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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

1 John 4

 

 

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Verse 1

1 John 4:1. Believe not every Spirit, By the spirits, understand not the men pretending to inspiration, nor the doctrines which they delivered, but the spirits from whence the doctrines proceeded; namely, first, the Spirit of God; secondly, the spirit of the man himself; or, thirdly, a demon, or wicked spirit. Having taken notice, ch. 1 John 3:24 that true Christians had the Spirit, the apostle here insinuates, that the false prophets had either never received the Spirit, or had entirely quenched it. They therefore were not to believe every one who pretended to be inspired by the Spirit of God, but to try the spirits. We should observe, that this rule is directed to Christians in general; to the people, as well as ministers; and if the people think and believe at all, they must judge and believe for themselves. A man must either take somebody for his infallible guide, or he must try and judge for himself. How much soever some churches or particular Christians have condemned the liberty of private judgment, the Christian religion encourages the most generous and extensive liberty, or freedom of inquiry: and all Christians ought to assert that liberty, and make the proper improvement of it; neither lightly receiving, nor rejecting what is proposed to them.


Verse 2-3

1 John 4:2-3. Hereby know ye the Spirit, &c.— Hereby you may discern, &c. Heylin. There are two ways of interpreting what St. John has here laid down as a rule by which to try the spirits: 1. Their acknowledging that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; or, 2. Their acknowledging that Jesus, who came in the flesh, is the Christ. In favour of the latter opinion, which is my own, and which coincides with that of some of the most eminent commentators, I would observe, 1st, The unbelieving Jews and Heathens would readily acknowledge, that Jesus, who is called Christ, came in the flesh, or had a real body, like another man; but they would not acknowledge Him to be the Messiah, or the Prophet and Saviour of the world. If therefore any of them had pretended to the Spirit of prophesy, their acknowledging that Jesus came in the flesh, would have been no proof of their prophetic mission. 2nd, The word Ομολογειν signifies not only to confess, but to teach and defend: Acts 23:8. Now not only to confess but to teach and defend that fundamental article of the Christian doctrine, that Jesus is the Christ; or so to confess it, as to stand by it in times of persecution and danger, was a proper mark of trial: whereas the proposition interpreted in the former sense, does not appear to be any mark of trial at all. 3rdly, The parallel places confirm the last interpretation. See 1 John 4:15 ch. 1 John 2:22, 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:5; 1 John 5:12-13. Comp. with ch. 1 John 3:23. 2 John 1:7; 2 John 1:9-10. John 8:24. 4thly, Those who continued cordially and firmly to hold and support that fundamental article of Christianity, that Jesus is the Christ, would have the Spirit abide with them; whereas those who denied and opposed that article could not possibly possess the Spirit of Christ, which is a Spirit of truth. St. John, throughout this epistle, seems to have had his eye upon the Docetae: for that reason, in the beginning of the epistle, he speaks of seeing, hearing, and handling Christ; and here, to the fundamental article of Jesus's being the Messiah, he adds, that he came in the flesh. His having a body, and really suffering and dying, ought not to have offended them. From the latter clause of 1 John 4:3 some have argued, that the Pope cannot be antichrist, (see on ch. 1 John 2:22.) because he confesses Christ; and that it must necessarily be some entirely opposing person or sect, and which does not bear the Christian name. But it should be considered, that popery is an usurpation entirely inconsistent with a duehomage to Christ, and founded upon principles most opposite to those of his government and religion. It is said to have been already in the world, as the ambitious, imposing, persecuting spirit, which is the very essence of anti-christianism, did then very much prevail.


Verse 4

1 John 4:4. And have overcome them: From this and several other passages it appears, that the Christians to whom St. John wrote, had not yet been drawn aside by the false teachers, though they were in imminent danger thereof: there had been frequent contests between them; but by steadfastness in the faith, through the grace of God, they had hitherto gotten the victory. And the apostle puts them in mind of the victory which they had obtained, to intimate that the cause was not in the least degree desperate, but that by the same methods they might still go on conquering, and to conquer. See Revelation 2:20; Revelation 2:29; Revelation 19:1-2; Revelation 19:21.


