Sermon Message: Extravagant Love
Sermon Message: Seeing People Through God's Eyes
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Sermon Message: Christ-like Family Care
Sermon Message: Fellowship in the Light
"The Command of Love"
1 John 2:7-11
(Delivered Sunday, January 6, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, just before He gave Himself over to be nailed to the cross and die for our sins, He enjoyed a final dinner with His disciples. It was the Passover Meal; and He told them that He desired very earnestly to have this last meal with them (Luke 22:15). It was during this very sacred meal that He presented Himself to them as the Passover Lamb, whose own blood was about to be shed for the remission of their sins.
Following the meal, Jesus arose from dinner and washed the disciples' feet in order to give them an example of humble service toward one another. And then, in the greatest of all acts of humble service - to them and to us - He dismissed Judas Iscariot from the dinner to set into motion the events that would lead to His crucifixion and death. And finally, as soon as Judas left, Jesus turned to His disciples and spoke these words:
Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him immediately. Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, "Where I am going, you cannot come," so now I say to you. A new commandment I give to you ..." (John 13:31-34).
Before I quote this new commandment, let's stop for a moment. We may be so used to this story that we forget what a remarkable moment it is. All of His disciples have come to understand that something extraordinary was about to happen. Jesus had demonstrated before their very eyes that He is the Son of God, the long awaited Jewish Messiah. And He has told them that He is about to leave them and return to the Father. And now, before He leaves them, this One who is God in human flesh issues a brand new commandment to them. They already knew the commandments God gave through Moses; but now, Jesus is about to give them yet another commandment - a commandment as authoritative and morally binding on them as all the other commandments God gave.
What would such a new command be? What area of life would it touch on? To whom would it apply? This new commandment proved to be connected to what Jesus had just done before His disciples' own eyes; as well as what He was about to do for them on the cross. This new commandment was that the disciples follow the example He had just set for them in serving them, and in laying down His life for them. He said,
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another (vv. 34-35).
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When we hear the word "love", we tend to think of a warm feeling of affection or esteem someone has for another. And certainly that concept of love is included in this "new commandment". But Jesus' commandment involves far more than a mere feeling. The Greek word He uses is "agape"; and this Greek word describes a kind of love that shows itself in action as well as expresses itself in feelings. It's a love that demonstrates a readiness to sacrificially lay aside one's own self-interests and pursuits in order to meet the needs of the one being loved. It's a love that seeks the concerns of others as if seeking the concerns of one's own self. It's a love that "loves" the way Jesus loved.
Many have tried to put this superior kind of love into words. But I don't believe we could find a more beautiful description of it than the one the Bible gives us in 1 Corinthians 13:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Cor. 13:4-8; NIV).
You can see that this is a love that shows itself in action. You can document such a love on video-tape. It's a love that not only feels toward our brothers or sisters in Christ the way Jesus Himself feels toward them; but that also actively treats them the way Jesus Himself treats them.
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Many unbelieving people, who have read Jesus' commandment of love, have tried to embrace it apart from a relationship by faith with Jesus Himself. But the standard Jesus gave for keeping this commandment makes that impossible. His standard is that we love even unworthy sinners as He Himself has loved them - that is, with a self-sacrificing, self-giving, completely others-oriented kind of love; a love even unto death. This is something that's beyond the capability of fallen, sinful human beings such as ourselves. Only God can give us the ability to love in such a deep way as this. And such an ability - in its purest form - can only come through a relationship by faith with Jesus Himself, and as a gift of God's empowering grace. For this love to be expressed in our lives, Jesus Himself must take up residence in us through the Person of His Holy Spirit, and express His own love through us. That's why the apostle John could write;
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit (1 John 4:7-13).
The Bible teaches us that "love" is a product (or "fruit") of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Its presence in our lives demonstrates that the Holy Spirit lives within us, and is living the life of Jesus through us. It's not something that can be manufactured by human effort. And so, when we obey Jesus' commandment, and truly love each other as Jesus Himself loved us, it's proof to the world that we really do belong to Him, and that we really do have a relationship with the Son of God. Jesus Himself said, "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
All of this helps us to understand this morning's text from 1 John. In it, John writes:
Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The Old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness and does not know where He is going, because the darkness has blinded him (1 John 2:7-11).
