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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Acts 15

 

 

Verse 1

The men from Judea who came down to Antioch appear to have been Jewish Christians who took the former view of Christianity described above. They believed a person could not become a Christian without first becoming a Jew, which included circumcision. Perhaps they based their theology on texts such as Genesis 17:14 and Exodus 12:48-49. Their claim was essentially a denial of the sufficiency of faith in Christ for salvation. They evidently claimed that James , the Lord"s half brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church, endorsed their position (cf. Acts 15:24; Galatians 2:12). Peter, who was in Antioch at this time, compromised with these men by withdrawing from eating with the Gentile Christians there. Barnabas also inclined to do so. Paul, however, saw the inconsistency and danger in this practice and rebuked Peter ( Galatians 2:11; Galatians 2:13-14).

This situation posed the fourth crisis in the history of the early church. The first was selfishness (Ananias and Sapphira, ch5), and the second was murmuring (over the treatment of the Hellenistic widows, ch6). The third was simony (Simon Magus, ch8), and now doctrinal controversy raised its ugly head (the "Galatian heresy," ch15). This was the most serious problem thus far both in terms of the issue itself and its potential consequences. It involved the conditions for becoming a Christian and therefore the gospel message.


Verses 1-5

Paul and Barnabas" return to Jerusalem15:1-5


Verses 1-35

5. The Jerusalem Council15:1-35

The increasing number of Gentiles who were becoming Christians raised a problem within the church. What was the relationship of the church to Judaism? Some Christians, especially the more conservative Jewish believers, argued that Christianity was a party within Judaism, the party of true believers. They assumed that Gentile Christians, therefore, needed to become Jewish proselytes, which involved being circumcised and obeying the Mosaic Law.

"In truth, there was no law to prevent the spread of Judaism [within the Roman Empire at this time]. Excepting the brief period when Tiberius (19 A.D.) banished the Jews from Rome and sent4 ,000 of their number to fight the banditti in Sardinia, the Jews enjoyed not only perfect liberty, but exceptional privileges." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 1:71.]

Other Christians, the more broad-minded Jewish believers and the Gentile converts, saw no need for these restrictions. They viewed the church not as a party within Judaism but as a distinct group separate from Judaism that incorporated both believing Jews and believing Gentiles. This difference of viewpoint led to the meeting Luke recorded in this section. He described it at length to explain the issues involved and to clarify their importance. Therefore not a few students of Acts believe that chapter15 is the most crucial chaper in the entire book. [Note: E.g, H. Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, p121; and Witherington, p439.] It is both structurally and theologically at the center of Acts. [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p242.]

"Throughout this commentary [i.e, Witherington"s commentary] we have noted the signs that Luke was following ancient historiographical conventions in the way he presents his material, in particular his penchant for dealing with matters from an ethnographic and region-by-region perspective. With these concerns the extended treatment in Acts 15 comes as no surprise. Here the matter must be resolved as to what constitutes the people of God, and how the major ethnic division in the church (Jew/Gentile) shall be dealt with so that both groups may be included in God"s people on equal footing, fellowship may continue, and the church remain one. Luke is eager to demonstrate that ethnic divisions could be and were overcome, despite the objection of very conservative Pharisaic Christians." [Note: Witherington, p439.]


Verse 2

This situation led to hot debate among the Christians generally. It ended with a decision to move the discussion to Jerusalem and to place the whole matter before the apostles and elders there for a verdict. This general procedure was common in the Greco-Roman world. [Note: Ibid, p451.] Men from Antioch accompanied Paul and Barnabas, as witnesses undoubtedly, to protect Paul and Barnabas from accusations of distorting the facts.


Verse 3

On the way to Jerusalem the missionaries recounted what God had done in Cyprus and Asia Minor to the Christians in Phoenicia and Samaria. These believers rejoiced because they saw a continuation of what had happened to them.

"This undoubtedly means that Gentiles were converted on a direct basis apart from any necessary commitment to Judaism, because the presence of proselytes and "God-fearing" Gentiles in the church was hardly newsworthy in A.D49." [Note: Longenecker, p443.]


