The Splendor of God’s Holiness: The Irresistible Drawing Power of Real Holiness

The following is a plenary session message given by Pastor Jason Meyer, Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church.

Real holiness is either a terror or a treasure, but it cannot be a trifle. Real holiness cannot be boring or dull. The dullness of our demeaner would like about the splendor of holiness. Real holiness (by which I mean God’s holiness) is either repulsive or irresistible.

But we have to ask the question…

What is Real Holiness?

“Holiness” and the adjective “holy” occur more than 900 times in the Bible. Don’t worry. We are not going to look at all of them. We are interested in seeing what holiness means as applied to God. God as holy signifies his transcendence – his separateness. He is “wholly other,” in “a category all by himself.” He is transcendent over the creation and he remains utterly separate from uncleanness in the moral perfection of his character. God is holy in that he is utterly distinct from his creation and all impurity.

You can see this all in one Psalm, Psalm 99. He is separate from creation and separate from sin and evil.

Separate from Creation   

The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake! 2 The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples. 3 Let them praise your great and awesome name! Holy is he!

Separate from Sin and Evil 

4 The King in his might loves justice. You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob. 5 Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!

This is what we think of when we think of holiness. But my question tonight is – what do we see when we see holiness. Can you see fast on a car? You cannot see “fast”, but you can see the effect of the car with a cloud of dust. When we see holiness, we see the splendor of his holiness, his glory.

The phrase “splendor of holiness” three times in reference to God. You see “glory” paired together with this.

1 Chronicles 16:27-30

27    Splendor and majesty are before him;

strength and joy are in his place.

28    Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

29    Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

bring an offering and come before him!

       Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;

30        tremble before him, all the earth;

Psalm 29:2

2  Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

Psalm 96:6-10

6  Splendor and majesty are before him;

strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

7    Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

8    Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

bring an offering, and come into his courts!

9    Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;

tremble before him, all the earth!

10    Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

Perhaps the classic text to go to see the infinite otherness of God’s splendor of holiness is Revelation 4:1-11.

Revelation itself is difficult to read because it embodies the very otherness of God in its genre. But it helps to see this as a view from above and a view from below.

The letters to the seven churches have pictured Jesus as knowing and being present with his church, the view from below. There is much persecution and conflict. Satan has thrown some into prison and some will be killed. But now we are ready to leave the view from below and attain the view from above, the way things really are.

Now, I agree with commentators who say that this is a chiasm in 4:2b–11.

A 2b–3 – Description of the One on the Throne

B 4; Description of the 24 Elders

C 5a–6a Description from and before the Throne

B´ 6b–7 Description of Four Living Creatures

A´ 8–11 Worship of the One on the Throne

Description of the One on the Throne (Revelation 4:2b-3)

2 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. 3 And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.

It is no accident that the first thing John sees is a “throne.” There is no Roman emperor, no US President, no Satanic ruler on it. God is on it, and all other thrones are secondary and derivative.

That is such a significant reminder at the outset. We are sometimes tempted to read Revelation as if it describes something that will be true one day. Not so. It describes something that is true everyday. Here is the exciting thing about these texts – they do not just say what will one day be true, but what is always true. It is easy to read Revelation with a future orientation that says “won’t that be great someday.” But that is all wrong. It is great now. It will only be greater then. If it is not great now, it may never be.

I do not know what you see in the view from below today. But wherever you are I urge you to look above past the curtain of confusion that shrouds our earthly view and see God seated on the throne. He reigns above the flux of chaos. His kingly control is not ever in question.

The One seated upon the throne is not really described beyond his brightness. The brilliant colors of the three stones together probably represents the bright, resplendent light of God’s glory. It is similar to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:16: God dwells “in unapproachable light.” That’s the best we can do, the closest that we an describe him. No wonder its a metaphor, can you imagine trying to explain this?

We now work in concentric circles. There are 24 thrones with 24 elders, then what comes from the throne and what is before the throne are described, then four living creatures are described. We then hear the worship of the four living creatures followed by the worship of the 24 elders.

Description of the 24 Elders (Revelation 4:3)

4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.

The 24 elders have been described as either human or angelic. I take the view, along with the majority of commentators, that they are angelic beings. I will give several reasons for this view: (1) the Old Testament shows that God is surrounded by “the heavenly council” which consists of many angels (Ps. 89:7; Job 15:8), (2) the elders are always distinct from the saints in Revelation and are normally seen together with the four living creatures (5:14; 14:3; 19:4), (3) the NT talks in one place about the throne angels (Col. 1:16 – whether thrones or rulers or dominions or authorities) the throne angels would be what’s described here as “thrones”; (cf. Eph. 3:10; 6:12), (4) the NT presents angels as dressed in white garments (Matt. 28:3; John 20:12; Acts 1:10), (5) in the flow of Revelation, it would make sense that humanity does not appear before the throne until after the sacrifice of Christ in chapter five.