Verse 5

1 John 4:5. They are of the world: False prophets and corrupt teachers are of the world, as long as a worldly spirit influences them; therefore speak they from that worldlydisposition, suiting their hearers, and consulting worldly interests; and as they sooth men in their prejudices, flatter them, and make them easy in their vices, the world readily heareth them; for there are many who would be gladly freed from moral obligations, and reconcile religion and the love of the world.


Verse 6

1 John 4:6. We are of God: When the apostles had given clear proofs of a divine mission, by numerous and beneficent miracles which they worked; by the exercise of various spiritual gifts themselves, and by imparting spiritual gifts and miraculous powers to others; when their lives were so holy, their labours so disinterested, their sufferings so great and numerous, their doctrine so excellent, and their proofs of a divine mission so many and evident,—they might justly say, we are of God: He that knoweth God, heareth us; he that is not of God, heareth us not.


Verse 7

1 John 4:7. Beloved, let us love one another: St. Jerome tells us, that when this blessed evangelist had continued at Ephesus to extreme old age, and was with difficulty carried to the church between the arms of some of the disciples, being unable to pronounce more words, he was wont, every time they assembled, to say nothing but this, "Little children, love one another." In the verse before us, the apostle assigns a strong reason why we should love one another;—for love is of God. He who planted the principle of attraction in the material world, plants the principle of benevolence in intelligent creatures; and has in particular enjoined Christians to love one another. He therefore who, through grace, possesses and cultivates this disposition, manifests that he is a Christian, born into the family of God; and that he continues to be a true child of God, resembling his heavenly Father; and that he knows the nature and will of God, so as to comply therewith. Others may pretend to great knowledge and sound faith, or just sentiments in religion; but he who does not love his Christian brethren, has not that disposition, and does not thoseactions, which are agreeable to the nature and command of God, and pleasing and acceptable in his sight. See the next note.


Verse 8

1 John 4:8. For God is love. God is the most benevolent of all beings, full of love to his depending creatures; so that in him there is nothing wanting to the highest perfection of love. See 1 John 4:9-16, &c. He is the great fountain and exemplar of love; he recommends it by his law, and produces and cherishes it by his influences; and the due contemplation of him, will of course inflame our hearts with love to his Divine Majesty, and to our fellow-creatures for his sake, whose creatures they are, but especially to our fellow-christians.


Verse 9

1 John 4:9. In this was manifested the love of God, &c.— All the blessings of Providence are effects of the divine love to man; but St. John has said, 1 John 4:8 that God is Love itself; and to illustrate that, he here pitches upon the most remarkable proof and instance of God's love to man. The love of God was the source and origin of the plan of our redemption: the eternal Son of God, by his patient suffering and perfect obedience unto death, purchased or obtained of his great Father, to be the person who should be honoured with carrying this glorious plan into execution, which in time he will finish in the most complete manner, for all his faithful saints. God's sending his Son into the world, includes his dying for us; see 1 John 4:10. He became the great vicarious Sacrifice, and, through the complete atonement which he has made, God the Father may now be just, and yet a Justifier of those that believe in Jesus. Those false prophets who denied Jesus to have a real body, and really to suffer and die, took away entirely the love which God manifested, in sending his only and dearly-beloved Son to die, that we might live through him. They not only invalidated the force of Christ's example, and the infinite merit of his atonement, but, of consequence, the greatness of his love, which appeared most illustriously in his willing sufferings and cheerful dying for us: and no wonder that they who thus enervated the love both of the Father and the Son, should not be moved by such infinitely amiable examples to love their Christian brethren.


Verse 10

1 John 4:10. But that he loved us, St. John's meaning is, that God loved us for it. See 1 John 4:19. Men are generally very ready to love those by whom they are first loved: now, such was the astonishing love of God to men, that, when they were sinners and enemies, he so loved the world, as to send his most beloved Son to live and die for them! The love wherewith God so loved the world, as to send his dear Son to redeem and save them, does, in some respects, differ from the love wherewith he loves all true believers, in addition to that grand primary instance of his love. The first has been called a love of pity, or benevolence, or the antecedent love of God, and with such a love God has loved the whole race of mankind. The other is called a love of complacency, or delight, or the consequent love of God; and with such a love God loves all sincere believers.


