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11
In the Midst of Suffering. Revelation 2:8-11.
February 11, 2018

Charles Spurgeon once said that true love is measured by the degree to which the one loving is willing to subject (themselves) to crosses and losses, to suffering and self-denials. With love comes responsibility, and that responsibility is grounded in truth. What disturbs and disillusions those on the outside of Christianity is the imbalance of truth and love they often see among those who profess faith in Christ.  Every believer must be committed to sacrificial love grounded in truth (Matt. 16:24–25). If we’re consistent in these things, God is pleased, and the gospel is advanced (Eph. 4:11–16). And if we suffer, it will be for the right reasons. (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/neglect-great-commandment-hinder-great-commission/)

 

The church at Smyrna displayed the power and purity that comes from successfully enduring persecution. Persecution had purified and purged it from sin and affirmed the reality of its members’ faith. Though they suffered physical hardship and poverty, the Christians at Smyrna clung to their immeasurable spiritual riches. Fittingly, the church at Smyrna is one of the two churches (along with Philadelphia) that received no rebuke in its letter from the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

As Scripture makes clear, persecution and trials are an inevitable and essential part of the Christian life (Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12). The example of the church at Smyrna instructs all believers on how to properly respond when they come.  Hypocrites do not stay to face persecution, because false believers do not want to endure the pain. Trials and persecution strengthen and refine genuine saving faith, but uncover and destroy false faith.

 

 

When suffering for righteousness sake, Christ promises to be with usIn the Midst of Suffering”. We can see this promise through His ministry to the Church at Smyrna as seen through: 1) The Church, City and Correspondent (Revelation 2:8), 2) The Commendation (Revelation 2:9), 3) The Command (Revelation 2:10a), and 4) The Counsel (Revelation 2:10b-11).

 

1)   The Church, City and Correspondent (Revelation 2:8)

Revelation 2:8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. (ESV)

Scripture does not record the founding of the church at Smyrna, nor is the city mentioned in the book of Acts. All that is revealed about this congregation is contained in this letter. Presumably, a church was planted in Smyrna during Paul’s Ephesian ministry (Acts 19:10), either by Paul himself, or by his converts. Smyrna lays about thirty-five miles north of Ephesus on the east shore of the Aegean Sea. From Ignatius’s letter to Smyrna (early second century a.d.) we learn that the church was already well organized, with a bishop (Polycarp), elders, and deacons. Today, known in Turkey as Izmir, it the only one of the seven cities still in existence in which the letters of Revelation were written to. (Mounce, R. H. (1997). The Book of Revelation (p. 73). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

 

At the end of the first century, life was difficult and dangerous for the church at Smyrna. The city, long an ally of Rome, was a hotbed of emperor worship. Under Emperor Domitian, it became a capital offense to refuse to offer the yearly sacrifice to the emperor. Not surprisingly, many Christians faced execution.  The Greek word translated “Smyrna” was used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT, to translate the Hebrew word for myrrh, a resinous substance used as a perfume for the living (Matt. 2:11) and the dead (John 19:39). Its association with death perfectly pictures the suffering church at Smyrna. Like myrrh, produced by crushing a fragrant plant, the church at Smyrna, crushed by persecution, gave off a fragrant aroma of faithfulness to God. At Smyrna, unlike Ephesus, there was no waning of love for Jesus Christ. Because the believers at Smyrna loved Him, they remained faithful to Him; because of that faithfulness, they were hated; because they were hated, they were persecuted; that persecution in turn incited them to love Christ more.  The point here is that while Smyrna can take away one’s present life, Jesus guarantees one’s future life. A suffering church like Smyrna needed the assurance that their ultimate future was already secure, even though their present lives were distressing (Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (pp. 128–129). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.).

 

As was customary in ancient letters, the writer, or Correspondent identifies Himself at the beginning of the letter, instead of signing His name at the end. The depiction of the writer as the first and the last, who died/was dead, and came to life identifies Him as the glorified, exalted Lord Jesus Christ described by that phrase in the vision of Rev. 1:12–20 (cf. 1:18). The first and the last is an Old Testament title for God (Isa. 44:6; 48:12; cf. 41:4), and its application here (and in 22:13) to Christ affirms His equality of nature with God. He is the eternal, infinite God, who already existed when all things were created, and who will continue to exist after they are destroyed. Jesus Christ transcends time, space, and the creation.