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Why was John writing these words in this letter? You might remember that the main purpose of John's letter is to help those who have placed their trust in Jesus to have the assurance of their fellowship with Him (1 John 1:1-4; 5:13). Throughout John's letter, he expounds on three "tests" that we can apply to ourselves to see whether or not we're truly in fellowship with God through His Son Jesus Christ. First is the "belief" test: Do we believe what the Bible teaches us about Jesus - that He is the eternally pre-existent Son of God, who became fully human in order to be our Redeemer (2:21-24)? Second is the "obedience" test: Are we living a progressively transformed life because of our faith in Jesus -so that we're growing to obey His commands in every area of life (2:3-6)? Third is the "love" test: Are we growing more and more to love our brothers and sisters in Christ - obeying His command to love one another as He Himself has loved us? This morning's passage is our introduction to this third test of our fellowship with Jesus - the "love" test.
May I share with you how important I feel this is for our church family? We live at a time during which many churches are trying hard to show the world that God is at work in them. They seek to impact the world in a "culturally relevant" way; believing that the perception of "relevance" will persuade the world that their church is a true work of God. And so, they try to make their music more "contemporary"; or they try to put together a lot of "needs-oriented" programs and support groups, or they try to "target" their ministry to particular sub-cultures. And of course, none of these things are wrong in and of themselves. In fact, they may be very wise and necessary. But none of them prove that God is truly at work in a church, either. Ask yourself, when was the last time you ever heard of a non-believing person leave a church exclaiming, "Man; God must be at work in that church, because their music is so contemporary" -? Or, have you ever heard of someone saying, "I feel that I've genuinely encountered the living God in that church today; because it has so many relevant programs" -?
A real work of God isn't identified by those things. On the other hand, if we take John's words seriously, then three things prove to the world that God is at work in a church: when (1) the people in that church fervently believe what the Bible says about Jesus; when (2) the individuals in that church live holy, Christ-obedient lives; and when (3) the people in that church love their brothers and sisters the way Jesus loves them. Those are three irrefutable proofs that Jesus is at work in a church.
The world desperately needs to see those things happening in our church. More important than anything else we can develop in our church - more important than a good music ministry; more important than a great Sunday school program; more important than a great looking building; more important than relevant small groups (all things that the world could produce if it wanted to) - is the cultivation of a sincere love for one another that follows the pattern of love that Jesus set for us. The world can't produce that; and when it sees it, it sees that God is truly at work in our midst.
This passage in 1 John, then, is a call to display that which proves that we truly belong to Jesus. When the world sees us obey Jesus' command to love one another, then it sees that we truly do walk in the light of Jesus' fellowship. Such love is proof that we belong to Him. Let's pay attention to John's instruction to us in this passage; and may the Holy Spirit lead us to genuine love for one another.
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The first thing that John teaches us is ...
1. THE NATURE OF THE COMMAND TO LOVE (vv. 7-8).
John writes, "Brethren [or as the New American Standard Bible has it, "Beloved"], I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning" (v. 7). John had just gotten through teaching us that one of the proofs that we are in fellowship with Jesus is that we "keep His commandments" or "keep His word". And now, John points to a very specific commandment from Jesus - His commandment to love one another.
Jesus called it a "new commandment"; but do you notice that John says that he's not giving them a "new" commandment, but an "old" one? If Jesus called it "new", why is John making the assertion that it's "old"?
One reason might be so that he can distinguish it as the truth revealed by God. During the time that John was writing, many false teachers were trying to worm their way into the church with the exciting promise of something "new". And it may be that John wanted to assure his brothers and sisters that he - unlike those false teachers - was not presenting something "new", but "an old commandment which you have had from the beginning". He was not pawning off some "new" (that is, "false") teaching to them in telling them about Jesus' commandment to love; but was, instead, giving them the very truth from God Himself. "Old" in such a case would simply be another way of saying "true".
Or it may be that John was stressing the fact that this "new" commandment was "old" in that it had already been taught to them from long ago in the Old Testament. This "new commandment" from Jesus was hinted at in the Law that God gave the people through Moses. Leviticus 19:18, for example, says, "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD." Similarly, Deuteronomy 6:5 says, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." Jesus once quoted these two important Old Testament passages and said, "On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:40). Therefore, Jesus made love the summation of the whole Old Testament Law; and so, perhaps in that sense, John says this "new commandment" is "old". "Old" in such a case would simply be another way of saying "historically authoritative".
