CDPCKL · False Teachers and How To Identify Them (2 Peter 1:1-11)

False Teachers and How To Identify Them (2 Peter 1:1-11)

In his first letter to the Christians of Roman Asia, Peter told his friends that Jesus has crushed the devil’s head and bound him with chains so that he can no longer enter into God’s throne room. He can no longer enter God’s temple and attack or accuse God’s children. Peter told his friends in Roman Asia that they are now safe within the ark of Jesus’ Church: safe from God’s judgement, safe beyond reach of the devil’s claws.

At the same time, as Peter came to the end of his first letter, he warned his friends that they are not beyond reach of the devil’s voice. He described the devil as a lion that prowls around roaring in order to panic his victims.

And Peter suggested that the devil uses his roaring voice in two particular ways:

Knowing that he cannot reach into Christ’s Church and drag people out with his own claws, sometimes he sends his human slaves as soldiers to attack the outers walls of the Church: he inspires persecution of various kinds. Sometimes this comes from the government down, sometimes from the grassroots up; sometimes this persecution is violent, sometimes it is economic or cultural or merely slanderous and insulting. But his purpose in these attacks is always the same: to scare his own followers so they will not be tempted to join Jesus’ flock, and to scare Jesus’ flock so that they leave the protection of the Church.

But to be very honest, this tactic is not very effective. In most cases throughout history, pressure from the outside just makes Jesus’ Church stronger, because — when the fiery ordeal begins — those who are not true Christians do tend to leave. Which means persecution usually ends up purifying the Church, making her better and more beautiful than she was before — which is not really what the devil wants. The only way persecution can really succeed is if it manages to completely wipe out Christianity in one region or another…which is really quite difficult to do.

And knowing this, the devil actually prefers to use his voice in the second way. While he sends his servants as soldiers to attack God’s people from the outside, he also sends another set of servants as spies to undermine God’s people from the inside. False teachers are actually the most effective way to weaken the Christian community. The devil knows that if he can just confuse and compromise God’s children enough, leading them away into false worship, eventually God himself will have to bring judgement against them.

This is the subject of Peter’s second letter to the Christians of ancient Roman Asia. His first letter focused mainly on the threats that come from outside the community of Christ: insults, rejection, persecution, and how Christians should respond. This second letter is focused on the threats that come from within: false teachers, false prophets, false elders.

So over the next few weeks Peter is going to be training his friends in how to recognize a certain kind of false teacher who was beginning to become popular in Asia at that time. And we are going to benefit from this training also.

[1] Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:

[2] Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

[3] His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life

And right away here we can see that Peter seems to be in a bit of a hurry. His first letter had a long relaxed greeting and introduction: he did not really get down to business until half-way through the first chapter.

But here his greeting is two simple lines and then bang! he jumps right in.

Why? Well, as we are going to find out next week, this is partly because Peter expects to die soon.

But this is also because he feels very strongly about this subject. Apparently, even from the faraway city of Rome, he has heard about a new kind of false teaching that is beginning to spread through the churches in other parts of the empire, and he wants to warn his friends in Asia before their churches can be infected.

But even though his greeting and introduction is very short, Peter has already made sure to use some important key-words, words that he is going to come back to many times in this letter.

For instance: he starts with the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. God’s righteousness here is all about God’s good character. This is important because, apparently, these false teachers are beginning to question God’s good character?

Peter talks about how his friends have received a faith just as precious as the faith Peter received. And Peter points this out because, apparently, these false teachers are questioning whether the gospel is really as “precious” as some other things in this world.

Peter also talks about how grace and peace come through the knowledge of God and of Jesus — because, apparently, these false teachers are beginning to question the importance of really knowing God.

Okay. Greetings finished. Peter gets right down to business:

[3] His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge

— there’s that key-word again: knowledge

through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

— and there’s that concept again: the glory and goodness of Christ, the righteousness of God.