Verse 4

When Paul"s party arrived in Jerusalem, the leaders there received them and listened to their story. Note again that Luke stressed the Lord"s initiative in spreading the gospel (cf. Acts 14:27).


Verse 5

Some in that meeting, converted Pharisees who had a high view of the Mosaic Law, repeated the same objection Paul and Barnabas had encountered in Antioch. These were not necessarily Exodus -Pharisees since a Pharisee could become a Christian without relinquishing his distinctive beliefs concerning Scripture and theology. [Note: See Kent, p122 , footnote3.]

". . . it is possible that nationalist pressure [against Rome] was increasing in Judea, and that [Jewish] Christians were having to tread carefully to avoid being thought of as disloyal to their Jewish heritage." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p249.]

Unsaved Jews also believed that keeping the Mosaic Law is essential for acceptance by God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

The Old Testament taught that Gentiles would share in the promises made to Israel ( Genesis 22:18; Genesis 26:4; Genesis 28:14; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 55:5-7; Zephaniah 3:9-10; Zechariah 8:22). The Old Testament prophets also spoke of Gentile salvation as happening in the last days ( Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 25:8-9; Zechariah 8:23) through the witness of a restored Israel ( Isaiah 2:3; Isaiah 60:2-3; Zechariah 8:23).

"It [the revelation stated above] was the underlying presupposition for Jewish proselytizing (cf. M[ishnah] Pirke Aboth Acts 1:12; Matthew 23:15) and was implicit in the sermons of Peter at Pentecost ( Acts 2:39) and in the house of Cornelius ( Acts 10:35). But the correlative conviction of Judaism was that Israel was God"s appointed agent for the administration of these blessings-that only through the nation and its institutions could Gentiles have a part in God"s redemption and share in his favor." [Note: Longenecker, pp440-41.]


Verse 6

Evidently a large group of people observed the meeting that the church convened to debate the issue ( Acts 15:12; Acts 15:22). Most commentators took the whole passage as describing public proceedings, but a few understood Acts 15:6 as referring to a private meeting that took place during the public forum. [Note: E.g, Kent, p123.]


Verses 6-11

Peter"s testimony15:6-11


Verses 7-9

First, spokesmen for each side presented arguments pro and con. Then Peter rose and reminded those assembled that several years earlier God had chosen him as the person from whom Gentiles (i.e, Cornelius and his friends) should hear the gospel. Then God gave these Gentiles His Spirit as soon as they believed in Jesus Christ. They did nothing but believe and they received the Holy Spirit, the sign of their acceptance by God. This is the same thing that had taken place among the Jews on the day of Pentecost.


Verse 10

Requiring that Gentiles become Jews before God would save them would test God in that it would question the rightness of His action in giving the Spirit to Cornelius. When a Gentile became a Jewish proselyte, the Jew in charge of the ceremony said the Gentile now took up the yoke of the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matthew 23:4; Galatians 5:1). [Note: Bruce, Commentary on ..., p307.] Peter said this yoke, the Mosaic Covenant, was an obligation that was both unbearable and unnecessary (cf. Matthew 11:29-30).


Verse 11

By referring to the Jews being saved in the same manner as the Gentiles, instead of vise versa, Peter repudiated any thought of Jewish superiority. Clearly he had recovered from his temporary lapse at Syrian Antioch ( Galatians 2:11-14). Salvation is by grace ( Acts 15:11) through faith ( Acts 15:9) plus nothing.


Verse 12

Barnabas and Paul"s testimony15:12

The old order of these two names recurs here. Barnabas, as a respected member of this church ( Acts 4:36-37; Acts 11:22), took the lead in relating the experiences he and Paul had undergone in ministering to Gentiles. Barnabas emphasized the signs and wonders God had performed because these would have persuaded the Jews that God had been at work in their ministry (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22).

"It was a report not of their successes but of how God had acted, and its implication was that by his acts God had revealed his will." [Note: Longenecker, p445.]