Verse 11

1 John 4:11. We ought also to love one another. We, as his children, ought to imitate the infinitelyamiableexampleofourcommonFather,andsincerelyandaffectionately love one another. Sometimes the love of God the Father, sometimes the love of God the Son, is proposed to our imitation.


Verse 12

1 John 4:12. No man hath seen God, &c.— "God himself is an invisible Spirit, whom no man hath seen nor can see with his bodily eyes. But as he is the great Fountain of benevolence, if we love one another with cordiality and entire sincerity, it appears that God dwelleth in us, and that his love is perfected in us; for this is the best proof we can give of our love to him, and of the prevalence of his grace in our hearts, transforming us into his image."


Verse 13

1 John 4:13. Hereby know we, &c.— "By this we have a comfortable evidence of a mutual inhabitation between God and us, of our dwelling by faith and love inunion and communion, through Jesus Christ, with him; and of his dwelling by gracious manifestations and influences in our souls; because he has freely afforded us rich communications of his Spirit, to beget and animate this faith and love, and to cast a light upon his own work within us."


Verse 14

1 John 4:14. And we have seen, &c.— "And animated and sealed by this Spirit, as we have seen and known by undoubted evidence ourselves, so we courageously testify to others, how hazardous soever the bearing that testimony may be, that the great almighty Father of all hath sent Jesus his eternal and only-begotten Son, under the infinitely important character of the Saviour of the world; and that it is in him, and by him alone, how proudly soever the infidel world may reject him, and disdain him, that eternal salvation can be obtained," St. John and the apostles had been eye-witnesses of Christ's holy life, numerous miracles, patient sufferings, and willing death; they had also seen him after his resurrection: to such proofs of their divine mission, St. John had referred at the beginning of this epistle, and he now refers to them again; withal declaring, that he and the other apostles had testified what they had seen; and from their testimony, supported by many miracles, the world might be satisfied of the truth of their message, and look upon Jesus as sent of God the Father to be the Saviour of mankind, and might hence gather the great love of God to men.


Verse 15

1 John 4:15. Whosoever shall confess See on 1 John 4:2. The confession here required must have been sincere, otherwise it would have been of no moment. Confessing Jesus to be the Son of God, or the Messiah, implied their taking him for their Head and Lord, whom they were to love, imitate, and obey. Together with confession of the mouth, there was to be faith in the heart, and a suitable behaviour in the life and practice. They were to confess that Jesus isthe Christ openly and publicly, even when danger and persecution attended that confession. Hence came afterwards the distinguishing name of confessors, to denote those who had suffered in part for their religion, and who were ready to have died as martyrs, rather than to have denied the truth. Such were undoubtedly the most likely to imitate Christ's example, obey his commands, and rejoice in the prospect of his second coming. The connection of this verse with the context stands thus: It was intimated, 1 John 4:14 that the apostles had known and clearly proved, that Jesus was the Messiah and Saviour of the world. Here it is to be observed, that whoever duly attended to the evidence which the apostles had brought, and thereupon with the heart believed Jesus to be the Son of God, and lived and acted accordingly, was a true Christian, and in the divine favour: Whence St. John makes the intended inference, 1 John 4:16 namely, that whoever believed that astonishing instance of the love of God in sending his Son, would be inflamed with a just sense of it, and would sincerely love his fellow-christians. See John 17:22-23.


Verse 17

1 John 4:17. Herein is our love made perfect, Herein is love perfected in us (so it should be rendered), even by our thus dwelling in love, and thereby dwelling in God: and having this plain token of God's love to us, wemay assuredly hope to appear with humble confidence before him in the awful day of judgment: because as he is all love to us, so we in resemblance of him, and in consideration of his love, are filled with a supreme love to him, and with a sincere and ardent love to the brethren for his sake, even whilewe live in this tempting and ensnaring world. The phraseday of judgment, does not appear ever to signify in the New Testament (as some assert) the day of trouble, or the time of those calamities by which the faith and patience of God's servants are often tried in this world; or the day in which the primitive Christians should be brought before the tribunal of the unbelieving Jews or Heathens: but it is well known to every reader of the Scripture, that it frequently signifies the day in which Jesus Christ will judge the world with the most perfect justice and equity. See 2 Thessalonians 2:2.