[4] Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

So Peter has basically just repeated what he said in his greeting:

Through God’s righteous character, he has given Peter’s friends these very great and precious promises, these promises that they belong to Jesus now. And their knowledge of these promises actually allows them to participate in the divine nature: they are becoming more and more like their Heavenly Father as they move further and further away from the evil desires that used to drive them.

In other words, Peter is reminding his friends in Roman Asia about the truths he taught them in his first letter: through the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood, through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, through their baptism they really have changed locations. They were outside the ark of Jesus’ Church, enslaved by the devil’s voice. Now they are inside the ark: the devil can no longer reach them or rule over them. They really have escaped the corruption in the world; they really have begun to participate in the divine nature.

This is why Peter could say with such boldness that God has already given them everything they need for a godly life. Peter was Jesus’ disciple. He remembers Jesus saying, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.” If you want to change a person’s words, a person’s behaviour, first you have to change that person’s heart. Only God can change a person’s heart, and he does this by revealing his true character to that person. Once that person has a true knowledge of God’s glory and goodness, well! — they are going to begin to change from the inside-out.

…but, how does that work exactly?

Well, receiving a true knowledge of God’s glory and goodness is a bit like staring at the sun.

And I know we have all tried to do this, mostly because our parents told us not to — am I right? And when we did try to stare at the sun, we discovered two things: first, you can’t. Your eyes just won’t do it for more than a second or two. And second, we discovered that even those few seconds left us with a blind spot in the center of our vision that lasted for a minute or two afterward.

Staring at the sun changes your ability to see the world clearly; stare long enough and you will lose your ability to see the world at all.

Staring into the glory of God works the same way: it blinds us to the world.

When we begin to receive a true knowledge of God, we also begin to lose the eyes we were born with. But — good news! — through the Holy Spirit we are given new eyes that participate in the divine nature: spiritual eyes that allow us to see the world the way our Father sees it. And that new vision of the world quite naturally leads to new behaviour in that world.

But…this does take practice. In essence, we have to learn to see all over again. Like new-born babies, we have to learn how to focus these new spiritual eye, how to control our new spiritual vision, we have to develop a whole new kind of hand-eye coordination.

And this is why Peter goes on to say, in verse 5: For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; [6] and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; [7] and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

Now I think many of you are familiar with the famous ”Fruits of the Spirit” that Paul outlines in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…this list here is basically Peter’s version of the same thing. And when we compare them, we see they are mostly the same…though there are a few differences.

Which leads us to ask: why is Peter’s list a little different from Paul’s?

Because Peter and Paul were dealing with two different kinds of false teachers.

The first generation of false teachers came from a Jewish background. Their religion was a lot like Islam is today: very strict, very exclusive, very much based on rules. So they taught that the proof of a person’s salvation comes through religious rituals and religious activities like circumcision and fasting and pilgrimage and all that. This first generation of false teacher was the kind Paul was dealing with in his letter to the Galatians, and so in that letter he taught that the proof of a person’s salvation comes through an everyday life transformed by the Holy Spirit, not through rules and religion.

At this point now, 20+ years later, Peter is dealing with the second generation of false teachers. These false teachers come from a non-Jewish background, a pagan background. They are more like modern Hindus or Buddhists: very non-exclusive. They had grown up with hundreds of different gods, and as a result they had grown up with a disconnect between the act of worship and the morality of everyday life. Their sense of morality was more socially driven, rather than religiously driven as it was for the Jews.

What this means is that this second generation of false teachers is quite different from the first generation. The first generation said that proof of salvation comes through strict religion; they were trying to shape the Church around their Jewish cultural assumptions. They wanted to turn Christianity into a system of laws. The second generation is saying that proof of salvation actually comes through freedom from religion — they are trying to shape the Church around their pagan cultural assumptions. They want to turn Christianity into a system without laws of any kind.

Basically, the false teachers Peter is dealing with are saying it is possible to be a Christian and still live like a pagan. They are saying you can love Jesus and still live as you always did: your behaviour does not need to change.

