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What is a Biblical Covenant?

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Question #1: 

Dr. Luginbill, May grace and peace be multiplied to you. I am finding myself perplexed by some of the comments in a chat group of which I am a member. For in this group there exists some folks who are of the amillennialist position. And I find their views quite radical. Not believing in an earthly millennial reign or a 7 year tribulational period. But when we got on the discussion of covenants, I tried espousing that there are covenants that God had made with the Israelites that were not conditional, I was soundly rebuked! The following Scripture was presented in which to rebuke me, Ex. 19:5; Psalm 132:12; Deut. 7:12; Josh. 24:20; Lev. 26:15-16; Jer. 33:20-26; Heb. 8:6-7. After all this I wonder if there ever was an unconditional covenant decreed by God. Any help in this matter would be appreciated. In Christ,

Response #1: 

Amillennialism is actually a dated, stodgy approach to scripture rather than something new and radical. In one of its many departures from the truth of scripture it belongs to the Roman church (actually going back quite far indeed). The Reformers, intent upon righting doctrinal wrongs in the fields of soteriology, ecclesiology and the like, had little time or interest for eschatology. Nowadays, it is generally only adherents of old-line Protestant denominations who still hold to this clearly unbiblical theory (for one thing, it requires taking the entire book of Revelation as an allegory of little import). This background is important because it helps to explain the playing field you find yourself on. Old line denominations are much like the Roman Catholic church at least in this respect: their doctrine is set in stone – as if it were brought down from Sinai – and for the past several hundred years they have been having theological discussions based not upon the Bible but upon their own longstanding interpretations of it. The Roman church, to be sure, is different in that its source of authority is canon law, papal fiat, and the church fathers, but the reformed churches, in their enshrining of theological concepts, are different in practice only in that many of their enshrined conceptions are not nearly as far off the mark as Roman Catholic dogma. However, when they are wrong (e.g., amillennialism) they are really wrong, and there is little hope for them to change their minds since they are operating in a closed system. That is to say, there are those of us who are trying to circle in on the truth, willing to hear the Spirit and study the Bible, helping one another to get closer to the full truth of the Word day by day. The reformed confessionalists long ago said "this far and no farther" – a good thing vis-a-vis Roman Catholic error, but a bad thing in terms of ever coming any closer to the whole truth of scripture. To be sure, there is danger in any approach which admits of the possibility that some of what one believes may be incorrect at least in some degree and is ever seeking to purify and refine one's beliefs and one's heart. But there is also danger in digging in and never moving again, and, to my mind, the latter is far worse than the former. If we trust in the Lord, follow the Spirit, and diligently study the scripture, we will learn, even if we make some mis-steps along the way, and we will be the better for it in the long run if we undertake our journey with the proper consistency and humility.

The whole subject of covenants falls into this category in a very telling way. Calvinism in particular has always made much of covenants. In the case of any author or group of writings, it is always well to be skeptical of a system of interpretation that seems to put far more stress on a concept than the author or group of writings itself does prima facie. The concept of covenant is undeniably important in the Bible, but I think it is a fair point to say that if one were reading it for the first time without preconceptions that such a person would be surprised to learn after the fact that the covenant was the key idea, at least in the terms that such groups usually present them. One would instead have supposed, I would say, that the key idea was redemption from sin through God's saving work in Jesus Christ, foreshadowed in the Old Testament and completed, revealed, and explained in the New. Once one understands God's "covenants" in these correct terms, all the issues involving them which are truly biblical fall easily into place. The problem is that the reformed churches have long ago built up very complex systems of theology based upon some very skewed and in some cases outright wrong ideas about what covenants are and what they mean. Worse to tell, after these principles were laid down centuries ago, they have since been building esoteric and introverted systems of theology based not upon scripture as their primary evidence but upon these prior conceptions (and in some cases misconceptions). The result is theological gobbledygook (I use the technical term for it). One can spend years delving into the treatises that have been penned about this, but for the most part one will only become more confused as to the true scriptural meaning of what a covenant really is.

