A Biblically based commentary on current issues that impact you
The Problems with Personal Words From God
How People Become False Prophets to Themselves
by Bob DeWaay
The Bible tells us that God has spoken, infallibly, finally, and authoritatively through people He chose
as mediators of His revelation. This is summarized in Hebrews 1:1, 2: “God, after
He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many
ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of
all things, through whom also He made the world.” The Bible further tells
us that Christ’s words to us were confirmed through eyewitnesses, the apostles.
Hebrews 2:2, 3 says, “For if the word spoken through angels proved
unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty,
how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the
first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard.” The apostles were responsible for
giving us the New Testament that constitutes Christ’s authoritative words to
His church—the revealed truths that remain binding on all.
article let us consider this question: Can a believer receive special
revelations that become God’s personal, revealed will for his or her life? Many
believe that this special revelation is real—that God provides it today. I
contend that they have not thought through some of the concept’s problematic
implications. In this article: I will defend the idea that God, since the days
of the apostles, has been ruling providentially rather than through further
specific revelation—whether through authoritative mediators or directly to
Personal Words From God
In considering the issue of God speaking to us, it is
helpful to focus on knowledge and divide it into two large categories: that which can be known through observation
of the creation using our physical senses, and
that which can only be known through revelation. We are free to study and learn
what pertains to the first category by using the rational minds God has given us. The second category can be
further divided into two parts: that which God has revealed and the secret
things that belong only to God (Deuteronomy
29:29). What God has revealed is contained in the Bible. That leaves a
second category—the secret things.
categories established, then let us consider how to categorize “personal words
from God.” These words are not observable aspects of creation (called general
revelation in theology1)
so do not fall into that category. Therefore, according to our categorization, they are either special revelation
from God or unrevealed secret information (the occult). Since nearly every
Christian would consider occult knowledge illegitimate, then those who claim
special words from God must consider them to be special revelation from God.
personal words from God (throughout the rest of this article PWFG or PWsFG will
designate “personal word(s) from God”) to be special revelation is exactly what
makes them so problematic. In the last issue2
we showed from Scripture that special revelation came through God’s chosen mediators
who spoke authoritatively for God. The only exception was when God gave
ordained means of guidance such as the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28:30). But even those
revealed God’s will only because they were ordained by God as spoken
through an authoritative mediator (Moses). The truth of God came to the people
of God through His ordained mediators. If we take PWsFG to be special
revelation, then we are implying that every believer has become an
authoritative mediator of special revelation. Now that is really problematic.
discussed this matter with people who strongly believe in divine guidance that
is specific for each individual. Their answer to my challenge is that they are
not claiming to mediate special revelation to the church; they claim these words only as personal words for their own
lives. But consider this: Prophets
who spoke for God had to be 100 percent accurate (Deuteronomy 18:22).
So if indeed PWsFG are specific revelations from God to the individual, are
these also inerrant? I have yet to speak with someone who believes in PWsFG who
claimed to know that the words were
perfectly accurate and infallibly from God. Neither do they claim that these
words have the same quality as inerrant Scripture.
are a mixture—some of which may be from God and some of which are in error—then
some means of telling the difference is necessary. But what possible means are
there? Since these PWsFG are specific to individuals and cover conceivably any
aspect of life, they cannot be tested by Scripture. For example, suppose I
receive a PWFG that tells me to move to Iowa
and start a church. How am I to test it? Some would say to consult other
Christians. But this really doesn’t change the problem, it just diffuses it. If
the idea of moving to Iowa
and starting a church may or may not be a true word from God and it cannot be
tested by scripture, since the Bible does not dictate where we must live, then what
remains is a group of people who are
not infallible prophets of God trying to receive special revelation. The group
is no more inerrant and authoritative than the individual.
practice, people who believe in PWsFG tend to rely on pragmatic tests. One
often hears what I call “miracle guidance stories.” Generally someone claims to
have received a PWFG, took action and the result was
something significant or extraordinary. Some leaders tell so many miracle
guidance stories that they convince followers of their special status with God
like Moses or Elijah. But when
pressed to defend their practice, these leaders usually admit that if a course of action that was taken based on a
PWFG did not appear to work out well, the result was no proof their personal “word” was not from God.
at a pragmatic test. A person gets a
special revelation to take a certain action. This revelation is not infallible,
and the person does not claim to be an infallible prophet. The person takes the
prescribed action and something great happens, or nothing special happens. In
either case they still do not know if the word was an inerrant, authoritative
word from God because good things happen sometimes to
misguided people, and bad things happen to well-guided people. Pragmatic tests
for truth are not valid.
