1 Corinthians 15:1-11
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1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Biblical Commentary:
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent eighteen months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.These included:
• Questions about Paul’s apostolic authority (chapters 1, 4)
• Divisions in the church (chapters 3-4)
• Sexual immorality (chapter 5)
• Lawsuits among believers (chapter 6)
• Questions about marriage and sexuality (chapter 7)
• Questions about eating food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10)
• Abuses at the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11)
• Issues regarding spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14)
These were (with the exception of questions about Paul’s authority) moral and ethical issues—issues related to how the Corinthian Christians behave. However, now in chapter 15, Paul begins to deal with a doctrinal issue—and issue related to what these Corinthian Christians believe. The doctrinal issue is the resurrection of Christ—and how that belief undergirds the belief in the resurrection of deceased believers.
In chapter 2, Paul dealt with Christ’s crucifixion. Now, in chapter 15, he deals with the resurrection, both Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and our own (15:12-58). Chapters 2 and 15, then, serve as bookends around the parts of this letter that deal with ethical issues.
Some Corinthian Christians have questioned the resurrection of believers. Their doubts arose from two sources:
First, some of them are Jewish, and Judaism was divided regarding the issue of resurrection. The Old Testament speaks of Sheol as the abode of the dead—a place where those who have died are separated from the living and from God. In their early history, Jewish people tended to think of Sheol only as the grave. As time progressed, their belief system progressed in the direction of resurrection. While the Old Testament doesn’t use the word resurrection, it does include several allusions to resurrection:
• “I kill, and I make alive” (Deuteronomy 32:39).
• “Yahweh kills, and makes alive. He brings down to Sheol, and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
• “But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
• “He has swallowed up death forever [and] will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:7-8).
• “Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise” (Isaiah 26:19).
• “Behold, I will open your graves, my people… You shall know that I am Yahweh, when I have opened your graves, and caused you to come up out of your graves, my people. I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37:12-14). However, these words from Ezekiel were intended to portray the rebirth of Israel as a community of faith rather than the resurrection of faithful people as individuals.
• “After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (Hosea 6:2).
By New Testament times, some Jews (such as the Sadducees) denied any possibility of resurrection or life after death, while other Jews (such as the Pharisees) did believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18).
Second, Corinth is a Greek city, and Greeks have been heavily influenced by Platonic dualism. Dualism divides things into two parts, such as good and evil or matter and non-matter. Many dualists considered matter (such as our bodies) as unimportant and/or evil and non-matter (such as our souls) as good. Plato taught that our physical bodies are imperfect copies of ideal Forms that exist in a spiritual realm. He taught that our bodies are mortal but our souls existed prior to our life on earth—and will continue to exist beyond this life. Greeks (including these Corinthian Christians), raised in a dualistic environment, found it difficult to believe in the resurrection of the body. For them, the body was something to leave behind gladly—good riddance. Their focus was the preservation of the soul.
Judaism, however, emphasized the wholeness of the person—body and soul. That emphasis continued in the Christian church. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to know that belief in the resurrection—both Christ’s resurrection and the general resurrection of believers in the last days—is foundational to the Christian faith.
Later in this chapter, he will explain that the resurrected body is different from the body as we know it now. He says, “It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body” (15:42-44).
As noted above, in this chapter Paul deals both with Christ’s resurrection (15:1-11) and with our own (15:12-58).
1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-2. THE GOOD NEWS WHICH I PREACHED
1Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News (Greek: euangelion) which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, 2by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
“Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News (euangelion) which I preached to you“ (v. 1a). Paul was the founding pastor of the church at Corinth. He spent eighteen months working among them (Acts 18:11). It was he who first made these people aware of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.
“the Good News” (euangelion). The Greek noun, euangelion, and its verb form, euangelizo, combine the words eu (good) and angelos (angel or messenger) to mean “Good News.” In secular use, people used euangelion for the good news of a victory in battle—or for the reward given to a messenger who brought word of victory. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word mebasser is similar to the word euangelion and means a herald of good news (Isaiah 40:9; 52-7-10; 60:6; 61:1).
The New Testament uses euangelion for the good news of forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul uses some form of euangelion nearly fifty times in his epistles.
“which also you received, in which you also stand“ (v. 1b). Corinthian Christians had earlier given Paul’s proclamation of the Good News a favorable reception. That is how they came to be Christians in the first place. The Good News of that proclamation was the foundation on which their faith stood.
“by which also you are saved“ (v. 2a). In the Greek, “being saved” is present tense. In the Greek, the present tense has the sense of ongoing activity. Paul, therefore, is not telling these Corinthian Christians that they have been saved (a completed action), but that they are now engaged in the process of being saved.
“if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you“ (v. 2b). The original Greek for this phrase is difficult to translate, but the idea seems to be that their salvation is conditional on their holding fast to the message that Paul preached to them.
