John's Gospel leads across the threshold of the Father's house; his first Epistle makes us at home there."
Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God who came in the flesh to save us? Have you put your trust in Him as your Savior? If not, I hope that as God opens the truth about Him to you from the Scriptures, you'll put your trust in Him. I hope that you'll be led by the Scriptures to believe on Him, and find out for yourself what a wonderful Savior He is. I hope you'll even explore the Gospel of John for yourself; because that's why John wrote it.
But if you've already believed on Him, and if you trust Him as your Savior today; then this letter is for you! I pray you'll be awakened to the depth of His love for you through our study of this little letter. I hope that you'll grow to a full, confident assurance of your fellowship with Him - and to the rest of God's family through Him; and that you'll begin to experience the fullness of joy that comes only through the assurance of that fellowship.
I'm very confident God will answer that prayer; because Jesus His Son prayed the same thing - and then went to the cross for you and me to make it happen.
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How do we begin to enter into the depths of this fellowship? It begins by hearing some news. First, John begins by telling us the most remarkable piece of news that this dark, fallen world has ever heard. He tells us that ...
I. THE WORD OF LIFE HAS APPEARED (v. 1).
"That which was from the beginning," John tells us, "which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life -" is now declared to us to have been manifested to the world.
I remember reading about how Charlie Chaplin watched television as men walked on the moon. When it was announced that they didn't find any life on the moon, the great film star and director was said to have a sad look come across his face, and exclaim with a sigh, "I feel very lonely." Chaplin believed that this was a closed universe - that there was no contact with anyone outside the system. And if this were true, and that we who lived upon this dark and fallen world were all that there was, then we - like Chaplin - would be right to feel very lonely and hopeless.
But that's what makes this announcement from John so wonderful! The One who existed before this universe, made this universe, and stands above this universe, hasn't left us alone in the universe after all. He has reached down in love and manifested Himself to us. God has pierced through the veil of time and space, has pointed to Jesus Christ, and has declared to us all, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!" (Matthew 17:5).
And the manifestation upon this earth of God's Son - the Word of life - is the great news that's being announced. The key verb in this beginning passage of John's letter is found in verse 3; "... we declare", or "proclaim". God's Son has been manifested upon the earth; and the apostle John - along with the other apostles - is now declaring that manifestation to the world. His proclamation, as Reverend John Stott has put it, is the announcement of "the historical manifestation of the eternal".
First, notice that the Son of God is described to us as "the Word of life". The "Word" refers to God's self-expression; and this speaks of Jesus as the one who reveals His Father to us. He is God's self-expression to us. "No one has seen God at any time", John tells us in his gospel; "the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him" (John 1:18). The writer of Hebrews says, "God, who at various times and in various ways, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son;" and the writer then declares Jesus to be "the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person" (Heb. 1:1-3).
He is "the Word"; and what's more, He is specifically "the Word of life". John may mean that He is "the Word that is about life"; or he may mean that He is "the Word that gives life". John may even mean both ideas; because, as one commentator has put it, the Jesus - the Word - "has, announces, and gives life." Later on in his letter, John says, "And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life ..." (1 John 5:11-13a).
The "life" John speaks of is eternal life - a life that is an experience of free, open and eternal fellowship with God. It's not only a description of the duration of life (i.e., eternal); but also of a quality of life that can only be given as a gift of God's grace. If you've been saved by faith in Jesus, it's not as if you'll begin to experience "eternal life" when you die and go to be with Him. You are experiencing "eternal life" in Him right now; and when you leave your physical body through death, and go to be with Him, you'll still be living the same eternal life then as you do now. Our great need, as John has explicitly said, is that we will know that we have eternal life. This life is only ours through a relationship with Jesus. "Eternal life" comes through a relationship with a Person; and that Person is "The Word of life".
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What does John tell us about this one who is the "Word of life"? John tells us that the Word of life is an eternal Person - "that which was from the beginning". He existed before all things, and was the Maker of all things. As John said at the beginning of his gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made" (John 1:1-3). Paul described Him this way: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist" (Col. 1:15-17).
Many unbelieving philosophers and thinkers have maintained that God - if He exists - could never communicate Himself to us. He's too "transcendent"; that is, He's beyond the reach of this material universe. He's too far away from us to ever be able to reach down into the physical realm. He could never communicate Himself to us, they say - let alone enjoy personal fellowship with us.
But here, we see that John is declaring to us that the Word of life, "which was from the beginning", has done much more than merely "communicated Himself to us". He has actually become one of us. "The word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we behold His glory ..." And now, we fallen human beings can now have personal fellowship with the eternal Word of life!
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If this is true, then it's the single most important piece of news that has ever reached humanity! The eternal Word of life has revealed Himself to us by becoming one of us.