Please bear with me. In order not to repeat myself too much, I am pasting in here a treatment of this issue contained in part 5 of the Satanic Rebellion series, but I have some more comments apropos of your question below (see the link: Covenants):

The Old and New Covenants: These two phases of human history correspond respectively to the two covenants, the Old Covenant (or testament) and the New Covenant (or testament). The Hebrew word for covenant/testament is beriyth ( ברית), literally, a treaty, alliance or agreement. Since these "agreements" are not made by two equal parties, but are made by God at His own instigation on Man's behalf, translators have always felt the need distinguish the Old and New "beriyoth" from person-to-person or state-to-state agreements. But one of the main points of the beriyth is indeed that God has chosen to bind Himself to fulfill all that He has promised - for our benefit, not for His. That is to say, if God has said it once, it is true and it will stand, but for the sake of our encouragement and perseverance, He has undertaken to give us assurances above and beyond anything we could ever deserve or ask for by formally "ratifying" His Word (cf. Heb.6:16-20).

A covenant/testament/beriyth is, therefore, first and foremost a promise from God, and it is for this reason that we find the word beriyth closely associated in the New Testament with the concept of "promise" (epangelia: ἐπαγγελία; cf. especially Eph.2:12: "the covenants of the promise"). Now the Greek word for covenant/testament is not epangelia but diatheke (διαθήκη), and this is the word that literally translates the Hebrew beriyth. But as the usage of diatheke in the New Testament makes clear, a "covenant" is still essentially an agreement, that is, a solemn, formalized promise or collection of promises which God has obligated Himself to fulfill (cf. Lk.1:72; Acts 3:25; Rom.11:26-27; 2Cor.3:14; Gal.3:17; Eph.2:12; Heb.7:22). The best way to understand the idea of the covenant/testament/beriyth, therefore, is in terms of God's ultimate promise to mankind.

For the Old Covenant (really a series of promises, to Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, etc.; cf. Acts 13:23; 13:32-33; 26:6; Rom.4:13; 9:4; Gal.3:16; 3:29; 4:28; Eph.3:6; 2Tim.1:1; Heb.4:1; 6:12; 9:15; 10:36; 11:38-39; 1Jn.2:25) was first and foremost the promise of salvation (and all that it would entail), while the New Covenant is essentially the fulfillment of that promise (through Christ's incarnation, sacrifice and resurrection). Thus the promised Seed of Genesis 3:15, and the Seed promised to Abraham in Genesis 12:7 find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (Gal.3:16-29). The Old Covenant is therefore a looking forward through the shadows to the New Covenant, the reality of Christ and the fulfillment of all God's promises for salvation and eternal life through Him (1Cor.11:25; 2Cor.3:6; Heb.9:15):

And we are proclaiming this good news to you, the promise made to our fathers now become a reality. For this promise God has fulfilled for us, His children, by raising Jesus from the dead.
Acts 13:32-33a

For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcision for the sake of God's truth, that is, to confirm the promises (i.e., covenants) made to their ancestors - and also so that the gentiles might glorify God for His mercy (i.e., in providing salvation through Jesus).
Romans 15:8-9b

This cup is the new covenant [ratified] by My blood which is shed on your behalf.
Luke 22:20b.

From mankind's point of view, hope is always the central idea behind the promises of God solemnized in covenant form. That God has promised, sworn, and obligated Himself to provide for our salvation (Old Covenant perspective), and that Christ has accomplished and fully ratified all the promises of the Old Testament through His blood (New Covenant perspective), is indescribably encouraging news, good news, that empowers and strengthens our hope that one day we shall indeed be with Him.

For men are accustomed to take oaths on the authority of something greater than they are, and there is absolutely no doubt about the fact that an oath is taken for the purpose of confirmation. Just so God, out of a desire to make it abundantly clear to us, the heirs of His promise [after the pattern of Abraham's faith], that His will in this matter [of salvation and its resultant blessings] is unchangeable, guaranteed it with an oath (Gen.22:16-17), so that through two unchangeable matters wherein it is impossible for God to prove false (i.e., His Word and His oath), we who have escaped [the wrath to come] and taken hold of this hope offered to us might have a strong basis for encouragement. And this hope [truly] is what "anchors" our lives, so to speak: it is certain; it is solid; it penetrates beyond the [heavenly] veil into the [holy of holies] where our vanguard, Jesus, has entered on our behalf, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. 
Hebrews 6:16-20