“unless you believed in vain“ (v. 2c). A great deal depends on what these Corinthian Christians have believed. As most of us understand, what is said and what is heard are not necessarily the same thing. There remains a distinct possibility that these Corinthian Christians have believed something quite different from the Gospel that Paul proclaimed to them, with the result that their belief is in vain.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:3-8. CHRIST DIED, WAS BURIED, AND WAS RAISED
3For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once, most of whom remain until now, but some have also fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time (Greek: ektromati), he appeared to me also.
“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received“ (v. 3a). While the immediate concern is whether these Corinthian Christians believe that they will be resurrected in bodily form at the coming of Christ, Paul first deals with Jesus’ own resurrection (vv. 3-8). This is a matter of first importance. The Christian faith rests on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, “then our (Paul’s) preaching is in vain, and your (the Corinthians’) faith also is in vain” (15:14).
“that Christ died” (v. 3b). For Christ to have been raised from the dead, he must first have died. That is the first point that Paul wishes to establish. Jesus really died.
“for our sins” (v. 3c). That Christ died for our sins has to do with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement—an idea that pervades both Old and New Testaments.
Atonement has to do with making amends for sins or repairing the spiritual damage caused by sins. It also has to do with restoring relationships that were broken by sin—in particular the relationship that we enjoyed with God prior to the introduction of sin into the world. Our sin (our failure to do God’s will—our willful disobedience) broke that relationship, because God is holy (morally and spiritually perfect) and expects us to be holy as well (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15).
Our sin, therefore, creates a conflict for God. On the one hand, God is repulsed by our sin, but on the other hand, he loves us. On the one hand, he cannot bring himself to invite us into full fellowship while we are tainted with sin, but on the other hand, he cannot bring himself to dismiss us totally.
So, in keeping with his holiness (which demands that we be punished) and his love (which demands that we be reconciled), God devised a process by which he can make us holy once again so that he might receive us into full fellowship. This process is known as substitutionary atonement—”substitutionary” meaning that God will accept a substitute to absorb the punishment for our sins and “atonement” meaning that we can be restored to full fellowship with God.
Christians have often spoken of atonement as “at-one-ment,” to convey the idea that atonement has to do with reconciling people to God. This is in keeping with the Latin word, adunamentum, which has to do with establishing unity and is the Latin word behind our English word, atonement (Encarta).
In the Old Testament, atonement took the form of animal sacrifices. God required Israelites to sacrifice animals in a sacred ritual to atone (make amends) for their sins (Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 1:4; 4:20-21, etc.). The idea was that people deserved to die for their sins, but God permitted them to sacrifice animals in their place. The death of the animals satisfied God’s need for justice, which in turn made it possible for him to forgive the people’s sins.
This idea of substitutionary atonement is also prevalent in the New Testament, and is the rationale behind the death of Jesus:
• “even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
• Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, 36)
• We are “now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him” (Romans 5:9).
• Christ is our “Passover”—our paschal lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).
• “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”—a matter regarded by the Apostle Paul as “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
• Christ “died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
• “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).
• “Christ also loved you, and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance” (Ephesians 5:2).
Substitutionary atonement not only satisfies God’s needs for both justice and mercy, but also dramatizes the dreadful nature of our sin and its consequences. It helps us to understand that our sins are not just minor mistakes for which a passing apology is all that is needed. It helps us to understand that “the wages of sin is death” and that we are in desperate need of “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
“according to the Scriptures“ (v. 3d). This is important, because it establishes a scriptural foundation for Christ’s resurrection. When Paul says, “according to the Scriptures,” he is, of course, talking about the Hebrew Scriptures—what we call the Old Testament.
Paul doesn’t specify which scriptures he has in mind here, but several Old Testament passages come to mind.
• “For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption” (Psalm 16:10).
• “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth. As a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before its shearers is mute, so he didn’t open his mouth. He was taken away by oppression and judgment; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living and stricken for the disobedience of my people? They made his grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in his death; although he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased Yahweh to bruise him. He has caused him to suffer. When you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed. He shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of Yahweh shall prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light, and be satisfied. My righteous servant will justify many by the knowledge of himself; and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:7-12).
• “After two days he will revive us. On the third day he will raise us up, and we will live before him” (Hosea 6:2).
• “In that day I will raise up the tent of David who is fallen, and close up its breaches, and I will raise up its ruins, and I will build it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11).
• See also Deuteronomy 18:15; Psalm 2:7; 110:1; 118:21-23; and Daniel 7:13-15.
But, as noted above, the idea of substitutionary atonement was rooted in the Jewish sacrificial system, which permeates the whole of the Old Testament—and carries over into the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross.