But is it true? Could it be that John is merely "philosophizing" through symbolic and sentimental language; or did the eternally pre-existent Word of life actually become a real, physical human being and manifest Himself to humanity? John affirms that this is absolutely, objectively, empirically true. He testifies that he and the other disciples were as much eye-witnesses to this news as they could possibly be.
Notice how he describes the apostolic contact with "the Word of life" in terms that move from the abstract to the concrete. He says, first, that the Word of life is that "which we have heard." They sat before Him and listened to His teaching for three and a half years. They communicated with Him, and He spoke back to them in intelligent, perceivable language - words that could be written down and read again and again.
Second, he says that the Word of life is that "which we have seen with our eyes". They didn't just hear the Word of life as if He were a disembodied voice, but they saw Him with the physical apparatus of sight. Light bounced off Him - as it does with all physical objects - and was perceived by their faculties of vision. They could all see the same thing together; and talk about what they saw. They could retain the image they saw in their memories; and report what they saw to others.
Third, he says that the Word of life is that "which we have looked upon". Here, John uses a different word from the one he just used. This Greek word here means more than to merely "see" something. It means to "gaze upon" a thing intently, and to "discern" a thing with careful inspection. They didn't give a mere passing glance at the Word of life; but they lived with Him and watched Him. They examined His life with close scrutiny. John uses the same word when he says, "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory ..." (John 1:14).
And fourth, not only did he and the others closely examine the Word of life; but he said that "our hands have handled" Him. The touched the eternal word of life with their physical fingertips. He even stood before them in a resurrected body, and told them, "Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Luke 24:39).
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In the truest sense of the word, the apostles examined the Word of life "scientifically". They used all their senses in confirming that the Word of life had, indeed, become flesh and dwelt among them. They heard, saw, examined, and even handled the eternal, pre-existent Son of God in human flesh. He was, indeed, "manifested" to them. It's the greatest news ever to hit planet earth! It's the news that the angels declared to be "good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people" (Luke 2:10).
But this wasn't news for these eyewitnesses to themselves. They were to report what they saw to others. And so, John tells us that ...
II. THIS APPEARANCE HAS BEEN DECLARED (v. 2).
John here inserts what appears to be a parenthetical statement. He says, "... the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us -"
There are many who say that the message of the gospel was an invention of man. It's a man-made religion, they say; just as there are many others who also had great spiritual insight, and who thought great thoughts of the higher things of life, and who have written down their spiritual insights for all to benefit from. And of course, if the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is nothing more than just another product of human religious genius, then it certainly can't bring us into a sure and certain fellowship with God; nor can it lead us to fullness of joy to any greater degree than any other man-made religion could.
But notice the order of events as John describes them. He says that, first, the life "was manifested" or "appeared". It wasn't "invented" or "dreamed up"; but was revealed from God. And then, it was "seen". That which "appeared" caught the attention of men through their senses. And then, once seen, it was born "witness" of, or "testified" to. Those who "saw" then bore witness to that which had been manifest to them. And finally, that witness was "declared" or "announced" or "proclaimed" to the world.
The disciples, then, were not the "creators" of a wonderful new religion. The apostle Peter affirmed this when he wrote about the time Jesus was transformed before his own eyes on the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter wrote;
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts ... (2 Peter 1:16-19).
Similarly, the apostle Paul asserted; "But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:11-12).
The wonderful news is that God desires fellowship with us. And so, He manifested Himself to us in the Person of His wonderful Son Jesus Christ. Mankind didn't come up with this news as a great new religious "idea". Rather it was God Himself who took the initiative to, in love, manifest the Word of life to the world. And it's not enough that He manifested Himself to a few men; but He also wanted that manifestation to be announced and declared to all humankind. And so it has been.
By the way; just as an aside - but not an unimportant one at all: Do you announce this great news to others? It was "manifested" to be "declared". Jesus, after He had died for our sins and arose from the dead for our justification, and just before He ascended to the Father, said to His disciples, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witness of these things ..." (Luke 24:46-48). He told them, "... You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
Do you, like John, declare to others "that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us"? If you're a believer today, it's because someone else first declared this good news to you. Are you being a faithful witness for Jesus in that portion of the "end of the earth" in which God has placed you?
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Why does God want this "manifestation" to be "declared"? Because faith in this "Word of life" leads to fellowship with Himself; and fellowship with Himself is what He wants most of all from us.
And so, after this parenthetical statement about his declaration of the Word of life in verse 2, John picks up where he left off to tell us that ...
III. THIS DECLARATION BRINGS ABOUT FELLOWSHIP (v. 3).
"... That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ". And this brings us to the glorious theme of this letter: "fellowship".