Description from and before the Throne (Revelation 4:5a–6a)

5 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, 6 and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.

The phenomenon his otherness and virtual unapproachability. Like a dog growling, where you shouldn’t come any closer. These phenomena coming from the throne remind the reader of the rumblings that come with the theophanies in the OT when Yahweh comes down like at Mt. Sinai. Listen to the way Hebrews 12:18-21 presents the terrifying holiness of God.

18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”

Ἀστραπαὶ καὶ φωναὶ καὶ βρονταί’ (astrapai kai phōnai kai brontai, lightnings and the roar of the storm and thunders), also found in Revelation 8:5 (seventh seal); 11:19 (seventh trumpet); 16:18 (seventh bowl), all key moments when judgment will come on the people.

The seven-fold Spirit is a reference to the Holy Spirit, and the sea of glass probably represents the vast expanse, like the firmament.

The throne of God rested on this “expanse.” The emphasis is on God’s awesome vastness, his transcendence and his holiness that separate him from his creation – like the firmament separated the waters in Genesis 1:7. The scene is enhanced greatly by this spectacular image. In one sense it is like glass, reflecting the magnificence and kaleidoscopic colors of the throne room. [1] This all tells us this is infinite otherness.

Description of Four Living Creatures (Revelation 4:6b–7)

And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7 the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight.

Who are these living creatures? Why do they look like a lion, ox, man, and eagle? In the ancient world, people categorized creation according to four spheres: wild animals (lion), domesticated animals (bull), birds (eagle), and humanity (man). These creatures represent the strongest of each sphere. These beings represent the greatest of all created beings. However, we are not to get distracted by their strength so that we focus on them. Our focus should be the same as theirs! Look what they are doing.

Worship of the One on the Throne (Revelation 4:8–11)

8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” 9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

This three-fold praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” is a way of expressing the transcendence of God in a way that stresses the separation through repetition. He is in a class of his own, a class of his own, a class of his own. He is Wholly Other, Wholly Other, Wholly Other. He is proclaimed to be omnipotent: God Almighty. He is proclaimed to be eternal: the One who was and is and is to come.

They are worshipping God. Imagine climbing with me, closer to throne, to the highest of all beings, and they are out of their league. If these greatest of all beings spend all their time worshipping God, then how great is our God! He is in a class all His own! But not everyone has come to acknowledge that very essential truth. For these creatures to look down, they would be utterly unimpressed with every other thing. But instead, the look up, in endless admiration.

This is not dull. Try to take God’s eternality – we could think of something never ending, because we’ll live for eternity. But we cannot think of something having no beginning. At this point, our minds are defeated.

Response to Real Holiness: Repulsive and Terrifying to Sinners

Want to know what a vision is about? Go to the end, in verse 11. The point of Revelation 4 is that God is worthy of worship in the splendor of his infinite otherness. How could anyone not be delighted with such a view of beauty and glory? Answer: the fall. This brings the realization that we’re not holy, and judgment is coming.

In the next chapter of Revelation, we learn about how Jesus’ full glorious strength will be on display when He opens the scroll of history that He alone is worthy to open (Revelation 5).

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Rev. 6:15-17).

We could take long road trips to Colorado when I was growing up. No DVD players, squished in a car. Dad was playing the oldies station, and we said it felt like death. We tried to entertain ourselves, so we came up with what we called “the death game.” It was a game of “what would be worse.” We were trying to find out what would be worse. This is what is going on here – they would rather be crushed by tons of rock than face the wrath of the Lamb. Look at that and tell me holiness is dull. This is terrifying.

This is the day that Isaiah spoke about in Isaiah 2:10-17.

10 Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty. 11    The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. 12 For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low; 13 against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up; and against all the oaks of Bashan; 14    against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills; 15 against every high tower, and against every fortified wall; 16 against all the ships of Tarshish, and against all the beautiful craft. 17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

D.L. Moody said that the only person who is qualified to speak on hell is the person who is weeping while he talks about it.

Jesus “is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). He will crush the enemies of God. He has the royal scepter like a rod of iron. He has the sharp sword of the word that comes “from his mouth.” He will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15). He vanquishes the beast and the false prophet and throws them into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20).

Sometimes people get the false sense that the Old Testament is full of wrath and the New Testament is full of grace. We could talk about how absurd that is at many levels, but allow me for one moment to address the idea that only the OT is full of wrath and fury. Does the Old Testament know anything even remotely resembling the wrathful fury of God’s judgment in Revelation. The blood up to the horses bridle? Treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty? A lake of fire? The smoke of torment rising forever and ever? If anything it appears that the doctrine of hell in the New Testament takes the Old Testament view of wrath and ratchets it up many, many notches.