“that he was buried“ (v. 4a). The burial of Jesus’ body constitutes further confirmation of his death. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, preparing Jesus’ body for burial, would certainly have noticed if Jesus had not really been dead (John 19:38-42).
“that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures“ (v. 4b). See the scriptures referenced in the comments on verse 3d above—especially Hosea 6:2.
Note also that Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The Jews thought that he was speaking of the Jerusalem temple, “But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this, and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had said” (John 2:21-22).
“and that he appeared to Cephas“ (v. 5a). In verses 5-8, Paul references six resurrection appearances. These are not comprehensive. In particular, Paul mentions no appearances to women.
Kistemaker has compiled a list of ten resurrection appearances (Kistemaker, 48):
1. The women at the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10)
2. Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18)
3. Two men of Emmaus (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-32)
4. Peter in Jerusalem (Luke 24:34; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
5. Ten disciples (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23)
6. Eleven disciples (John 20:24-29; 1 Corinthians 15:5)
7. Seven disciples fishing in Galilee (John 21:1-23)
8. Eleven disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-18)
9. Five hundred persons (presumably in Galilee; 1 Corinthians 15:6)
10. James, the brother of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:7)
The first resurrection appearance that Paul mentions was to Cephas, which is Simon Peter’s name in the Aramaic language (Peter is his Greek name). This would be the appearance mentioned in Luke 24:34. Note that, before Peter saw the risen Christ, he also saw the empty tomb (John 20:6-7).
“then to the twelve” (v. 5b). The second resurrection appearance that Paul mentions was to “the twelve.” With the death of Judas, the number of apostles had been reduced to eleven, but “the twelve” has become a standard way of referring to the apostles. Referring to Kistemaker’s list above, this could be appearance 5, 6, or 8.
Note that in verse 7, Paul speaks of an appearance to “all the apostles.” In Kistemaker’s list, that could be appearance 6 or 8.
“Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once, most of whom remain until now, but some have also fallen asleep“ (v. 6). We have no record of this appearance, other than this verse. The early church, however, would be familiar with this appearance. After all, five hundred people saw the risen Christ in this appearance, so they would spread the word far and wide.
Paul’s comment about most of the five hundred being still alive tells these Corinthian Christians that they can verify this resurrection appearance if they have a mind to do so. There are hundreds of witnesses still alive who can confirm it.
“Then he appeared to James” (v. 7a). Paul doesn’t specify which James. In the list of apostles at Luke 6:14-16, three men named James are mentioned. The James of verse 14 is the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. The James of verse 15 is the son of Alphaeus, about whom we know nothing further. The James of verse 16 was not an apostle, but was the father of the apostle Judas (not Iscariot).
It is also possible that this was James, the half-brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3). In his letter to the Galatians, Paul refers to James, the Lord’s brother, as an apostle (Galatians 1:19). Eusebius refers to this James as the first bishop of Jerusalem, and gives him the title “The Just/Righteous.” Note that Catholics view James as Jesus’ cousin rather than his brother.
“then to all the apostles” (v. 7b). See the notes on verse 5b above.
In addition to the twelve original apostles, whose names are listed in Matthew 10:2b-4, the following are mentioned elsewhere as apostles:
• Matthias (Acts 1:26)
• Paul (Acts 14:14; Galatians 1:1)
• Barnabas (Acts 14:14)
• James, the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19)
• Perhaps the other brothers of the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:5)
• Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7)
When Paul says, “then to all the apostles” in this verse, he is talking about a single resurrection appearance. It seems certain that Paul was not among the apostles who experienced this appearance—otherwise, he would have mentioned being there. We have no idea whether others among those listed above were absent from this appearance.
“and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time (ektromati—from ektroma), he appeared to me also“ (v. 8). Jesus’ appearance to Saul (whose name was later changed to Paul) is recounted in Acts 9:1-8. Saul, a Pharisee, had been a zealous persecutor of the church. When he was traveling to Damascus, with the intent of arresting any followers of Jesus whom he might find there, a bright light from heaven blinded him and a voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul asked, “Who are you Lord?” The voice responded, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise up, and enter into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men who had been traveling with Saul led him by the hand to Damascus, where Saul became a Christian (Acts 9:10-19).
“as to the child born at the wrong time” (ektromati—from ektroma) The Greeks used the word ektroma to refer to a miscarriage or an abortion—a baby born at the wrong time. Paul uses this word for himself here because he became an apostle late in time—after Jesus’ ascension. Unlike the original twelve apostles, Paul did not have the opportunity to walk the pathways of Israel with Jesus—nor to hear his voice as he taught the crowds —nor to witness his miracles.
1 CORINTHIANS 15:9-11. SO WE PREACH, AND SO YOU BELIEVED
9For I am the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the assembly of God. 10But by the grace (Greek: chariti—from charis) of God I am what I am. His grace which was bestowed on me was not futile, but I worked more than all of them; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 11Whether then it is I or they, so we preach, and so you believed.