Verse 18

1 John 4:18. There is no fear in love, &c.— "This perfect love is of such a delightful nature, that though it be ever attended with a holy filial reverence of God, and cautious filial fear of offending; yet there is no distrustful or terrifying fear of God in it, as if he were our enemy. But this perfect love to him, and to our fellow-christians for his sake, when thus exalted to so high a pitch and fervour under a strong assurance of his love to us, banishes all diffident and slavish fear of God; because this sort of fear is a distressing passion, utterly inconsistent with this perfect love, and withthe sweetness, pleasure, and humble but strong confidence which flow therefrom. It is therefore a plain consequence, that he who has any servile dread of God, is far from living under thepowerofthisdelightful perfect love, which springs from the full assurance of faith, and enables us to consider God, not only as the most amiable object, infinitely lovely in himself, but as all love to us."


Verse 19

1 John 4:19. We love him, &c.— Some would read this, Let us therefore love him: and their reasons for it are, because the connection is by this interpretation rendered more easyand obvious; and the word αγαπωμεν, may be indifferently understood, either in the indicative or subjunctive mood: and as the word αγαπα is in the subjunctive mood, 1 John 4:21 so it seems to be ch. 1 John 5:1 and therefore the word αγαπωμεν should be so understood in this place. St. John, 1 John 4:11 infers from God's first loving us, that we ought to love one another: here he infers from God's first loving us, that we ought in return to love God.


Verse 20

1 John 4:20. For he that loveth not his brother, &c.— By brother is all along to be understood a real Christian; and if Christian professors are what their religion obliges them to be, that is, more holy than other men, we ought in reason to love them with a greater degree of affection than others. It is intimated, ch. 1 John 5:1 that every one who loveth God, will of course love all Christians, who are his children, and resemble him. Here we are taught, that he who loveth not Christians, who are the visible image of God, cannot possibly love the invisible God, whose image they are: and that if any man pretends to love God, without loving all Christians, who are his image, he is a liar, and imposes upon himself as well as endeavours to impose upon other men. To this purpose Grotius quotes the following passage out of Philo: "It is impossible that the invisible God should be worshipped in a right manner, by those who behave wickedly towards such as are seen by them and are their neighbours." It is likely that the false prophets and their disciples boasted that though they did not love all Christians, yet they loved God; and that was the principal thing. St. John knew the men and their conversation, and therefore sharply reproved them for such an idle pretence. If it be our duty to love our Christian brethren, whom we see, and with whom we daily converse; and if love and beneficence to them be the way to manifest that we love God; what shall we say to those, who retire from the world, and shut themselves up in monasteries, abbeys, nunneries, cells, or deserts, to shun the conversation of men, and avoid the sight of their Christian brethren; and that, undera pretence of more than ordinary love to God? Or what can be thought of those, who spend their lives in mere contemplation, without being useful to the community, andto the Christian brethren? Who, while they pretend to the warmest love of God, do not behave with that strict justice, truth, and benevolence towards men, which might be wished and expected? Or, who contend so fiercely for the faith, (or rather for their own opinion,) as to lay aside the spirit of meekness and love, and to forget that of faith, hope, and charity, those three great Christian virtues?—The greatest of these is not faith, but lov