Jeremiah for example. He was an ordained prophet of God and spoke
authoritatively for God. But his true guidance brought him a lifetime of
continual misery and personal rejection. The whole nation failed to listen to
him and in the end he was hauled away to Egypt by people who refused to
listen to his true word from God. If judged pragmatically Jeremiah would be
deemed a failure. But his true words from God were inerrant and comprise a book of the Bible.
guidance stories, used to make certain people appear to have “heard from God”,
are of no value. They are not the Biblical test for prophets and cannot be
because they are not specifically Christian. Psychics and New Agers have their
own genre of miracle guidance stories that enhance their credibility. My friend
Brian Flynn tells testimonies of
how, before he was saved out of the New Age, he gave some very accurate psychic
readings that created “miracle” guidance stories for people.3
The requirements in Deuteronomy 18 and 13 are there to protect us from “words
from ‘God’” that are not from God. These tests
require perfect predictive accuracy
and the teaching of correct doctrine about the “God we have known.”
of pragmatic tests means that in the end, once someone has received a PWFG,
whether something favorable or unfavorable resulted, the person still cannot be
sure that it was truly God who spoke. Such personal guidance is impossible to
test. This creates a very troubling side effect. People suppose themselves to
be authoritatively bound by a “will of God” that is revealed specifically and
personally to each Christian. But the Christian can never be sure that he knows
he has found this “will of God.” How can errant, non-authoritative words that
may or may not be from God be binding? They cannot. To make them so is abusive.
might counter that if a person thinks a word is from God, then “whatever is not
of faith is sin.” In other words, believing something to be from God binds his
personal conscience to it; and since his faith is in that word, it would be sin
to not follow it. But this means that any person who has placed faith in a
misplaced object of faith is bound to stay in that condition. Luther argued
against that position, for example, when he claimed that people who took
special religious oaths (like monks) had sworn to what is bondage and not from
God. Therefore they should renounce those vows as based on lies and falsehood.
Lies and falsehood are not proper objects of faith.4
Becoming a False Prophet to One’s Own Self
We have argued in previous editions of CIC that to prophesy is to speak authoritatively for God.5
Special prophets that God raised up to predict the future had to be 100 percent
accurate. If they were not accurate to that degree, people were commanded not
to listen to them. If we claim to
have heard a word from God that He gave in order to
direct our lives, then the same standard applies. It is as if we prophesy to
ourselves in God’s name. Doing so must meet all the Biblical tests for
prophets. If we fail the test, then we have become false prophets to our own
selves; consequently, we should not listen to ourselves! If
we were wrong even once, then we are unreliable and cannot be trusted to speak
for God. Period.
object that people who prophesy in the manner of 1Corinthians 14 (unto
edification, exhortation, and comfort) do not have to meet such tests. They
speak and the others judge. But this type of prophecy is to bring out
implications and applications of Scripture. Everyone has the Bible as an
objective means to judge such prophecy. If they have claimed that a certain
passage implies that certain actions or attitudes are binding on the church,
everyone can judge this because implications and applications are logically
connected to the meaning of the text.
are of a different sort. If someone claims that God told him to start a certain
business, by what means are the others to judge this? The type of prophecy that
is derived from the meaning of the text is controlled by the inerrant and
authoritative word from God. So if it is a true implication of Scripture it,
too, is authoritative. But subjective words about matters not bound by
Scripture cannot be judged in this way, as we showed earlier. These subjective
revelations are neither inerrant nor authoritative.
person who got a PWFG that really was not from God is binding himself to what
God has not spoken. It is a sin to bind what God has not bound, or loose what
God has not loosed. Let me give a couple of examples. Consider this passage:
the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the
faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means
of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding
iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has
created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.