“For I am the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the assembly of God“ (v. 9). Some Corinthian Christians are critical of Paul. They say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is despised” (2 Corinthians 10:11). Paul, however, is no shrinking violet. Elsewhere, he mounts a vigorous defense in which he recounts the sufferings he endured in behalf of Christ (2 Corinthians 10-11). He claims to have been set apart by God for ministry before he was born (Galatians 1:15). He talks about the endorsement that James and Cephas (Peter) and John gave his apostolic ministry (Galatians 2:9). In his letter to the Philippians, he says, “If any other man thinks that he has confidence in the flesh, I yet more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:4-6).
But here he calls himself “the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle.” His reason for this statement is not an inferiority complex or false humility. He says that he is “least” and “not worthy” “because I persecuted the assembly of God,” which refers back to his activities as recounted in Acts 8.
“But by the grace (chariti—from charis) of God I am what I am” (v. 10a). Grace (charis) is a significant word in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s epistles. The use of charis in the New Testament has its roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness.
Greeks often used the word charis to speak of patronage (the support of a patron, such as financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connoted generosity—generosity that demanded loyalty on the part of the recipient.
It is easy, therefore, to understand why Paul would adapt charis to the Gospel. Christian charis is the gift of salvation by God to all who accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ. God, therefore, is the patron—the benefactor. Just as we could never fully repay a person who left us an inheritance of unimaginable wealth, so also we can never repay God for the gift of salvation. However, if a patron were to grant us unimaginable wealth, we could be faithful to the patron by using the money in a way that would be consistent with the patron’s wishes or values. So also, we can be faithful to the God who gives us salvation by living in accord with God’s will.
Paul acknowledges that he deserves no credit for his apostleship. He is an apostle by the grace of God.
“His grace which was bestowed on me was not futile, but I worked more than all of them“ (v. 10b). Paul felt a sense of indebtedness at being granted an apostleship—the highest office in the church—but that only fueled his determination not to squander God’s gift to him. Thus he worked harder than the other apostles.
Let’s take a quick look at the other disciples:
• The list in Matthew 10:2b-4 includes Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew the tax collector, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot.
• Later references to apostles in the New Testament include Matthias (Acts 1:26), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), James the brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19), Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7), possibly the other brothers of Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:5)—and, of course, Paul (Acts 14:14; Galatians 1:1).
Now consider which apostles could compete with Paul on the basis of their work. Peter, of course, was the leader of the apostles during Jesus’ lifetime, and was quite active in the ministry of the early church. However, in the book of Acts, Saul/Paul was converted in Acts 9 and began his active ministry in Acts 13. The last mention of Peter in the book of Acts is found in chapter 15, and the book of Acts after that is primarily an account of Paul’s ministry. In other words, beginning with Acts 13, we have a transition in leadership from Peter to Paul.
Andrew’s chief accomplishment was bringing his brother, Peter, to Jesus (John 1:40-41). Herod Agrippa executed James fairly early in the life of the church (Acts 12:2). His brother John is often credited with the authorship of several books of the New Testament (the Gospel of John, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation), although his authorship is in question for the Gospel and Revelation. Thomas is famous for his doubts—but may have later established the church in India. Judas, of course, was famous for his betrayal of Jesus. James, the half-brother of Jesus, became a leader in the Jerusalem church. Barnabas was known primarily as an associate of Paul, although they parted company soon after returning to Antioch (Acts 15:30-41; Galatians 2:11-14). We know little or nothing about the others.
Paul, on the other hand, was very active. Thirteen books of the New Testament have been attributed to his authorship, although the authorship of six of those is disputed. While he wrote his letters to resolve specific issues in particular places, his letters have contributed monumentally to Christian theology. No one, other than Jesus, contributed more to Christian thought. On his three missionary journeys, Paul founded a number of churches and won many people to Christ. He was the chief apostle to the Gentiles, and has good justification for saying that he has worked harder than the other apostles.
“yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me“ (v. 10b). In Paul’s theology, everything good comes by the grace of God. Earlier in this letter, when dealing with divisions in the Corinthian church, Paul expressed this clearly. “Who then is Apollos, and who is Paul, but servants through whom you believed; and each as the Lord gave to him? I planted. Apollos watered. But God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase” (3:5-7).
“Whether then it is I or they, so we preach, and so you believed“ (v. 11). Paul’s intention in this chapter is to proclaim the resurrection of Christ—and of those who believe in Christ. He digressed for a moment in verse 10 to defend his work, but now he acknowledges that it matters not who proclaimed the message as long as the hearers come to believe in Jesus Christ. Paul’s words from 3:5-7, quoted in the paragraph above, are on point here.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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