Hope then, in the biblical sense, is much different from the way the word is often used in contemporary English. Hope in the biblical sense is not an uncertainty for which we wish, but rather a certainty we cannot yet see. Secular Greek usage reflects this same idea, for the word elpis (ἐλπίς), refers to a likelihood about future events, a definite expectation, whether good or bad. The two most common Hebrew words for hope, from the roots yachal (יחל) and qavah (קוה), yield a similar result, meaning respectively "to wait for" and "to look eagerly for", stressing the idea of sure expectation of something not yet fulfilled, rather than the English notion of fantasy and wishing. In the New Testament, hope is always good, a confident anticipation about what is going to come, and, specifically, the sure and certain knowledge, belief and conviction of our salvation, resurrection, gathering together with Jesus Christ, and glorious eternity with Him. We do not see it yet, but we know for certain that through Christ's victory and our faith in Him it is only a matter of time before we actually experience the things we hope for:

For it is in this hope [of the resurrection of our bodies] that we have been saved. Now a hope that is visible is not [really] a hope. For why should someone wait expectantly for what his eyes can see? But we have set our hope on what cannot be seen, and so are patiently awaiting its fulfillment.
Romans 8:24-25

It is faith, moreover, that substantiates what we hope for. [Faith] provides proof of things unseen.
Hebrews 11:1

The Old Covenant looked forward to the coming of the promised Messiah, to the redemption of all mankind through His work (Rom.11:27). With the advent of Jesus Christ and His work on the cross now an accomplished fact, the New Covenant that God has made with all mankind includes not only forgiveness, but innumerable blessings besides, prominent among which is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn.7:39; cf. Is.59:21). Now that Christ has been resurrected, ascended to heaven and sits at the Father's right hand, we who believe in Him have received the gift of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts as well, an unfulfilled promise from the Old Covenant perspective, but, like the coming of Christ in the flesh, a reality under the New Covenant (compare Is.44:3 and Joel 2:28 with Acts 2:14-21; Rom.12:5-8; 1Cor.12:1-11; Eph.4:7-13).

Jesus Christ is thus the key to the two phases of history with their two concomitant covenants. He is the unique Prophet (Deut.18:17-19), the eternal Priest (Ps.110:4) and the promised King (Is.9:6-7). He is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises (Rom.15:8; cf. Acts 3:24-26), of the Old Covenant (2Cor.3:14; Heb.7:22), and of the Law (Rom.10:4; Heb.7:12). He is the One who has delivered us from the bondage of the Old Covenant and brought us into the freedom of the New Covenant (Gal.4:24f.). He it is who has mediated for us a better covenant than was in force before, a covenant built on better promises (Heb.8:6; 12:24; cf. Eph.2:12; Heb.9:15-16).

But the fact is that the ministry which [Jesus] has received is a more excellent one to the same degree that the [New] Covenant of which He is the mediator is better [than the Old]. For this [New Covenant] has been instituted on the basis of better promises. For if that first [covenant] had been perfect, an occasion for the second would not have been sought. Indeed, in finding fault with [those under the first covenant, God] says, Behold, the days are coming", says the Lord, "when I shall ratify a New Covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah - not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. For they did not remain [faithful to] My covenant, and so I in turn disregarded them." says the Lord. "For" says the Lord, "this is the covenant which I shall make with the house of Israel after these days: I shall put my precepts in their minds and write them upon their hearts, and I shall be their God, and they shall be My people. They shall not teach each one his fellow and each one his brother, saying 'Know the Lord!', because all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I shall have mercy upon their unrighteous deeds and shall remember their sins no more." [Jeremiah 31:31-34] In mentioning a "New [Covenant]", He has rendered the Old one obsolete. And that which is obsolete and antiquated is close to disappearing.
Hebrews 8:6-13

Not that every promise from the Old Testament has already been fulfilled in every aspect and detail (Heb.11:39-40). Indeed, even now under the New Covenant we still await the return of our Lord and our gathering together with Him in resurrection. But all God's promises have in fact been completely fulfilled in principle through our Lord Jesus Christ's victory over sin at the cross, a victory that resulted in our redemption from sin and thus cleared the way for all the coming blessings of eternity. Therefore the actual fulfillment of all the promises to Israel and to us, our resurrection, eternal life, our reward and eternity with God in the new heavens and new earth are a reality by which we are separated only by a short span of time (and one for which we wait with eager anticipation: 2Pet.3:10-13).