In fact, they would say that continued pagan behaviour is actually the evidence that you truly know and love Jesus!

…allow me to explain that one:

Speaking as one of these false teachers now: “Look, if you truly knew Jesus the way I have come to know him, then you would know that Jesus is infinitely gracious! He is all-forgiving! Which means it actually does not matter how we live, as long as we live free in the confidence that comes from knowing — really knowing — Jesus’ perfect love!

“See, this is the true knowledge of God that Peter and Paul and all those other apostles don’t want you to know, because they know this knowledge would set you completely free from the fear of God’s judgement (and set you free from their religious control, but of course they don’t want to talk about that!). But those guys are actually blaspheming God, because they are teaching you that God is harsh and cruel and judgemental, they are teaching you to live in fear of him, instead of relaxing into his infinite love for all mankind!

“So let me ask you all now: which kind of God do you want to believe in? That controlling closed-minded Jewish God of judgement? — or the gracious free-thinking Christian God of love?”

In other words, according to these false teachers: people who practice complete freedom are proving that they really understand the true character of Jesus. People who try to restrict freedom are proving that they do not actually know Jesus.

And we can tell that this is what the false teachers are saying because of the specific qualities that Peter lists:

These false teachers are casting doubt on God’s character and promises, so Peter says, “Begin with faith in God’s character and promises.”

These false teachers are casting doubt on the need for goodness: they are saying it does not matter how we live. So Peter says, “Don’t just have faith, bring your faith to life in your everyday behaviour.”

These false teachers are saying that a relationship with Jesus should be instinctive, intuitive, “natural”; it should not require study or effort or change. But Peter says that true knowledge takes effort, it takes effort to learn how to see with the eyes of the Spirit.

These false teachers are saying self-control is not necessary, because people who are truly guided by God’s grace know there is no such thing as right and wrong anymore. So Peter says no, those who truly see the world as the Holy Spirit does will actually have a stronger sense of right and wrong than they did before — and they will act more consistently in line with their new vision.

These false teachers are casting doubt on the need to persevere through suffering and rejection by the world: it is okay for a Christian to continue to fit into their previous cultures — that way they can have Jesus and the love of their families. But Peter continues to insist — as he did in his first letter — that faithful perseverance in the face of suffering and rejection is actually one of the biggest proofs that a person really is seeing with the eyes of the Spirit.

These false teachers are questioning the need for godliness: which is active visible loyalty to Jesus. They think they should be free to live and worship in any way they want to. So Peter says that loyalty to Jesus — godliness — is actually central to our faith.

These false teachers are questioning the need for mutual affection: which is active visible loyalty to other Christians. They think they should be free to love everyone in the world in exactly the same way. So Peter says that loyalty to other Christians — mutual affection — is actually central to our faith.

And this is why Peter ends his list with love. His list begins with faith, and ends with love. All the other elements in between can be mixed around, the order does not matter because, in the end, they all add up to love.

And the point Peter is making is this: these new false teachers look like they are preaching a gospel of freedom and love, but the freedom they are preaching will actually lead Christians back into the corruption in the world caused by evil desires: back into slavery. The love they are preaching is actually self-love, not the love of God or the love of others.

But the true gospel of freedom passes through the valley of discipline. The true gospel of love results in eyes that look outward and upward.

Which is exactly what Peter says next:

[8] For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Peter is not expecting his friends in Roman Asia to be perfect in all these ways, but he does expect them to be growing. His point is that, if Christians commit themselves to this process, there will be progress. This progress will result in eyes that learn to see Jesus more and more clearly, which will result in lives that learn to love more and more completely.

But — verse 9 — whoever does not have these qualities is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Anyone who refuses to make progress in these areas is actually proving that they do not have the eyes of the Spirit: they are nearsighted and blind.

Which is a funny way to put it, right? Someone who is nearsighted is not blind, they can still see…sort of. So why does Peter equate ”nearsighted“ with ”blind”?