Yes, God’s holiness is bright and radiant. But sinners do not love the light. Listen to John 3:19-21.

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.

In children’s ministry we will say this and not get good responses, so we switch to entertainment, forgetting that what we win them with is what we win them to This is our holy God. We will not be put off if people say “we don’t like that.” Jesus said it would happen.

Response to Real Holiness: A Forgiven Sinners Delight through the Cross

So here is the key transition. We sometimes forget what that in an age of entitlement what sin is and what it is to be a sinner.

If real holiness is a repulsive terror to some, how can it be a delight to others? The answer is simple and profound: the gospel. I will let Martin Luther’s experience provide the transition.

I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.  My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assauge him.  Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.  Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.  Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’  Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.  Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.  This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

To remember this, in seminary I would prepare my sermons in a cemetery. Anyone want to live? Raise your hand! It won’t happen. Those we preach to are dead.

Who can ascend to the mountain and mediate on our behalf before God? Listen to Hebrews 12:24 again.

24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

We were made to know this God. I was made that when I see something beautiful.

We fight a generational thing that when we hear “holiness” we think of a God of rules – but I think when we hear “holiness” we should think of the Gospel.The best way to see the brightness of God’s glory is with the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4, 6) – the gospel of the glory of the blessed God (1 Tim. 1:11).

Unmediated holiness is a terror, but mediated holiness is a delight. Mediated holiness now becomes a delight – the gospel leads to worship in 1 Timothy 1:15-17. After talking about “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1:11), he unpacks it in verses 15-17.

15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

If you want a God-centered ministry that results in doxology, it takes a miracle through the gospel. And when you don’t see it quickly, don’t give up. Because the gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believers.

So how do we move to delighting this? The cross crushes us and then it heals us.

How the Cross Makes Real Holiness a Delight: The Cross Crushes Our Vertical Pride

The cross reveals what we deserve from God. The cross decimates our proud pretensions and our smug, self-righteous rationale for rightness with God. The cross crushes us because it convicts us of the true nature of sin. It testifies to the greatness of our evil. If we were a little wicked, then there could be a small sacrifice. The immensity of the sacrifice testifies to the immensity of our sin!

Ye who think of sin but lightly,

Nor suppose the evil great,

Here may view its nature rightly,

Here its guilt may estimate.

Mark the Sacrifice appointed!

See Who bears the awful load!

’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,

Son of Man, and Son of God.

It crushes our pride because we recognize the only way to receive grace flows from the dis-grace of Christ. To receive grace we must embrace the disgrace. To see Christ stricken, wounded and afflicted is the most terrible sight imaginable as the crushing weight of justice falls upon him.

Spurgeon said that heaven’s gate is very wide and expansive, but it is very low because the proud and self-righteous must be humbled. The humbling of damnation will come to one part of humanity, the redeemed have their moment of humbling when they see the wrath of God poured out on His Son at the cross. They are never the same again.

How the Cross Makes Real Holiness a Delight: The Cross Creates Sweetly-Broken Boasting

The end result is that we are sweetly broken so that we boast in the cross. The cross replaces all self-righteous boasts with the sweetly broken boast of the cross. We are broken with awe, broken with wonder. We must become poor in spirit – which does not mean that we are pretty poor – though we can scrape by. It means we are spiritual beggars. We deserve nothing and with open hands turned toward God we receive more than we could ever expect: the cross, Christ crucified. We boast in our King. Look at what my King did for me!

Why can we be sweetly broken? Our sin is judged and our souls are saved. Both happen – love and justice meet at the cross. The cross is the convergence of divine love and justice and their opposites: hate and injustice. In other words, love and hate, justice and injustice all collide at the cross. What happens in this collision? The resurrection gives the answer.

The cross leads us to be sweetly broken because its justice breaks down our pride and then its mercy makes us feel sweetly drenched in love. There is therefore a beauty here that defines us.

Teaching the Holiness of God to the Next Generation

Many of you came into this conference with a focus on two things: holiness and the joy of the next generation. That focus can either be a danger or a delight.

The Danger

I begin with the danger. You could make the mistake of focusing exclusively on why children need to be gripped by the splendor of God’s holiness. Here is why that would be a disastrous decision. Wanting to impact children with something that has not impacted you is an unintentional inoculation against being gripped by biblical holiness. Here is what I mean. It is an inoculation because in the end it protects them from being “infected” by the power of the truth of God’s holiness. If someone can believe in God’s holiness without loving God’s holiness, then you can have what James calls a dead faith, a demon faith, a useless faith – an empty adherence to teaching that will never change anyone. You can be what Paul says, “having a form of godliness while denying its power.”