But as true as those other two options may be, I believe that John stressed that this commandment is an "old" one because it was a commandment that had been given to the Church by Jesus from the very beginning. Jesus gave this command almost at the very inception of the Church; and it is so fundamental to the Christian life that it's one of the first things that we're taught as believers. The whole standard of Christian living is summed up in following Jesus' example of love. "Old" in such a case would simply be another way of saying "foundational"; and this, I believe, is what John meant.
You might remember that Jesus repeated this same commandment to His disciples after their dinner together. He spoke of it again while they were on their way to the garden of Gethsemane, where He was going to be betrayed into the hands of sinful men. As they walked along, He told them, "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you" (John 15:12). He told them, "These things I command you, that you love one another" (v. 17). And many years later, the apostle John himself - who was personally present to hear those words when they were spoken by our Lord - kept pointing back to them as something fundamental and foundational to our faith. In his second letter, he pleaded with one of the churches;
... Not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another. This is love, that we walk according to His commandments. This is the commandment, that as you have heard from the beginning, you should walk in it (2 John 5-6).
I love the fact that we're called to cling to something "old", don't you? It's not "old" because it's out of date; but it's "old" because it's an unchanging, foundational, fundamental principle of the Christian faith. So often, as Christians, we make the mistake of running to the newest fads or gimmicks - often chasing after the world's "new and innovative" methods in the hopes that it will help us "make progress" in the faith. Sadly, the church has developed a bit of an addiction to that which is "new", and often, in the process, looses sight of that which was "foundational".
The fact is that there really hasn't been anything fundamentally "new" in the true Christian faith over the past two-thousand years. Real progress in our faith is never made by discovering something "new"; but instead, it's always made by re-discovering that which is foundational - getting back to that which is "old", and to that which we have "heard from the beginning". Every great revival in the history of the Church occurred, not because reformers discovered something "new", but because they led God's errant people back to that which is "old" - back to the foundational truths of the faith.
In the Bible, God says, "Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; then you will find rest for your souls" (Jeremiah 6:16). Jude 3 says that we must "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." Always remember, dear brothers and sisters; we don't need anything "new". We shouldn't waste our time and resources in the search for something "new"; because God isn't giving something "new" to us. What we need is to get back to what He had already given us from the very beginning - to that which is "old" and foundational.
This, then, is what John is proclaiming to us - not a "new" commandment, but an old one which we have had from the beginning. We can only hope to see God work through us when we return to an obedience to this "old" commandment.
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But even though it's an "old" commandment, it's never one that's stale or irrelevant. John adds, "Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining." Jesus' command to love one another is only "old" in the sense that it has already been given, and is foundational. It's only "old" in the sense that it's essential to the faith once delivered to the saints. But it's "new" in relation to us who have been born again. It's "new" to us in experience; because we ourselves have been made new in Jesus Christ.
Before I became a Christian, I was just a little bit familiar with some of the stories in the Bible. I even tried to read these Bible stories once or twice, but they all seemed "old" and "out of date" and "irrelevant" to me. But then I became a believer; and when Jesus transformed my heart, all these "old" and "out-of-date" things suddenly became "new" and "fresh" to me. It was as if these "old" stories had been written "new" for me by God just that very day! And this wasn't because they themselves were "new", but rather because I myself had been made "new" by God. The Bible says that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Cor. 5:17).
When God causes a man or woman to be born again, and they place their trust in Jesus, everything seems "new", because they themselves have been made "new". Even Jesus' old commandment to "love one another" becomes "new" to them. They have a new realization of Jesus' love for them - and that makes the commandment "new". They have a new power within them to love their brothers and sisters in Christ, because Jesus Himself has taken up residence in them - and that makes the commandment "new". They have a new relationship with those who have likewise trusted Jesus, and are now connected to these other believers as "brothers and sisters" - and that makes the commandment "new". They have a new motivation to obey Jesus, one that springs out of deepest gratitude for the fact that He first loved them - and that makes this commandment "new".