 

Please turn to 1 Peter 3 (p.1016)

 

Amazingly, the eternal God became man and died/was dead, and came to life. Here is a profound mystery: How can the ever-living One who transcends time, space, and history die?Who was dead and came to liferestates Rev. 1:18 and uses two historical aorists, both stating only the past facts, the death that occurred on Calvary, the resurrection that occurred in the tomb in Joseph’s garden. This designation applies perfectly to the contents of this letter, in particular also to the martyrdom awaiting some of the believers in Smyrna. This is a letter from the Lord who himself was put to death by his enemies and yet rose again in glory. (Lenski, R. C. H. (1935). The interpretation of St. John’s Revelation (pp. 96–97). Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern.)

               

In 1 Peter, 3, Peter makes a direct connection to suffering and the death and resurrection of Christ:  

1 Peter 3: 13-18 13 Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? 14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, (ESV)(Heb. 7:16; cf. Rom. 6:9).

  • This designation of Christ was to bring comfort to the persecuted believers at Smyrna and all faithful believers suffering persecution. Knowing that they were undergoing difficult times, Christ was reminding them that He transcends temporal matters, and, through their union with Him, so should they. And should they face death at the hands of their persecutors, beside them is the One who conquered death (Heb. 2:14) and who promised, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25–26). Jesus Christ also endured the most unjust and severe persecution anyone ever suffered (cf. Heb. 12:3–4), so He can serve as a compassionate and understanding source of power (Heb. 2:17–18; 4:15). To a congregation where imprisonment and death impend, the prisoner who died and came back to life again can offer the crown of life to other executed prisoners and protect them from the second death (vv. 8, 10–11).( Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 437). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.)

 

Illustration: When you think about the end of your life, do you apply to your contemplation the fact that Jesus has conquered death? When you think about dangerous situations you might facethe noise in the night that means an intruder might be in your home, the thought that someone you love could fall into a rushing river or be in some other situation that, if you try to help, might end your own lifewhen you think of life-threatening danger, do you apply to your thinking the triumph of Jesus over death? My friends, this is what it means to make connections between the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and all of life. Applying to our fears the knowledge that Jesus is bigger than death will make us courageous (Hamilton, J. M., Jr. (2012). Preaching the Word: Revelation—The Spirit Speaks to the Churches. (R. K. Hughes, Ed.) (p. 76). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.).

 

When suffering for righteousness sake, Christ promises to be with usIn the Midst of Suffering”. We can see this promise through His ministry to the Church at Smyrna as seen through:

2)   The Commendation (Revelation 2:9)

Revelation 2:9 “ ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. (ESV)

Nothing escapes the vision of the glorious Lord of the Smyrna church, who knows every detail about the churches under His care. He began His commendation of those believers by assuring them that He knew their tribulation. Thlipsis (tribulation) literally means “pressure,” and is the common New Testament word for persecution. The church at Smyrna was facing intense pressure because of their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  They faced tribulation for not offering worship to Emperor, which was demanded. As such, they were branded rebels and faced the wrath of the Roman government (cf. Rom. 13:1ff.), The faithful believers also refused to participate in pagan religion in general. Since much of Smyrna’s social life revolved around pagan worship, the Christians were viewed as antisocial elitists for refusing to participate in it.  These persecuted believers were not promised escape from tribulation; they were promised instead something far greater: the grace to endure afflictions without fear and the pledge that the one who died and came to life again will certainly bring them through to the “crown of life.”( Easley, K. H. (1998). Revelation (Vol. 12, pp. 37–38). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.)

 

Not only was the Lord aware of the persecution the Smyrna church faced, but also of its poverty. Many of the believers at Smyrna were slaves; most were destitute. Those few who had owned possessions had undoubtedly lost them in the persecution (cf. Heb 10:34). That is evedent in the word choice here for poverty. In Greek there are two words for poverty. The first (pen─ôs), denotes those who struggle to meet their basic needs. But the word for poverty used here ( ptocheia) describes beggars, who live not by their own labor, but by the alms of others (Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament [reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 128–29).