Well, because the word “nearsighted” meant something different back then than it does now. The Greek word Peter uses is “myopia”, which has actually become our modern medical word for “nearsighted”. But back then, “myopia” was a disease that today we call conjunctivitis — “pink eye” — where the eyes produce a gooey discharge.

If you have ever had pink eye — and I think most of us probably have — then you remember how painful it is, how irritating even light and air can become, how you want to spend all your time with your eyes squinted shut — which is literally what the Greek word “my-opia” means: “squinted-eyes”. And I’m sure you remember how, even with modern medicine, it took two weeks or more to completely kill the infection. And now think about what it must have been like to suffer from an eye infection 2000 years ago…!

Peter is saying that people who refuse to see these qualities as good and desireable are like a person with an eye infection who refuses to take the medicine that is available: they don’t want to be healed.

Once upon a time some church — some community of Christians — took pity on this person, and preached the Gospel to them, and baptized them, officially cleansing them from their past sins, officially ushering them into the ark of Jesus’ Church. The glory of God began to burn away the infection, and open their eyes —

But they found the glory of God painful. They felt themselves beginning to lose their eyes, the vision they were born with, and they just did not believe God’s promise that the Holy Spirit would give them new, uninfected eyes, a new vision to replace the old. So they deliberately squinted their eyes shut again against the pain of God’s purifying light. They deliberately forgot that, through their baptism, they have changed locations: they are no longer living in a world lit only by the flames of judgement, they now have access to the true healing warmth of the Son. They would rather keep their eyes squinted shut, hoping that somewhere, somehow, they will find a way to cure the infection themselves.

And what happens next to such a person?

Well, many simply leave the Church: they go back to their former identity and their former way of life, and that is the end of their story.

But some realize that it really is sweeter inside the community of Jesus’ people. They understood enough of Jesus’ message to realize that the Gospel of Grace must result in more generosity and love than can be found in any other religion. And so they realize that they don’t actually need new eyes in order to continue in Christian community, because all they have to do is take advantage of the kindness of these foolish Christians who have let themselves be softened by the gentleness of Jesus.

So they stay back. They keep their Christian identity…but they also keep their infected eyes and their infected hearts: their lust for power and prosperity and perversion. And infected hearts always produce infected behaviour. And infected behaviour is…infectious.

This is how the devil infiltrates the ark of Jesus’ Church with his spies, with his false teachers: he takes advantage of Christian kindness. He takes advantage of the fact that the doors of Jesus Church are open, and that Christians are commanded to show compassion to all who come for life. This is how churches end up baptizing the exact same people who later turn and lead their churches astray. This is why Jesus told us to “watch out for false prophets! They come to you in sheep’s clothing — they come to you with a Christian identity! — but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

And that is scary, am I right? Because if we understand what Peter and Jesus are saying, there could be false teachers right here among us, and we might not even know! I could be a false teacher — and how would you be able to tell? Because, obviously, no one stands up and says, “Hello, I’ll be your false teacher for today…” Every teacher claims to be a true teacher!

So what are we supposed to watch out for? How can we recognize whether someone is a false teacher or not, especially if we are not theologians ourselves?

Well, here is some good news: when Peter talks about the knowledge of God — theology — he does not just mean head knowledge, he also means heart knowledge. And remember what Jesus said: “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.” The heart is the source of behaviour.

So it is not actually necessary for all of us to become highly trained theologians in order to recognize false teachers. The only thing we really need to have is a clear biblical vision of Jesus, a clear biblical sense of right and wrong. And then the only thing we really need to do is look a teacher’s behaviour and see if it matches up to what the bible says is good.

In fact, this is exactly what Jesus taught. Right after saying, “Watch out for false prophets,” he went on to say this: “By their fruit you will recognize them — by their behaviour. After all, a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them — not necessarily by their words or by their theology.