Inferences.—What a certain test have private Christians, as well as others, in the word of God, to distinguish between those who broach errors concerning the divine person and saving offices of Christ, under pretence of their having the Spirit of God; and those who, under his guidance and influence, preach the truth as it is in Jesus, and cordially own, and bravely profess that he is the only-begotten Son of God, and has really appeared in human nature as the Saviour of lost sinners among both Jews and Gentiles! All pretenders to the Spirit are not of God, nor are to be believed and followed; and they that are born of God, need not be stumbled at them, since there ever have been such in the world; and true believers may see through them and their delusions, and withstand and overcome them; because God, who dwells in them by his Spirit, is infinitely greater, wiser, and stronger than the devil, who works and prevails by his antichristian emissaries upon carnal men. And what wonder is it, that people of a worldly spirit should adhere to those who are like themselves, and accommodate their schemes and discourses to their corrupt taste? But the servants of God speak from, and for him, according to his mind and will; and therefore are suitably regarded by those, and those only, who are well affected in their hearts towards him.—How astonishing is the free love of God towards such sinful creatures as we are, that he (as his inspired servants testify,) has sent his beloved Son into the world to be the propitiation for our sins, that we might live in all blessedness and glory for ever with him! This is a high demonstration indeed, that God is Love; and we must be utter strangers to his amiable excellencies, if we do not love him: not that we are or can be beforehand with him in loving; for we love him, because he first loved us, and because we are brought under its influence and manifestation, to know and believe it. This melts our hearts and gains over our affections to him, and to his children for his sake. And what a sure token is this of our being born of God, and of his dwelling by his Spirit in us, and of our union and communion with him! But how vain and preposterous is it, for any to pretend that they have a true and hearty love to that God whom they never saw, if they have enmity in their souls against those in whom his image is visible, and whom they often see and converse with! This is giving the lie to their own profession, and to the declarations of God in his word, who has commanded that he who loves him, should love his brother also. And when perfect love to God and one another is genuine and abounding, how divinely sweet are its workings! It banishes all slavish tormenting fear of him and of his wrath, which is utterly inconsistent with the most affectionate complacential love to him, and to his children as such. But having this evidence of our interest in his love, with what satisfaction may we hope to appear before him with humble boldness in the day of judgment, as those who are accepted of him through his Son.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, The apostle,

1. Warns them against seducing teachers. Beloved, believe not every spirit, nor credit rashly each pretender to inspiration; but try the spirits, by the infallible oracles of truth, whether they are of God, and speak agreeably to his revealed will: because many false prophets are gone out into the world, and we need be on our guard, proving all things, and holding fast that which is good.

2. He gives them a certain rule to direct their judgment in this matter. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God, and those who are influenced by it: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, or that confesseth Jesus Christ who is come in the flesh, receiving him in his divine person and mediatorial character and offices, as the true Messiah, from whom alone life and salvation are to be expected, he is of God, and speaks according to his mind and will. And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, but denies his divine glory, his real incarnation, and mediatorial undertaking, is not of God, but is under the spirit of Satan and delusion: and this is that spirit of antichrist, which is enmity against Christ and his gospel, whereof ye have heard that it should come, and even now already is it in the world, the mystery of iniquity having already begun to work, and woe to those over whom it prevails!

2nd, To encourage them against the fears of being drawn aside by seducers, the apostle,

1. Assures them, that, while they keep God on their side, they are safe. Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them hitherto, and, if faithful, shall be still superior to all their arts: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world; and he will preserve his faithful people from the power of evil.

2. He describes these seducers. They are of the world: whatever pretences they make, they are wholly engrossed and influenced by the riches, honours, and pleasures of this life: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them, greedily drinking in a doctrine so suited to their carnal hearts.

3. He shews the different character of God's true ministers and people. We are of God, appointed by him, and owned of him, having his glory singly in view, and walking under the guidance and influences of his word and Spirit: he that knoweth God, heareth us, and receives our testimony as divine; he that is not of God, not enlightened by him, nor born of him, heareth not us, disregarding our doctrine, and counting it foolishness. Hereby know we the Spirit of truth, and the spirit of error. Note; They who reject the warnings of God's ministers speaking according to his holy word, evidently shew themselves to be under the Spirit of error.