 

The church at Smyrna had every reason, humanly speaking, to collapse. Instead, it remained faithful to its Lord, never (unlike Ephesus) leaving its first love for Him. For that reason, Jesus said to them, you are rich. They had what really mattered—salvation, holiness, grace, peace, fellowship, a sympathetic Savior and Comforter. The church at Smyrna was the rich poor church, in contrast to the church at Laodicea (Rev. 3:17), which was the materially rich but spiritually poor church. The church at Smyrna typifies the spiritual richness of faithful suffering churches throughout history.

 

The believers at Smyrna also faced slander/blasphemy of/by those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of the ultimate blasphemer, Satan. That shocking statement affirmed that those Jews who hated and rejected Jesus Christ were just as much Satan’s followers as pagan idol worshipers (cf. John 8:44). Jesus’ use of the strong term slander/blasphemy usually reserved for hostile words against God, indicates the slander’s wickedness, intensity, and severity.

 

Please turn to Romans 2 (p.940)

 

Jesus’ declaration that the Jews who persecuted the Smyrna church say they are Jews and are not has caused some to question whether they were racially Jews. Surely they were physical descendants of Abraham, but not true Jews by Paul’s definition:

Romans 2:28-29 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. (ESV)

  • Though these were by race Jews, they were spiritually pagan. They allied with the Gentile enemies of God in an attempt to stamp out Christianity in Smyrna.

 

 

Unbelieving Jews commonly accused Christians of cannibalism (based on a misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper), immorality (based on a perversion of the holy kiss with which believers greeted each other; cf. Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26), breaking up homes (when one spouse became a Christian and the other did not, it often caused conflict; cf. Luke 12:51–53), atheism (because Christians rejected the pagan pantheon of deities), and political disloyalty and rebellion (because Christians refused to offer the required sacrifices to the emperor). Hoping to destroy the Christian faith, some of Smyrna’s wealthy, influential Jews reported these blasphemous, false allegations to the Romans. These haters of the gospel were a synagogue of Satan, meaning they assembled to plan their attack on the church, thus doing Satan’s will. They may have claimed to be a synagogue of God, but they were just the opposite. Sadly, the hostility of Smyrna’s Jewish population to Christianity was nothing new. The book of Acts frequently records such Satan-inspired opposition (e.g., Acts 2:13; 4:2–3, 18; 5:17–18, 28, 40; 6:9ff.; 7:54–60; 8:1ff.; 9:20–23; 12:1–3; 13:6, 45; 14:2, 19; 17:5ff., 13; 18:6, 12–13; 19:9; 20:3; 21:27ff.; 23:12ff.). In Smyrna, as had happened so often before, the hostile Jewish population poisoned public opinion against the Christians.

  • We sometimes think that opposition to Christianity is just some private misunderstanding. Although much of the hostility to Christianity is indeed a misunderstanding that allows us to clarify the truth and exemplify it in love, we must remember the dark forces behind much of the opposition. Christians often suffer because of the concerted effort of Satan and the organized secular hostility seeking to destroy the ministry of the gospel.

 

Illustration: The Roman proconsul urged his prisoner: “Swear, and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ.” His prisoner was the aged bishop of the Asian city of Smyrna, named Polycarp. The year was a.d. 154, almost sixty years after John had delivered the message from Jesus to the church in Smyrna... Since Polycarp would have been twenty-seven years old when Revelation’s message came to his church, it is quite likely that he was present when the letter was read in the congregation. Indeed, since tradition holds that Polycarp was consecrated as bishop of Smyrna by John himself, it is quite possible that Polycarp actually was the one who read aloud the book of Revelation when it arrived from the apostle to that church. There can be little doubt that Polycarp remembered Jesus’ exhortation and promise. He therefore answered the proconsul in memorable words: “Eighty and six years have I served [Christ], and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?” With that refusal, Polycarp was executed by public burning, having been faithful to the end and being certain of the promised crown from his Lord. His obedience to the command Jesus gave to the church in Smyrna reminds us that the book of Revelation was given to address the real needs of the Christians facing adversity and trials in the apostle’s day, just as it addresses the situation of afflicted believers today. (Phillips, R. D. (2017). Revelation. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (pp. 99–100). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.)