Dear friends, if the things you are teaching do not excite you, there is almost no way that they are going to excite children. Children are uniquely gifted in being able to sniff out phoniness. They instinctively say to themselves, “if what you are sharing does not excite you, then why would I want it?”

Or worse yet, they may follow your example. What would be worse – rejecting fake holiness or accepting fake holiness? Embracing fake holiness means that you come to grips with the fact that holiness it is just one of those dull things about God that you are supposed to believe. They may think that they should respond to these glorious things in the same “blah” way as we do. We are modeling for children how they ought to respond to the things of God. When our hearts are unengaged, we end up lying about the very things we are teaching. We are saying, “hey, look everybody, this is the bland way you should engage with these stupendously glorious things.”

The Delight

That sounds like doom and gloom, but that is certainly not my aim. My goal in warning you about the danger is found in the principle of “forewarned is forearmed.” Think about what happens when you focus on personally being gripped by God’s holiness. You will be gripped yourself. You will be what the Bible calls a “witness.” We need first hand witnesses of God’s holiness for the sake of the next generation. We do not need second hand witnesses producing third hand witnesses!

If you are gripped by God’s holiness, you will find that others will be impacted as a natural organic outgrowth. I once heard D. A. Carson talk about what things his students say impacted them throughout the years. To his surprise, he found that it changed from class to class. He then compared what the students said with what he taught from year to year.  He realized that the things that had impacted students the most from year to year was whatever had impacted him the most (the things he was researching or writing or studying in his personal time with the Lord).

It wasn’t that the nature of what was covered in the courses was that different from year to year. What was the difference? Different things impacted him from year to year. Some things brought a glimmer to the eyes and a spring in his step. That is what the next generation needs if we are going to cultivate the joy of the next generation – our joy in God’s holiness.

If you give the children this vision of a big God, and if they become a first hand witness of the splendor of his holiness, then they will want to proclaim him as he is. They will want to be first hand witnesses.

The Difference Between a First Hand Witness and a Second Hand Witness

When I was a teenager, I went snow skiing with one of my friends. At one point, we were the first people there and we were going up the ski loft and it suddenly jerked to a stop. My friend got my attention and said, “did you see that?” No, what. He said, “some guy just game and punched the guy operating the ski loft. “No way,” I said.

Later that day as we were goofing around and went splashing into a pile of slush at the bottom of the ski slope. My friend got all wet and I stopped short before getting drenched. We looked up and saw an employee of the ski place telling us to come with him. We went into a private room in the ski lodge where there was a cop waiting for us. He said, “I hear that you two were the first ones here and you may have witnessed an assault. My friend, chickened out and said that he did not see anything. My conscience was too pricked and so I said, “I saw it.” He began to ask me questions. I began to sweat. I desperately tried to remember all that my friend had told me. I don’t know if the officer caught my nervousness, but he increased it by saying, “now you know if this goes to court it will be your civic duty to testify under oath.” Thankfully, I never had to do that. But at that point the difference between a first hand witness and a second hand witness was forever seared into my mind and heart.

The only way to teach the holiness of God is as a first hand witness. You cannot teach the Jesus that your pastor proclaims. You must teach your children about the holiness of God as you have experienced it. This is the way to powerfully proclaim the Word to them… you must be gripped by it yourself.

The need of the hour is not to think about more activities but to think about the splendor of God’s holiness in your heart. See if the kids say “lectures are boring” when they see you enthralled with God’s holiness.  

Resurrected Splendor of Holiness

Some of you have heard of Joni Erickson Tada. I was deeply moved to hear her response to a common question she gets. People look at her in her wheelchair with a sense of pity and say, “I bet you can’t wait to get to heaven, you know, so that you can run again.” She says, “yes, that will be wonderful, but more than anything else, I can’t wait to have a heart free from sin.” Sinless holiness is our hope for breaking the glass ceiling that keeps us from worshipping the way we were meant to experience God.

Look at Revelation 5:11-14.

11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

And what do you see in Revelation 7:9-12:

9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15    “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

One day we will be there seeing his holiness in our holiness. Ephesians 5 tells us that the bride will be there holy and without blemish. What do we find there? Us before the throne forever. Not hungering. Not thirsting. Nothing striking us. The Lamb wiping our tears away.

C. S. Lewis was right. “How little people know who think holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.” May He make it so in your life to experience it first hand.

[1] Osborne, G. R. (2002). Revelation. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (231). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Written by Children Desiring God

Children Desiring God produces God-centered resources for church and home.

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