If someone spoke to the church and forbade marriage in God’s
name, clearly he would be a false prophet teaching a doctrine of demons. But
what if the person speaks this word to himself? That is he determines to have a
PWFG saying he cannot marry. Why is he any less a false prophet than if he said
the same thing to the church?
A man is
free to marry in the Lord or to not marry. If he chooses to not marry as Paul
did (see his discussion in 1Corinthians 7) that is within his Christian
liberty. If he marries, it is within his Christian liberty as well (“if you marry you
have not sinned” – 1Corinthians
7:28a). But what if a man says, “God
spoke to me that I must not marry but remain single”? According to 1Timothy 4:3 he is teaching a doctrine
of demons to his own self. The only way to escape the logic of this is to claim
that anyone can speak in God’s name to his own self without those words fitting
any Biblical test. But that would open the door to any possible error and
bondage. This same argument applies to taking oaths such as the oath of
chastity that monks take.6
One has bound oneself in God’s name presumptuously.
consider another issue from the passage in 1Timothy 4. Suppose someone spoke in
God’s name to the church, forbidding the eating of pork. According to our
passage, that is a doctrine of demons. Suppose someone said, “God told me I am
not allowed to eat pork.” How is it any less a doctrine of demons when spoken
to one member of the church (i.e., one’s self)
than to the whole church? Any person is free to not eat pork without
recrimination. But if they try to add God’s imprimatur to this they make themselves
an invalid lawgiver.
that are taken to be binding and authoritative, whether given to the church or
one’s own self, are false. All words that claim to be God’s inerrant and
authoritative word when they are not are false prophecies. Those who speak
false words in God’s name to their own selves and thus bind themselves to those
words have become false prophets to their own selves. They should quit
listening to themselves!
The Difference Between Special Revelation and Providence
Those who teach that PWsFG are to be the normal experience
of all Christians often write literature where Biblical characters are used as
examples. They argue that if God can
speak to Moses, God can speak to us.7 The
issue is not God’s ability to speak or God’s unchanging nature, but how God has
chosen to speak. As we argued in the previous issue, people under the Old
Covenant, like Korah, made the same argument that God could speak to anyone.
But God had chosen to speak through Moses as Korah found out in a most horrific
to speak authoritatively to the patriarchs, Moses, the prophets, Jesus and the
apostles. Their words are God’s words that are binding on all. But, is being
the recipient of special revelation normative for all? Clearly it is not. We
are bound to pay attention to the words of those through whom God has chosen to
speak: “how will we escape if we neglect
so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was
confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by
signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit
according to His own will” (Hebrews
2:3, 4). God spoke through them in extraordinary ways and thus the faith
was “once for all” delivered to the saints.
Biblical times there were long periods without any record of God giving special
revelations. For example, from the time of Joseph through the first eighty
years of Moses’ life, there is nothing said about God speaking to anyone. God
was fulfilling His promise to Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed
for 400 years but afterward come out with many
possessions (Genesis 15:13, 14). During
those years, God’s purposes were being fulfilled just as fully as they were
during the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when God spoke directly to them.
the first eighty years of Moses’ life. The story of his birth; hidden for three months, placed in an
ark of bulrushes, placed in the Nile, found by Pharaoh’s daughter, given back
to his mother, and raised in the royal court of Pharaoh—the story contains not
one mention of God directly speaking to anyone. In fact, after Moses killed an
Egyptian and fled to Midian, he was there for 40 years with no record of God
speaking to anyone until the incident at the burning bush. But everything that
happened leading up to that incident was God providentially working to fulfill
His promises to Abraham.
Christians have a poor grasp of the Biblical doctrine of providence. This leads
them to the conclusion that unless they regularly receive PWsFG, God is not
leading them or working in their lives. Moses’ mother did not get a word from
God to put him in the Nile. But God used it.
Consider the book of Esther. God is never mentioned in Esther, but the entire book
is about God’s providential working through Esther to save His people. The
turning point in the Esther narrative is found in Mordecai’s words: “Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther,
‘Do not imagine that you in the king's palace can escape any more than all the
Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise
for the Jews from another place and you and your father's house will perish.