Synopsis: Covenants in general in the ancient Middle East required two parties and a formal blood-sacrifice for ratification wherein both sides agree to abide by the terms specified. A biblical covenant is an agreement made by God on mankind's behalf, wherein God undertakes to bless all those who faithfully follow Him. God's part is two-fold: He supplies blessing (culminating in resurrection and eternal life), and He provides the blood-sacrifice (the gift of His Son, necessary to redeem us from sin so that we may be blessed). Our part is to keep faith with Him (i.e., accepting Christ and continuing to trust Him, believe Him, obey Him, follow Him: cf. Gen.15:6). God's covenants are formalized promises that provide those who have set their hearts on following Him with a strong basis for confident hope, because God has not only promised the eternal life and concomitant blessings we eagerly await, but has irrevocably bound Himself to fulfill them. Therefore although part of these covenants' fulfillment is still yet future (requiring those who accept God's gracious offer of salvation which is at the heart of both covenants to trust Him while waiting patiently for fulfillment after the pattern of Abraham's faith and patience), fulfillment is absolutely certain for all who embrace the promises and persevere in faith. It is common among exegetes to find numerous Old Testament covenants, but from Adam (the promise of the redeemer: Gen.3:15), to Noah (the promise of continued freedom and opportunity to choose for Him: Gen.8:20-9:17), to Abraham (the promise of the Seed: Gen.12:7; 13:15; 17:19-21), to David (the promise of the Son: 2Sam.7:5-16), all these "additional" covenants serve the same purpose as the Old Covenant (otherwise known as the Law of Moses: cf. Ex.24:8), that is, to foreshadow the person and work of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Both Old and New Covenants are ratified by blood: the Old through the shadow of animal blood, the New through the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross (where the reality of His death on our behalf and in our place [and wherein He did not bleed to death: Jn.19:30-37] is symbolized by the phrase "the blood of Christ": Heb.9:16-22). God promises, formalizes the promises, and pays the most severe price to fulfill the covenants He has established - the price being the sacrifice of His only beloved Son.

We benefit from His unconditional and glorious act of grace, if we but trust in Jesus and stay faithful to Him. Whether it be present day believers who partake of the communion which proclaims the completed reality of salvation through the blood of Christ (Matt.26:26-29), or believers of the past who partook of sacrificial meals "of covenant" that foreshadowed the future reality of salvation (Ex.12:1-12; cf. Gen.31:51-54), our participation "proclaims the death of Jesus until He comes" (1Cor.11:26) and so pledges our continuing faith and faithfulness. The old, shadow covenant(s) (cf. Ezek.16:60 "covenant of youth") and the memorial, "New" covenant (cf. Ezek.16:60 “everlasting covenant”) thus both proclaim the salvation to which we are heirs and partakers by the work of God through our continuing faith in Jesus Christ:

But Christ has already arrived [in heaven] as high priest of the good things to come, [having passed] through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, that is, the one which is not of this creation. Nor was it through the blood of goats and bullocks, but through His own blood (i.e., His death) that He entered once and for all into the holy of holies, having wrought eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of the heifer sprinkled upon the unclean render a person holy in respect to bodily cleansing, how much more will the blood of Christ, who offered Himself without defect to God through the eternal Spirit, cleanse our conscience from dead works so that we may serve the living God? And it is for this reason that He is the Mediator of a New Covenant, so that those who have been called might receive their eternal inheritance on the basis of the death He suffered to redeem us from the transgressions [committed] under the first Covenant.
Hebrews 9:11-15

I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and shall take You by the hand, and guard You, and appoint You a covenant for the nations and a light for the gentiles.
Isaiah 42:6