Verse 13-14

James was Jesus" half brother, the writer of the Epistle of James , and the leading figure in the Jerusalem church ( Acts 12:17; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9; Galatians 2:12). [Note: See Richard Bauckham, "James and the Jerusalem Church," in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting; Vol4: The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting, pp415-80.] "Simeon" was Peter"s older Jewish name. James" use of it would have emphasized Peter"s Jewishness as well as implying affection for him. Peter had related the salvation experience of Cornelius, and James" reference to "first" was to that experience near the beginning of the church.

". . . he showed how he felt about the question at issue by speaking of believing Gentiles as a "people" (laos) whom God had taken "for himself" (to onomati autou; lit, "for his name")-thus (1) applying to Gentile Christians a designation formerly used of Israel alone and (2) agreeing with Peter that in the conversion of Cornelius God himself had taken the initiative for a direct Gentile ministry." [Note: Longenecker, p446.]


Verses 13-21

James" testimony15:13-21


Verse 15

James reminded his hearers that the Old Testament prophets supported the salvation of Gentiles apart from Judaism. Note that James did not say the salvation of Gentiles then was the fulfillment of these prophecies. He said the prophets" predictions of future Gentile salvation harmonized with the present salvation of Gentiles apart from Judaism (cf. Acts 2:16). [Note: See Heater, pp147-57; and Bock, "Evidence from . . .," pp195-96.] James then quoted Amos 9:11-12 as a representative prophecy. Another view is that by "the prophets" James meant the book of the12Minor Prophets of which Amos was a part. Neither Amos nor any other prophet said Gentiles had to become Jews to enjoy the blessings of salvation (cf. Romans 11:12).

"The passage in Amos refers primarily to the restoration of the Davidic empire, but also the Messiah"s Kingdom (["]the throne of David his father," Luke 1:32)." [Note: Robertson, 3:230.]

"James"s major contribution to the decision of the council was to shift the discussion of the conversion of Gentiles from a proselyte model to an eschatological one.... James is saying, God"s people will consist of two concentric groups. At their core will be restored Israel (i.e, David"s rebuilt tent); gathered around them will be a group of Gentiles (i.e, "the remnant of men") who will share in the messianic blessings but will persist as Gentiles without necessarily becoming Jewish proselytes." [Note: Longenecker, p446.]


Verses 16-18

Amos predicted the (second) advent of Messiah after "these things" (i.e, the Tribulation, Amos 9:8-10). Messiah would set up His kingdom on the earth and restore the nation Israel (during the Millennium) under which the Gentiles would seek the Lord. We should understand the "and" in Acts 15:17 in the sense of "even" (the epexegetical use of this conjunction).

"A close examination of this passage [ Acts 15:14-17] reveals that there is a progression of thought leading to James" conclusion. First, God visits the Gentiles, taking from them a people for His name. In other words, God has promised to bless the Gentiles as well as Israel, but each in his own order. The Gentile blessing is first. Second, Christ will return-after the outcalling of the people for His name. Third, as a result of the coming of the Lord, the tabernacle of David will be built again; that Isaiah , the kingdom will be established exactly as promised in the Davidic Covenant. Amos clearly declared that this rebuilding will be done "as it used to be" ( Amos 9:11); that Isaiah , the blessings will be earthly and national and will have nothing to do with the church. Fourth, the residue of men will seek the Lord; that Isaiah , all the Gentiles will be brought to a knowledge of the Lord after the kingdom is established. This same truth is taught in passages like Isaiah 2:2; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 40:5; and Isaiah 66:23." [Note: Pentecost, Thy Kingdom . . ., pp145-46.]