3rdly, The apostle returns to recommend the exercise of fervent love, as the genuine evidence of a right spirit. Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, his genuine offspring, and his brightest image; and every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God; he evidences hereby his experimental acquaintance with God, and shews himself a child of his family of love. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, whatever he may pretend; for God is Love, and the true knowledge of him has ever a transforming efficacy to change us into his image. In this was manifested the love of God towards us, and shone forth with the most distinguished lustre, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, to become incarnate, to live and die for us, that we might live through him, redeemed from the sentence of death, quickened to newness of life, and through his infinite merit, entitled to immortal bliss and glory. Herein is love, surpassing strange! not that we loved God! no; just the reverse; we were sinners, ungodly, enemies; but even when we had every thing which could render us the objects of his loathing, even then, that he might magnify the wonders of his grace, he loved us, and gave the most astonishing demonstration of it, when he sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, with his own blood making atonement for us, and now purging the faithful from all their iniquities through this amazing sacrifice, and by his own divine Spirit. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another: who can possibly offend us so highly as we have offended God? yet he forgives and pardons abundantly; yea, he spared not his own Son, but freely gave him up for us all: what then can we withhold from our brethren, when we have such an example before us? Surely, if we belong to him, we shall be like him, and prove it by this spirit of love. No man indeed hath seen God at any time, for he is a Spirit invisible and incorporeal. But if we love one another, God dwelleth in us, by his Spirit manifesting his presence in our hearts; and his love is perfected in us, our love towards him is entire, unreserved, and unmixed with any idolatry. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit, whereby we become one with him, united to him in faith and love, and experiencing the most gracious manifestations of his presence with our souls. Thou God of life and love, give me more abundantly of this blessed Spirit!

4thly, We have,

1. The apostolic testimony. And we have seen and do testify, that the Father sent the Son, in his infinite grace and love, to be the Saviour of the world, of both Jews and Gentiles, even of all that will accept of his grace, without exception, and placing all mankind within the reach of eternal glory, if they will faithfully submit to the operations of his Spirit.

2. The true evangelical confession. Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, owning him as the divine and true Messiah, and making open profession of his faith in the face of every danger, God dwelleth in him, and he in God, being happily joined to God, and living continually within the veil.

3. The experience of all true Christians. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us, the astonishing manifestation of which, in sending his Son, leaves us no room to doubt of his transcendent and infinite grace and love. God is Love, pure, perfect Love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him; there subsists a most holy union between them.

5thly, The apostle proceeds to set forth the blessed effects of Christian love. Herein is our love made perfect, entire, unreserved, and unmixed with any alloy, notwithstanding our many acknowledged infirmities, and deviations from the perfect law of innocence, (all of which have an absolute need of the Blood of the Atonement)—our love, I say, is made perfect by our union of heart to God, and ardent love to the brethren; and, where this is the case, then,

1. We may have boldness in the day of judgment, and confidently appear before the throne of Jesus, most assured of a glorious and distinguished acceptance: because, as he is, so are we in this world; and he cannot but receive into the bosom of his love those who so fully bear his own bright image.

2. We are delivered from all slavish fear. There is no fear in love, nothing distressing, terrifying, and servile; but perfect love casteth out fear, this entire, unreserved, and pure love of God silences all fearful apprehensions: because fear hath torment; and where it prevails, must proportionably make the soul unhappy: he that feareth with a fear that is accompanied with any anxiety, doubt, or wavering, is not made perfect in love, has not known him, nor loved him who is from the beginning, according to the full privileges of our high dispensation, as a father in God. We love him because he first loved us; his love, shed abroad in the heart, must kindle ours; and the view of those amazing manifestations of it which he has made, should every day add fuel to the sacred fire, and raise the flame of holy affections still higher and higher, till at last we are wholly assimilated to his image in the full consummation of holiness, happiness, and love, in everlasting glory.

3. Love to God necessarily includes love to the brethren. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; his uncharitableness proves the hypocrisy of his pretensions: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen with his bodily eyes, and whose distresses, which should excite compassion, he has beheld; or the divine image in him, which should engage his regards; how can he love God, whom he hath not seen? how absurd is the supposition! And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God, love his brother also, and prove thereby the unfeigned sincerity of his professions.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on 1 John 4:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/1-john-4.html. 1801-1803.

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