 

When suffering for righteousness sake, Christ promises to be with usIn the Midst of Suffering”. We can see this promise through His ministry to the Church at Smyrna as seen through:

3)   The Command (Revelation 2:10a)

Revelation 2:10a 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days (you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life) (ESV)

 

After commending them for faithfully enduring persecution, Jesus warned the believers that more was coming. Before specifying its nature, He commanded them not to fear. This is a PRESENT MIDDLE or PASSIVE (deponent) IMPERATIVE with the NEGATIVE PARTICLE which meant to stop an act already in process. These churches were afraid. But, persecutions are a sign of their salvation and God’s blessings (cf. Matt. 5:10–12) (Utley, R. J. (2001). Hope in Hard Times - The Final Curtain: Revelation (Vol. Volume 12, p. 37). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.).

 

They were not to fear: what they were about to suffer. He would give them strength to endure it. As He told His disciples in John 16:33,In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Therefore the suffering believers in that could say with David, “In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps. 56:11). Their lot was not a pleasant one, but God assures them that he will be with them. As Jesus said (Mark 10:30 par.) the present rewards of the believers would come “with persecutions.” There are no promises of an easy life in Scripture. Instead there are promises of divine comfort and blessing in the midst of suffering. (Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation (pp. 132–133). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.)

 

Specifically, the Lord predicted that the devil was about to throw/cast some of them into prison. God’s purpose in permitting that imprisonment was so that they would be tested. By successfully enduring that trial, they would prove the reality of their faith, be strengthened (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9–10)—and prove once again that Satan cannot destroy genuine saving faith. Satan tempts to destroy; God tests to strengthen (cf. 1 Thess. 2:4; 1 Pet. 1:7; Gen. 22:1; Exod. 16:4; 20:20; Deut. 8:2, 16; 13:3; Judg. 2:22; 2 Chron. 32:31). (Utley, R. J. (2001). Hope in Hard Times - The Final Curtain: Revelation (Vol. Volume 12, p. 38). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.)

 

Please turn to 2 Corinthians 12 (p.970)

 

The supernatural battle in Smyrna was just one skirmish in the age-long war of Satan against God. These trials are to strengthen our faith and display God power working through us. God promises to sustain us and no one is able to snatch us out of the Father’s hand (Jn. 10:28-29) because, as our Great High Priest, Jesus always lives to make intercession for believers (Heb. 7:25).

 

We often ask to have suffering removed from us. But God often allows the difficulty to remain for a greater purpose. The Apostle Paul explained this rationale:

2 Corinthians 12:7–10 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (ESV)

  • Paul says that God’s graceis sufficient” (in the present tense), underscoring the ever-present availability and sufficiency of God’s grace, for Paul and for every believer, regardless of how critical one’s circumstances may be (cf. Rom. 8:31–39) (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 2238). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.)

 

God, who alone sovereignly controls all the circumstances of life, would not permit Satan to torment the Smyrna church for long. Jesus promised that they would have tribulation for ten days. It is possible that this is an allusion to Dan. 1:12–15, where the “testing” of Daniel and his three friends for ten daysis repeated twice. During this period they went without eating the “king’s choice food.” The purpose of the “test” was to determine whether they could be as healthy as the youths who had such food. They were tempted to compromise with pagan religion by being pressured to eat from the king’s table. They refused to do so because the food was dedicated to idols (cf. Dan. 1:2; 5:3–4). Furthermore, to eat at table with a king was a symbolic act in the ancient Near East of giving complete loyalty to him above all else. This the Hebrew youths could not do, especially because the king considered himself divine (e.g., cf. Dan. 3:2a LXX with Dan. 4:37 LXX). John appropriately compared his readers’ situation with this background, since part of their persecution probably stemmed from Jewish allegations that they refused to give public tokens of allegiance to Caesar as Lord and to participate in trade guild activities in which guardian deities were honored through festive meals (cf. Rev. 2:14–15). For both Judaism and early Christianity Daniel and his three friends became the model for those who would rather be persecuted for their faith than worship idols (Beale, G. K. (1999). The book of Revelation: a commentary on the Greek text (pp. 242–243). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.).