Now for my (new) comments. Take the covenant to Abraham and the New Covenant in Christ's blood to us. Abraham "believed" and "it was credited to him as righteousness" (Gen.15:6), whereas we believe and are made righteous in Christ by faith (Rom.4-5). The only difference is that Abraham looked forward to a salvation that was not yet fully visible (cf. 1Pet.1:10-12), whereas we look backward to a salvation that has been fully revealed in the face of Christ, the One who has redeemed us from our sins. No covenant is "unconditional" in the sense that no one can lay claim to it without obeying God. On the other hand, all covenants are "unconditional" in the sense that the Word of God cannot be broken for all those who have indeed put their faith in Him and His Son, and maintain that faith, faithfully to the end. We have in the idea of the covenant a formal guarantee of salvation and blessing, variously described and with various concomitant rewards (the New Covenant being guarantee of our inheritance as in earthly wills upon the death of the testator; cf. Heb.9:15-16), to those who are the children of God from Him who is their Father based upon the sacrifice, coming or completed (i.e., pre or post-cross), of the Savior who is His Son and our Lord.

My main complaint about covenant theology is that it fails to grasp the basic, simple truth of these “agreements” being all about the secure hope they provide for our faith, obscuring it with layer upon layer of intricacy, most of it not biblical, much of it really running counter to the truth in some way. The issue of conditional vs. unconditional is one of those doctrinal areas where a person has to understand that in the all-knowing, inscrutable wisdom of God, our free will and His divine will do not conflict, even though in human logic they may seem to. Therefore we are both predestined and have complete free will. And the covenants are both conditional and unconditional at the same time, depending upon the point of view a person takes, namely, the free will of man to choose for God (= conditional upon this choice), or the sovereign will and immutable choice of God (= unconditional because of this Will). And it should also be noted that the very terms "conditional" / "unconditional" are not biblical. The fact that God has chosen to incorporate our free will into His plan of total, comprehensive and all-inclusive divine WILL is something that minces many a human logical argument, but without which we could never explain the sinfulness of mankind being (and needing to be) cleansed away by the saving work of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

I hope this helps put it in perspective for you. Please feel free to write me back about any of this.  Here are some other links on the topic:

The Last Supper and the New Covenant

The Old Covenant and the New:  Shadow versus Reality

In the One who chose us before time began that we might choose for Him, our Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob L.

Question #2: 

I am VERY impressed by your site. I see there is MUCH information to peruse--and perhaps my questions will be answered by some of these books. I assume you are the author--and applaud your insistence on studying the Bible for ourselves in “Read your Bible”. While it is a daily habit, I find your suggestions to be worthy of downloading and passing along to others.

While I believe the Holy Spirit working in a man's life is all the credentials he needs to interpret and teach--I am interested to know your background, degrees, etc. Not that I need them to approve you--as Paul says, the Foundation is laid on Christ and whatever we build with will be revealed at the judgment. So far, what I see of your work is pretty "permanent."

I have three specific questions:

1) Do you agree that the idea of a “rapture” removing believers from earth before the tribulation is not biblical?

2) Do you agree that since Christ is the end of Law for those who believe, that to build the temple in Jerusalem again is unnecessary, and if fact the book of Hebrews is largely concerned with showing how all such rituals are now no longer valid (and there is no temple in the New Jerusalem as a result)?

3) Can you provide for me the biblical evidence for the Tribulation? Other than Revelation, where is that to be found?

I just need those questions answered--as I feel very alienated, sometimes, by what I see revealed and what I hear preached from the popular pulpits. Thanks so much for your hard work, May God continue to bless and reveal Truth to and through you.