And do you notice what else John says about this "perpetually new old commandment"? He says that its newness is "true in Him and in you". God makes this this commandment "new" in both Jesus and in us.
What a glorious thing that is all by itself - just the fact that what is true in Jesus has also been made true in unworthy sinners like us! But this raises a question: How can it be true that this commandment becomes "new" in Jesus? After all, Jesus has always loved; and He always will love. He is perfect love itself. His eternal love has never been fresher than it is right now, nor will it ever be older in the distant future than it is today. How, then, can it be true that the command to love is made "new" in Jesus?
One thing is certain - this love in Jesus has never changed. But what has changed, however, is that we join in His expression of this eternal love when we keep His commandment to love one another. Even His own eternal love is "new" when it's not only true in Him but also in us. We are so joined to Him by faith, that when it becomes "new" in us, it also becomes "new" in Him. His love becomes complete and fully matured - both in Him and in us - when we share in it by keeping His commandment of love toward one another. I believe that's what John meant when he said, "No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us" (4:12).
And all of this is, as John says, "because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining". That darkness was in us because we were separated from God as a result of our sins. But then we heard the message of the Gospel about Jesus. "In Him was life", the Bible tells us; "and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4); "That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world" (v. 9). When we heard about Jesus' eternal love for us as demonstrated on His cross, it was then that we heard the truth about our sin. And when we heard the truth, and turned from our sins with simple faith in Jesus as our Savior, then we stepped out of the blinding haze of darkness and into His clear light. Paul writes;
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says: "Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Eph. 5:8-14).
When we finally step into the light by faith, then the darkness is cleared away; and we're enabled to enter into partnership with Jesus in His expression of eternal love. It will then be true that this commandment is "new" - both in Him and in us.
I believe that, if Jesus has taken up residence in us by faith, this "old" commandment will always be perpetually, repeatedly "new" to us. It will always be our fresh delight to keep it; and it will always be our longing to grow more and more in obedience to it. It will become the most relevant thing in the world to us.
If this "old" commandment doesn't seem new and fresh to you, the problem is not with the commandment. Perhaps it seems "old" to you because you yourself have not yet been made "new" in Christ, and are not yet related to Him by faith. It's a perpetually "new" commandment; but remember, it's only true in you if, as John says, it is true "in Him and in you". Have you become a "new creation" by placing your faith in Him? Has His commandment become "new" to you because you, yourself, have been made "new" in Him?
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John has shared with us the "nature" of this commandment - that it's old; and that yet, at the same time, it's perpetually new to us who are in Christ. This leads us to ...
2. THE PRACTICE OF THE COMMAND TO LOVE (vv. 9-11).
What happens when this command is put into practice faithfully by us? First, please notice that its practice serves as a proof of true character. It reveals whether or not we really have fellowship with Jesus. John writes, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother, is in darkness until now" (v. 9). Here, John is pointing back to something he said earlier in the letter:
This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:5-7).
Someone can only walk with Jesus if they live in the light of holiness and moral purity; because He Himself is "light" and only lives in holiness and moral purity. But if someone that claims to walk in light, and yet lives with an attitude of hate toward someone else that Jesus loves, then that person isn't walking in the light at all. In fact, John says that such a person never walked in light in the first place; but has been walking in darkness all along - and walks in darkness "until now".
Our character is proven by whether or not we put this commandment into practice. It's a proof of whether or not we have genuine fellowship with Jesus. And it's not a matter of whether or not we're able to keep this command perfectly; because no one but Jesus has ever achieved that standard. But rather, it's a matter of whether or not we're growing in obedience to it; and whether or not our lives are increasingly becoming characterized by the love of Jesus. If we're truly in fellowship with Jesus, then progressively we'll become more and more like Him. We'll progressively see all forms of bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and slander taken away from us, along with all malice; and we'll progressively become more kind to one another, tender hearted, and forgiving toward one another (Eph. 4:31-32).
John says, "He who loves his brother abides in the light;" but a hard-hearted refusal to love one's brother or sister in Christ is a sign that someone is not in fellowship with Christ. It demonstrates that they are still in the darkness. John asks, "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?" (1 John 4:20).