“In fact, not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on judgement day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

It is possible for a teacher to speak really correct theology and still be a false teacher. It is even possible for a teacher to cast out demons and perform amazing miracles and still be a false teacher.

The only way we can really tell whether a teacher is truly Christian or not is by how they act, by the fruit of their lives, specifically: the quality of their relationships with others.

This is why Peter has been focused on behaviour from the very start of this letter. This is why he has written down this list of godly qualities: so that we can recognize clearly whether a teacher is true or false. A true teacher will not just preach these things, but will also do them, and encourage others to do them.

And so it is interesting to notice that, even though Peter’s list is slightly different from Paul’s list, the underlying message is the same. Some false teachers want to lead Christians into legalism: the idea that the proof of a person’s salvation comes through religious structure and rules. Some false teachers want to lead Christians in the opposite direction, into lawlessness: the idea that the proof of a person’s salvation comes through a complete rejection of religious structure and rules. The bible’s answer to both of these extremes is the same: the proof of a person’s salvation comes through an everyday life of love for others, a life transformed by the Holy Spirit.

So…what are we supposed to do with this information now?

We have just found out that there are false teachers in the world, and that they are disguised as Christians: they say Christian things, they may even do some Christian things — perhaps even miracles and things like that! — but on the inside they are actually ferocious wolves. We have just found that that it is our job to watch out for them, and that we will be able to recognize them by their bad fruit…

But what now? What’s next? Where are we supposed to start?

Well…let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. If you are sitting there thinking, “I really have no idea what to watch out for!” that is okay: we are just at the beginning of Peter’s training program. Over the next few weeks we are going to learn in considerable detail what to watch out for. So: relax! We are only human, we can only go step by step.

So let’s just start with the first step.

And the first step Peter wants us to take is this: [10] Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election.

Before we can start watching out for false teachers, let’s make sure that we ourselves are on the right track, in the right ark — not in some false ark that will just burn up and sink on Judgement Day! Let’s make sure that we ourselves are learning to use the right set of eyes. After we have confirmed our own calling and election then we can start to think about how to watch out for other, larger problems in the Church.

Okay. So: how are we supposed to confirm our calling and election?

Well, Peter says here, do these things: make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; [6] and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; [7] and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.

For if you do these things, Peter says, you will never stumble, [11] and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

If you do these things, he says, you are guaranteeing that — when the Day of Judgement comes and the door of the ark is finally closed — you will find yourselves on the inside instead of on the outside.

But hang on…isn’t this legalism? Is Peter saying that we have to save ourselves through our own good behaviour?

No. This is not legalism, this is…logic. Peter is saying that, if we truly have the new uninfected eyes of the Spirit, then we are going to see these qualities as beautiful, desireable things, because these are the qualities of the Saviour we love. And since we are human, we are going to reach out for what we find desireable. And the stronger our desire becomes, the more we will make every effort to reach out and take them and make them part of us.

For example: picture two people shopping for clothes. One chooses bright colours, more flamboyant styles; the other chooses darker colours, more subdued fashions…you can tell a lot about a person’s heart, you can tell a lot about how a person sees the world by what clothing they are attracted to.

Basically, Peter is telling us to look at what we are wearing: are we wearing the qualities of Christ? Are we trying to dress and behave like our older Brother, who dresses and behaves like our Father? Are we longing to do so more and more? If the answer is ”yes” then, Good News: we are on the right track. We are in the right ark: the Church of Jesus Christ. And we should make every effort to keep going!

But…hang on! Peter also says that if we do these things then we will never stumble. Is Peter saying that true Christians are going to be sinless, or almost sinless?

Uhhhh…no. As we noticed earlier, Peter does expect us to grow, but he does not expect us to do this perfectly.

Okay then. In that case: what does Peter mean by “you will never stumble”?

Well, in the Old Testament, “stumbling” is something that happens in the darkness; “stumbling” is something that happens to blind people; “stumbling” is something that especially happens in war, when the battle is lost and a man is running desperately away from the enemy — and so “stumbling” is usually the last thing a person does before they are overtaken and stabbed in the back while they lie helpless on the ground.