There have been three main interpretations of James" use of Amos" prophecy ( Amos 9:11-12). [Note: See Charles Zimmerman, "To This Agree the Words of the Prophets," Grace Journal4:3 (Fall1963):28-40; Kent, p126.] Some interpreters believe James meant that the inclusion of Gentiles in the church fulfilled God"s promise through Amos. [Note: E.g, Lenski, pp608-11.] These (generally amillennial) interpreters see the church as fulfilling God"s promises to Israel. This view seems to go beyond what Amos said since his prophecy concerns the tabernacle of David, which literally interpreted would involve Israel, not the church. Second, some interpreters believe James meant that God would include Gentiles when He fulfilled this promise to Israel in the future. [Note: E.g, F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible, p100.] However there was no question among the Jews that God would bless the Gentiles through Israel in the future. The issue was whether He would do this apart from Judaism, and this interpretation contributes nothing to the solution of that problem. This view does not seem to go far enough. A third view is that James meant that the present inclusion of Gentiles in the church is consistent with God"s promise to Israel through Amos (cf. Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:9). [Note: E.g, Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:267-69; 5:328-29; and The New Scofield ..., p1186.] The present salvation of Gentiles apart from Judaism does not contradict anything Amos said about future Gentile blessing. This seems to be the best interpretation.

"In other words, James says, God is working out His own plan: Israel, His covenant people have been set aside nationally because of their rejection of the Messiah. God is now taking out a people, Jew and Gentile, to constitute the Church of God. When He completes this work, the Lord is coming back the second time. That will be the time of blessing for the whole world [i.e, the millennial reign of Christ]." [Note: Ironside, Lectures on . . ., p356. Cf. Wiersbe, 1:463.]

James added the quotation from Isaiah 45:21 in Acts 15:18 b probably to add authority to the Amos prophecy.

"The thought that the church was the divinely intended replacement for the temple is probably to be seen in Acts 15:16-18." [Note: Marshall, The Acts . . ., p131.]

The typical non-dispensational understanding of this text is that James was saying that the messianic kingdom had come and Amos" prediction was completely fulfilled. Progressive dispensationalists believe he meant that the first stage of the messianic kingdom had come and that Amos" prediction was partially fulfilled. [Note: See Saucy, The Case . . ., pp76-80.] Normative dispensationalists view the messianic kingdom as entirely future. They believe Amos was predicting the inclusion of Gentiles in God"s plan and that James was saying that the present situation was in harmony with God"s purpose. Thus the Amos prediction has yet to be fulfilled. Deciding between these options depends first on whether or not one believes the church replaces Israel in God"s plan. If it does, one will side with non-dispensationalists here. If one believes the church and Israel are distinct in the purpose of God, then one has to decide if there is better evidence that Jesus has begun to rule over David"s kingdom now (progressive dispensationalism) or not (normative dispensationalism). I believe the evidence points to the fact that David"s kingdom is an earthly kingdom and that Jesus will begin reigning over it when He returns to earth at His second coming. [Note: See also Toussaint, " Acts ," pp394-95.]

James would have quoted a version of the Old Testament text that would have been acceptable to his audience, which included strict Jews. His quotation from Amos differs from the Hebrew text in meaning and the Septuagint in form, but it is identical to the text of4QFlorilegium ( Acts 1:12), an Essene rendering. [Note: J. A. de Waard, A Comparative Study of the Old Testament Text in the Dead Sea Scrolls and in the New Testament, pp24-26 , 47 , 78-79.]


Verse 19

Troubling the Gentiles meant imposing the requirements of Jewish proselytes on them, namely, circumcision and observance of the Mosaic Law.


Verse 20

To help Gentile converts not put a stumbling block in the path of Jews, James recommended that Christian teachers encourage their disciples to avoid four things. By the way, Acts presents the apostles as more effective at conflict resolution than the Sanhedrin, and James as a better problem solver than Gamaliel. Filling (control) by the Holy Spirit accounts for these differences. These four things were, first, the things (food, etc.) associated with idolatry (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:14-22), and, second, fornication (Gr. porneias, all kinds of sexual aberrations). The Gentile converse were also to, third, avoid eating strangled animals rather than those with the blood drained out, and, fourth, blood (the essence of life; cf. Genesis 9; Leviticus 17:11). [Note: David Instone-Brewer, "Infanticide and the Apostolic decree of Acts 15 ," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society52:2 (June2009):301-21.] These involved ethical and moral issues and were not just matters of ceremonial defilement.