A veteran pastor recently told me his definition of "fellowship" - "two fellows in the same ship". I like that; and there's certainly a sense in which that definition fits. The Greek word John uses is one that's possibly familiar to you - the Greek word "koinonia"; and it basically refers to a close association or partnership that involves the sharing of mutual interests or common goods. Two fellows in the same ship certainly have to do that!
This obviously describes our relationship with one another as believers in Christ. Have you ever had a time when you've met someone you had never met before, but found out that they were believers? Didn't you love them right away, and feel an immediate fellowship with them? The apostle Paul wrote that we share together in a common spiritual "core". He wrote, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:4-6). And the first century believers exhibited this common spiritual bond in their every-day practice. We're told that "all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart ..." (Acts 2:44-46). Certainly John had this common love and concern between believers in mind when he spoke of "fellowship". He said, in verse 7, that "if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another ..."
What's more, I think that John was also thinking of the fellowship we enjoy together in our common testimony and witness of Jesus. John sums up his declaration of Christ to the world by calling it "that which we have seen and heard". It wasn't just "I", but "we". It was something objective and real; and so, he couldn't help but declare it along with others who also saw it.
Perhaps you remember the time when John and Peter were arrested in the temple, and were warned by the Jewish leaders not to speak or teach any more about Jesus. They answered, "Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20). If they had simply heard about all this second or third hand, they may not have been so bold. But when a couple of men have "seen and heard" the Word of life themselves, then that's the end of all arguments. And it's something "we cannot but speak". Similarly, John doesn't tell us in his letter about what he himself individually saw and heard and examined and handled - as if it were only he who bore this witness. Rather, it's "we" all the way through. John shared a common witness of Jesus Christ with the other apostles, and with other believers. There's a fellowship, if you will, of witness.
But John has an even deeper fellowship in mind than that. He says he and the others make this declaration, "that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with His Son Jesus Christ". Those who hear the testimony of Jesus and believe, are brought into fellowship with Him. And the man or woman who is brought into fellowship with Jesus is also brought into fellowship with everyone else that is brought into fellowship with Jesus. And that, of course, is what Jesus prayed for; isn't it? He prayed for all that would believe on Him through the testimony of the apostles; "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me."
The fellowship that believers share is a testimony to the world that the Word of life has, indeed, come. I will always remember something that happened at a Promise Keepers preliminary meeting in North Portland. The meeting was held in a predominantly black church; and there were approximately 500 black Christian men and 500 white Christian men seated together. At one point, all the white Christians stood and turned to their black brothers, asked forgiveness for the way that they had treated them, and embraced them. Then, the black Christians stood and turned to their white brothers, asked forgiveness for the way they had treated them, and embraced them. This occurred in a time in Portland when racial tensions were very high. And yet, what the city of Portland couldn't produce, Jesus brought about through a common bond of fellowship with Him. We enjoyed fellowship together - not because of what was common between us on the outside, but because of what was common between us on the inside: a common fellowship with Jesus Christ.
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This leads us, finally, to one of the great outcomes of our fellowship with Christ and with one another ...
IV. THIS FELLOWSHIP BRINGS ABOUT FULLNESS OF JOY (v. 4).
John says, "And these things we write to you that your joy may be full"; as if the joy of his readers was in focus. Other translations have it as if John's own joy, along with the joy of those who bore witness with him, was the focus: "These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete" (NASB). But either way, the main point is the same, isn't it? This fellowship brings about the fullness of joy.
Did you know that the one who most wants our fellowship - Jesus - also desires that we have the fullest experience of joy possible through that fellowship? He taught about what it meant to abide in His love; and then added, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11). Before He went to the cross, He told His disciples, "I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you" (16:22). He invited us to pray to His Father in His own name; saying, "Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (16:24). He prayed to His Father for His disciples, saying "... These things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves" (17:13).
Dear brother or sister; Jesus loves us very, very much; and He desires that our joy be made full. In fact, He wants us to experience His own joy. That joy can only come through fellowship with Him; and it is expressed to the world in our fellowship with one another. True fullness of joy isn't found in anything on this earth. It's found in a relationship with Him who made the earth - and our own selves as well.
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You and I were designed for deep, satisfying, unhindered, immeasurably joyful fellowship with our Creator. If our Creator longs so much for such fellowship with us, then it should be self-evident that we were made for such fellowship, and that we need it too. We will never experience the fullness of joy He made us for apart from fellowship with Himself. And the message of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ, the eternally pre-existent Son of God, became one of us, died on a cross for our sins, and took the barrier of our sins away, so that we can be restored to fellowship with God who made us through faith in Him.
Let's accept the invitation of this letter from John. Let's study it together so that we can learn what it means to enter fully into His 'fellowship of joy'.
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is prohibited.)
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