Basically, Peter is telling us that, if we have these qualities in increasing measure, this proves that our spiritual eyesight is growing stronger. And if our spiritual eyesight continues to grow stronger then we will never stumble overboard: we will never get confused and turn the wrong way and fall off the ark.

But…hang on: is Peter saying that it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation?

No. Peter literally just said the opposite: if you do these things then you will never stumble, you will never fall overboard.

But there are some people in our churches who will stumble, because they are deliberately choosing to squint their eyes shut against our Father’s healing glory. And in that blindness, when the devil roars, they are going to panic, run the wrong way, fall overboard, and the last thing they experience will be the lion’s jaws closing upon their spine.

So the thing we are learning here is that, because it can be hard sometimes to tell the difference between true teachers and false teachers…it can also be hard sometimes to tell the difference between true followers and false followers. We are all here saying, Lord, Lord,” but Jesus has made it clear that some who say “Lord, Lord,” are deceivers, while some are deceived. And on Judgement Day he is going to have to say to them, “I never knew you! — because you never really knew me. The teachers you followed actually led you away from me and introduced you to some false Jesus.”

In other words: no, a true Christian cannot lose their salvation — but there are some among us who never actually had salvation. A true Christian cannot stumble overboard — but there are some among us who were never actually on board in the first place.

And this realization really cuts us to the heart, doesn’t it? If you are anything like me, sometimes you sit back and wonder: what if I am one of those who have been deceived, led away into blindness by teachers who are actually the devil’s spies? What if I am sitting here fat dumb and happy, thinking I’m safe from God’s judgement, safe beyond the devil’s reach, when I am actually in a false ark? And if I am one of the deceived…how can I find out for sure before it’s too late?

Peter wants us to ask ourselves these questions. He also wants us to learn how to find the right answer. And the key to our confidence does lie in our behaviour, in the way we dress ourselves in the qualities of Christ.

Basically, Peter is telling us that the daily qualities of our lives reveal what is truly precious to us — and we just do not simply “lose” what is most precious to us! If someone gave you a suitcase full of diamonds, you would not just leave it behind on the train when you got off — you would have that thing handcuffed to your arm! If someone gave you access to an infinite bank account, you would not simply forget your login name and password! In the same way, Peter is saying, those who truly have received a faith as precious as ours are going to have that faith handcuffed to their hearts; the evidence of that faith is going to show up in a new set of values and a new set of behaviours.

So, look, friends, let’s close here by taking this first step in Peter’s training program: making sure we are on the right track, as a church and as individuals.

The false teachers of Peter’s day were saying that a truly Spirit-filled person, a person who has a true knowledge of God — a true knowledge of Jesus — will no longer care about things like self-control, perseverance, godliness: they will be completely free to pursue prosperity and pleasure and power without fear of God’s judgement.

Peter is saying that a true knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord will result in transformed values. People who are truly Spirit-filled are going to see, more and more clearly, that prosperity and power in this world are absolutely worthless in comparison with the joy of becoming more and more like the Saviour who chose us and called us into the ark of his salvation.

So, taking an honest look at ourselves, at our church, what is the truth of the matter? Am I a false teacher? Are our elders false shepherds? Are our community values false, worldly values?

Well…I don’t think so. But, of course, that is what I would say even if I was a false teacher, right?

So, friends, it is your responsibility to evaluate our elders and our community. Do we encourage one another to continue in our escape from the corruption in the world caused by evil desires — or do we spend our time trying to justify our evil desires? Do we encourage one another to keep on growing in our knowledge of Jesus Christ — or do we spend more time talking about politics, power, prosperity, the need for success and signs and wonders and freedom?

Let’s talk further about these things during Q&A. Let’s not become complacent, assuming that we are on the right track: let’s make sure that we are possessing these qualities in increasing measure.

For if we do, then we will never stumble, and we will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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