One writer argued that smothering rather than strangling is in view and that the apostles" intent was to prohibit infanticide, which was a normal method of birth control in the Graeco-Roman world. [Note: See ibid, p395.] This is a minority view.

"Concerning the nature of the prohibitions the most likely explanation is that all four were associated to some degree with pagan religious practices. Since this association was highly offensive to Jews, Gentile believers were asked to avoid even the appearance of evil by avoiding such practices altogether. Thus the purposes of the decree and its prohibitions [cf. Acts 15:29; Acts 21:25] were to promote unity among believing Jews and believing Gentiles." [Note: Charles H. Savelle, "A Reexamination of the Prohibitions in Acts 15 ," Bibliotheca Sacra161:644 (October-December2004):468.]


Verse 21

The reason for these restrictions was this. In the weekly synagogue Scripture readings, teachers of the Mosaic Law had stressed Jewish scruples regarding these matters for generations. Consequently the Jews regarded them as extremely important. If Gentile Christians disregarded the convictions of these Jews, they would only alienate those they hoped to bring to faith in Jesus Christ or to growth in Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:13).

"If there was ever a good opportunity to say that the Gentiles were under the law this was it; for that would have settled the matter simply and quickly. But the apostles, who were Jews themselves, recognized that the law had no force any longer, and they did not try to impose it." [Note: Charles C. Ryrie, "The End of the Law," Bibliotheca Sacra124:495 (July-September1967):243. Cf. Mark 7:18-19; Luke 16:16; John 1:17; Acts 10:12; Romans 7:6; 10:4; 14:17; 1 Corinthians 8:8; 2 Corinthians 3:6-11; Galatians 3:19 , 23; 4:9-11; 5:1; 6:2; Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 7:12; 9:10.]

James was not putting Gentile converts under the Mosaic Law by imposing these restrictions. He was urging them to limit their exercise of Christian liberty to make their witness to unsaved Jews more effective and their fellowship with saved Jews more harmonious (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

"To sum up, we may say that two types of "necessary" questions were raised at the Jerusalem Council. The first had to do with the theological necessity of circumcision and the Jewish law for salvation, and that was rejected. The second had to do with the practical necessity of Gentile Christians abstaining from certain practices for the sake of Jewish-Gentile fellowship within the church and for the sake of the Jewish Christian mission throughout the Diaspora, and that was approved." [Note: Longenecker, p448.]


Verse 22

The Jerusalem leaders chose two witnesses to return to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas to confirm verbally the decision of this council. The custom of sending four persons, representing the people and the council, with an official document has been attested in ancient Greco-Roman literature. [Note: Witherington, p467.] Likewise, in many places oral testimony was regarded more highly than written. [Note: Ibid, p469.] Judas had a Jewish name so he may have been a Hebraic Jew whereas Silas had a Greek name and probably was a Hellenistic Jew. These men represented both segments of the Jerusalem church.

Judas had the same surname as Joseph Barsabbas, the candidate with Matthias for the vacant apostleship ( Acts 1:23). Consequently some interpreters have assumed that Judas and Joseph were brothers. [Note: E.g, Kent, p127.] We also know Silas by his Roman name, Silvanus, in Scripture ( 2 Corinthians 1:19). He was a Hellenistic Jew who had been a leader in the Jerusalem church ( Acts 15:22; Acts 15:27). He was a prophet ( Acts 15:32), a vocal minister in Antioch ( Acts 15:32), a Roman citizen ( Acts 16:37), and an effective amanuensis ( 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:12). Silas became Paul"s primary companion on his second missionary journey ( Acts 15:40).

"When one considers the situation of the Jerusalem church in A.D49 , the decision reached by the Jerusalem Christians must be considered one of the boldest and most magnanimous in the annals of church history. While still attempting to minister exclusively to the nation, the council refused to impede the progress of that other branch of the Christian mission whose every success meant further difficulty for them from within their own nation." [Note: Longenecker, p. p450.]