Response #2:

Yes, I am the author of everything posted at Ichthys (see the link: About Ichthys). I thank you for your kind words. And I very much appreciate your questions and your entire approach to the Word of God. In fact, it seems identical to my own. I too have been very discouraged and skeptical about what is popularly preached for many, many years, and this is behind the approach I have taken. When I made the decision while on active duty in the 70's to make the teaching of the Word of God my life, I knew that in order to do the job right I would need to have the best credentials available. You are right to ask that question – and I knew then that anyone who was truly seeking the Word of God would inevitably ask that question. So I went back to school and got a second B.A. in Classics, concentrating on Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. After this degree, I went to seminary and earned an M.A.B.S. concentrating in Hebrew. Finally I went to graduate school and earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. concentrating in Greek. I earn my daily bread as a university professor teaching Greek and Latin, but it is the Word of God that is my true love, and this ministry that represents my true purpose. My "CV" is posted at the site (see the link: Author's Curriculum Vitae). Time and space would fail me if were to try and outline why Ichthys is a non-traditional, no-charge, internet ministry instead of a more traditional "church", but from your comments I think you can already see and understand that the compromises necessary for commercial success would be, at least in my view and for this particular ministry, unacceptable.

As to the questions in your e-mail, let me take #3 first. I entirely agree with you that the idea of a pre-tribulational rapture of the Church is not biblical. In fact, this false doctrine was instrumental in my abandoning the way of "the majority", as you call them. In addition to numerous e-mail responses (see the link: “The origins and the danger of the pre-Tribulational rapture theory”), you can find a detailed refutation of that false theory in Peter Lesson #27: "Three False Doctrines that Threaten Faith".

On the question about the tribulational temple, I very much agree with your thesis that Jesus is the completion of the entire Law. As such, there is no need for a temple to teach the coming of the Messiah and His sacrifice since that is already a historical reality. I completely agree with your analysis of the purpose of the book of Hebrews in this regard. I also take your point about the New Jerusalem, for it very clearly states in the book of Revelation that there will be no more temple, since "the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev.21:22). But the Millennium is a different story. For example, Ezekiel chapters 40-44, written after the destruction of the second temple have yet to be fulfilled (see the link: "Will the Temple in Jerusalem be Rebuilt?"). Ezekiel 43:11 states that the purpose of the description given by God to Ezekiel here is so that "they may be faithful to its design and follow all its regulations", indicating that this detailed description is not just metaphorical but a future reality. Moreover, 2nd Thessalonians 2:4 and Revelation 11:1 both refer to this future temple and have to mean, whatever else they mean, that there will be a future temple. As I have stated elsewhere, the biblical evidence suggests very strongly that the temple of Ezekiel will indeed be built during the early days of the Tribulation under the direction of Moses and Elijah (see the link: "The reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem"). It is not that we believers should want a temple or do anything whatsoever to try and start the process or re-erecting one (for that is plainly not in the will of God), but that once Israel is once again in the forefront of God's plan (see the link: in SR #5 "The Uniqueness of Israel"), there will be a reconstruction of a temple for the purpose of "making ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Lk.1:17) - the second advent equivalent of John's first advent ministry (see the link: Memorial Sacrifices).

On the biblical evidence for the Tribulation, it is extensive, but this is a long subject and I would ask you please to have a look at the following two studies (afterwards I would more than happy to address your specific questions and concerns):

        The Coming Tribulation: A History of the Apocalypse; Part 1: Introduction

        "Specific Chronology of the Seven Days of Human History" (from part 5 of the Satanic Rebellion series).

Finally, I do believe that God can use the dullest axe to accomplish His purposes, but that does not mean that we should avoid becoming as sharp as we can in His cause. Over the years I have found that an in-depth knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, as well as a thorough grounding in ancient history and systematic theology, have been invaluable tools in the cause of this ministry - I can't imagine having done any of these studies without these tools no matter how much, how long, or how hard I might have labored. It is simply the case that there are many, many things that I can't imagine ever being given from the Word of God through the power of the Spirit without these tools, if only because so much in English translations is wrong, misleading, missing, or just plain inaccessible (through the limitations brought about by the process of translation, no matter how effectively done). The day is coming when we will all "know as we are known" and the knowledge of God will be as plentiful as the waters that cover the earth. Until that day, we are responsible to do all things decently and in good order, and to my mind that includes proper preparation for ministry and diligent, careful workmanship as far as the Word of God is concerned.

Thank you so much for your e-mail and for your Berean approach.

Yours in Him who is the Word of truth, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Bob Luginbill

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