Illustration: Count up Christ’sfear nots”: they include everything. The world is always in fear—of disease, of disaster, of death. God’s saints should not be so. As it's been expressed in verse:  “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take! The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessing on your head.” (Newell, W. R. (1935). The Book of Revelation (p. 45). Chicago: Moody Press)

 

Finally, when suffering for righteousness sake, Christ promises to be with usIn the Midst of Suffering”. We can see this promise through His ministry to the Church at Smyrna as seen through:

4)      The Counsel (Revelation 2:10b-11).

Revelation 2:10b-11 10 (Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation.) Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ (ESV)

 

Since Christ has no reprimand for the faithful church at Smyrna, He closes the letter with some final words of encouraging counsel. “Be faithful unto death”, which is a PRESENT MIDDLE or PASSIVE (deponent) IMPERATIVE which emphasizes the believer’s need to continue in faith even if it means physical death (cf. Matt. 2:13; 12:11; 10:22; 24:13; Luke 12:4; Gal. 6:9). Some believers were and are killed. This is the paradox of the sovereignty of God and our experience in a fallen world.( Utley, R. J. (2001). Hope in Hard Times - The Final Curtain: Revelation (Vol. Volume 12, p. 38). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International).

 

Those who prove the genuineness of their faith by remaining faithful to the Lord until death will receive as their reward the crown (stephanos; the victor’s crown) of life (cf. James 1:12). ” The “crownusually referred to a garland of flowers worn chiefly in the worship of the pagan gods such as Cybele or Bacchus, who was pictured on coins with a crown of battlements. Faithful servants of the city appeared on coins with laurel wreaths on their heads (Barclay, Seven Churches, p. 39). As the patriots of Smyrna were faithful to Rome and to their crown city, so Christ’s people are to be faithful unto death to him who will give them the imperishable crown of life (James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4) (Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 438). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.).

 

Please turn to Colossian 1 (p.983)

 

The crown (reward, culmination, outcome) of genuine saving faith is eternal life, and perseverance proves the genuineness of their faith as they endure suffering.  While Satan is the author of persecution and wicked men are his instruments, God remains sovereign in that he will give “the crown of life” to those who are “faithful, even to the point of death. (Johnson, A. F. (1981). Revelation. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Hebrews through Revelation (Vol. 12, p. 438). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.).

 

Paul expressed it like this to the Colossians:

Colossians 1:21-23 21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (ESV) (e.f., Matt. 10:22; 24:13; Mark 4:13–20; John 8:31; 1 John 2:19).

  • The faithful perseverance of the saints displays God’s work in them. One who continually vacillates, repudiates the faith or leads a life of continual, unrepentant disobedience, should not presume salvation yet alone final glorification. But true salvation is manifested in faithful perseverance for “He who began a work in you, will

 

Christ now closes His letter to Smyrna in verse 11 as he does to each of the other seven churches: He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. This phrase stresses the vital significance of what God says in Scripture, and emphasizes believers’ responsibility to heed it. The promise to the one conquers/overcomes (referring to all genuine Christians) is that such will not be hurt by the second death. Though persecuted believers may suffer the first (physical) death, they will never experience the second death). The second death refers to the experience of eternal death in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14, 15). No believer will experience the second death; the overcomer will suffer no loss whatsoever. The believer who is faithful to death is promised the crown of life, a wonderful experience of life in the hereafter. Thus, there is not only deliverance from the second death, but an experience of life to a rich degree (cf. John 10:10). (Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1997). The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version (Re 2:11). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.)

 

The persecuted, suffering, yet faithful church at Smyrna stands for all time as an example of those whohave heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8:15). Because they loyally confessed Him before others, Jesus will confess them before the Father (Matt. 10:32).

 

(Format Note: Outline & some base commentary from MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1999). Revelation 1–11 (pp. 67–79). Chicago: Moody Press.)

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