Verses 22-29

The official formulation of the decision15:22-29


Verse 23

The destination of this letter throws light on extensive missionary activity that had taken place, which Luke did not record. We know of the mission to Antioch, but Luke mentioned nothing about the evangelization of Syria. We know that Paul had done missionary work in Cilicia, but Luke did not tell his readers anything about it. Here we learn that there were churches in these regions already, as we may have assumed but now know for sure (cf. Acts 15:41). Antioch was the capital city of Syria and Cilicia, which Rome administered as a single province until A.D72. [Note: Neil, p175; The New Bible Dictionary, 1962ed, s.v. "Cilicia," by E. M. B. Green.]


Verses 24-29

The men who had come to Antioch from Jerusalem advocating circumcision ( Acts 15:1) had no authorization to do so from the Jerusalem church ( Acts 15:24). They spoke on their own authority. The church in Jerusalem had reached a unified opinion on the issue at hand ( Acts 15:25). The apostles presented Barnabas and Paul as men the saints in Jerusalem held in the highest regard ( Acts 15:25-26). The church leaders had sensed the Holy Spirit"s control in the decision they had reached ( Acts 15:28). [Note: On the differences between the Old Uncial and the Western textual readings of Acts 15:29, see C. K. Barrett, "The Apostolic Decree of Acts 15:29 ," Austrialian Biblical Review35 (1987):50-59.]

"It should be noted that the letter traced the unanimity of the decision to the action of the Holy Spirit ( Acts 15:28), even though the Spirit was not mentioned previously as intervening in the proceedings. This is the way in which the Spirit usually works in the church. There need not be miraculous displays to indicate his direction. Spirit-filled people can detect his presence through the harmony which prevails when men are responsive to his will." [Note: Kent, p128.]


Verses 30-35

The delivery of the decision to Antioch15:30-35

The decision reached at the Jerusalem Council was very important. Even though false teachers continued to propagate the view that Gentiles had to undergo the rites of proselytes to Judaism before they could enter the church, this view was now officially unacceptable. The apostles had strengthened the case for salvation by faith alone greatly. Again, the trip that Paul and Barnabas made between Antioch and Jerusalem and back consisted of about560 ground miles (cf. Acts 11:30 to Acts 12:25; Galatians 2:1-10).


Verse 36

6. The strengthening of the Gentile churches15:36-16:5

Luke reported Paul and Barnabas" efforts to strengthen the churches they had planted in Cyprus and Asia Minor to emphasize the importance of this phase of church extension. He also did so to set the scene for the next major advance of the church. Paul went next into the provinces around the Aegean Sea some of which were on what we now call the European continent.


Verses 36-39

Some commentators have overestimated the "sharp disagreement" between Paul and Barnabas over John Mark , in my opinion. [Note: E.g, Neil, p176; Blaiklock, pp118-19; Barclay, p128; and Robertson, 3:241.] The text says they disagreed vigorously over this issue, but there is no statement or implication that they ended up disliking each other, as some of the commentators have inferred. It seems that they were both led by the Holy Spirit to arrive at their respective conclusions regarding the wisdom of taking John Mark with them. Their separation, I infer, was friendly. Paul later wrote with respectful admiration of Barnabas ( 1 Corinthians 9:6) and John Mark ( Colossians 4:10; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11). Their decision to go separate ways certainly resulted in greater gospel extension since more people became involved as fellow missionaries, and they covered more area in less time. Some Christians erroneously feel that any disagreement between believers is sinful, but there is no indication in the text that this difference of opinion was sinful.

Barnabas" desire to offer John Mark another opportunity was certainly commendable and godly even though Paul viewed it as unwise. Many of God"s servants would have dropped out of ministry had it not been for a gracious Barnabas who was willing to give us another chance after we failed.


Verses 36-41

The beginning of Paul"s second missionary journey15:36-41


Verse 40-41

Paul and Silas departed from Antioch with the church"s blessing. This time they travelled by land north through Syria and Cilicia where Paul had been born and had previously labored. They strengthened the young churches in those Roman provinces. [Note: See the map of Paul"s second missionary journey in Longenecker, p249 , or in Toussaint, " Acts ," p397.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Acts 15:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/acts-15.html. 2012.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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