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Not only is our character proven by the question of whether or not we practice this commandment; but the same question will show itself in the effects it has on our lives. First, John shows us that it can have positive effects upon us if we obey it. John writes, "He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him."
It's interesting that, in the previous verse, the claim is made, "I walk in the light" - a claim that was proven to be false. But here, the person in question verbalizes no such claim. They don't need to say anything. Their actions show that they keep Jesus' commandment to love; and this love is the only evidence that's needed that they truly abide in the light.
And such a person is said by John to have "no cause for stumbling in him". Some have interpreted John to mean that, if we love, we will not become a cause for someone else to stumble. We would be treating our brother or sister as we should, and will therefore do nothing that would cause them to stumble in their walk with Jesus or fall into sin.
This is, of course, true; but I don't believe that's what John means. In the very next verse, he gives a vivid description of someone who, because he does not love, is himself stumbling around in the darkness and has know idea where he himself is going. And so, I take it that someone who is faithful to keep Jesus' commandment to love is "abiding in the light", and will not find a cause for his or her own moral stumbling.
By contrast, look at what John goes on to say. "But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes." Here's a picture of someone whose own failure to obey Jesus' command is the cause of his own moral downfall. He who hates his brother, in the end, hates himself.
Proverbs 4:19 says, "The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble." And John is saying here that someone who professes a relationship with Jesus, and yet hates his brother or sister in Christ, experiences the practical effect of disobedience on his or her own life. They stumble around like a person in the dark. They have no idea where they're going; and so they flitter around from one thing to another - seeking "direction", but never finding it. And it's all because the principle of Jesus' command - to love as He Himself loved - isn't guiding their steps. They search for a "feeling" of love, instead of actively obeying a command to love. In the end, the only thing that guides them is their own self-interests; and as a result, they wander around in spiritual and moral blindness.
May I suggest an illustration of this? Suppose someone is going on a cross-country hike through a fierce blizzard. (Don't ask me why. It's just an illustration.) It would be very important to have one's bearings in order to navigate through such a blinding snowstorm. But suppose this person didn't bother with a compass. Suppose, instead, that all that they did was draw an arrow on a piece of paper that pointed to the word "north". As they struggled along against the strong winds and blinding snow, they pulled out their piece of paper every once in a while - just to get their bearings. Such a person would end up very lost - to say nothing of very frozen to death.
In a similar way, when someone tries to navigate his or her way through this world, while refusing to obey Jesus' command to love, then that person is walking around without reliable bearings. The only thing they have to go by is their own self-validated feelings, or their own self-defined interest, or their own self-made philosophies. Such a person is described in three digressive ways: (1) they are in darkness; (2) they walk in darkness; and (3) they have no idea where in the world they're going, because the darkness has blinded their eyes.
How much better to abide in Jesus' command to love; and therefore to abide in light! Such a person has solid bearings! They know what to do.
* * * * * * * * * *
This, then, is Jesus' wonderful command to us - to love one another as He Himself has loved us. John reminds us that keeping it is an infallable proof that we're walking with Jesus. And I'd like to close by telling you a story concerning John himself that's passed down to us from the early church father, Jerome (in his ancient commentary on Galatians). To my mind, it puts the perfect "period" to our look at this commandment from Jesus.
Jerome tells us that when John was a man of extremely old age, he could only be carried with great difficulty into the church on the arms of his disciples. And being so old that he could speak little more than just a few words to the congregation, he used to repeat the same simple exhortation at several of the meetings: "Little children, love one another."
Jerome tells us that, frankly, people were growing weary of hearing John say the same thing over and over. Folks were polite; but they thought to themselves, "I've already heard him give this one." Folks would have thought that, with such a great, saintly eyewitness to our Lord Jesus - the very saint, in fact, that leaned against Jesus' breast at that final supper; and who is forever remembered by the simple title "the disciple whom Jesus loved" - surely such a saint as this would have something more substantial to say that "Little children, love one another" - over and over, again and again! - and especially when it took so much effort to get him before the congregation!!
Some of the leaders in the church finally came to him and said, "Master, why do you always say this? Why do you always say, 'Little children, love one another?'" And John's reply summed it all up for us.
John said, "It is the Lord's command; and if this alone be done, it is enough."
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