And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?’”
(Esther 4:13, 14). Providentially,
God had placed Esther in the place of royalty, so she was urged to take action,
which she did. God providentially saved the Jews and preserved the Messianic
promises through people who heard no special word from God.
For 400 years—from
Malachi to John the Baptist—there were no authoritative prophets in Israel—and
they knew it. Several passages in the intertestamental book of Maccabees show
that they were well aware they had no prophet. For example, “And they laid up
the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, till there
should come a prophet, and give answer concerning them” (I Maccabees 4:46).8
But, in Daniel 11 there is detailed prophecy about what would happen during the
intertestamental period. These are given in so much detail that liberal critics
claim Daniel must have been written after the events. What this shows us is
that God is sovereignly ruling providentially to bring to pass His purposes and
that He is able to do so without someone alive who is currently receiving
special revelations to guide His people. God brought salvation history forward
from Malachi to John the Baptist exactly as Daniel predicted and did so with no
prophets during those years.
What we see
from these examples is that during those periods, without any special
revelation other that what had been given previously to others, God worked His
plan through people just as effectively as He did through direct revelation.
God’s providential rule is not a lesser way for God to care for His people.
Providence includes good
and evil. Even wicked kings are “established by God” according to Romans 13:1. Dreams, visions,
subjective impressions, etc. are part of God’s providence. They, too, contain
good and evil. They are not inerrant specific revelation unless they are given
to proven prophets who meet all the tests. Daniel was a proven prophet. His
dream (Daniel 7) was authoritative revelation from God, not merely a part of
God’s providence. The king of Babylon’s
dream was part of providence, but in his case there was an authoritative
prophet to interpret it. Had there not been an authoritative prophet he could
not have known the meaning.
providence contains good and evil, so do subjective impressions that are part
of God’s providential rule. Sometimes as Christians we have dreams that we
might consider spiritually significant. Sometimes we have subjective
impressions that we may think are important. Since we are not infallible
prophets, we cannot determine that any particular dream or subjective
impression is a specific revelation from God. But we can make decisions that
are within the realm of Christian liberty.
example, in 1971, several weeks after my conversion, I had a dream that I was
sitting in the small country church I grew up in. In the dream I was sitting
with my brother in the back pew. A young girl was singing and it seemed to me
that her song was being used by God to touch people’s hearts. Then it struck me
that the people in that church had not heard the gospel in a clear way, so they
would not know what God expected of them. So, in my dream, I got up and
preached the gospel to them. When I woke up, I clearly remembered the dream and
it made an impression on me. That fall I returned to Iowa State University as a junior in Chemical
Engineering. On Sunday mornings and Sunday nights I attended a Pentecostal
church in Ames, Iowa. I spent a lot of time praying and
seeking God. During that time the idea grew strong in my mind that I should go
to Bible College and study for the ministry.
those first weeks at Iowa
State I was enrolled in a
class on the philosophy of science. In one lecture the professor made the claim
that the two ways of knowing truth were divine revelation and the scientific
method. He said, “Divine revelation is hogwash.” But concerning the scientific
method, this man was a very early proponent of what we now call postmodernism.
He claimed that all theories are “true” but that some don’t work so well in the
universe we happen to live in. He said there is no “TRUTH” but only theory. So I asked at the end of the lecture,
“Are you saying that it is impossible to know the truth?” He answered, “Yes.”
That experience made me long to learn what I knew to be true—the words of the Bible. Coupled with other amazing circumstances,
I decided to quit the university and enroll in Bible College.
partially described above is how I ended up being a preacher of the gospel
rather than a chemical engineer. That was God’s providential working in my
life. But I do not consider the dream nor any other impression or experience I
had that led me to Bible
authoritative revelation. I certainly am not an infallible prophet. But the
doctrine of providence describes how God uses all things as He works in us and
through us to bring about His purposes. Even our desires are part of
providence. We do not have to fear, as we make choices within the realm of
Christian liberty, that God’s plan will be derailed because we failed to gain
books of Acts, we have an example of people giving Paul directional guidance
and Paul ignoring it, even though it was from the “Spirit.” Here is the passage: “After looking up the disciples, we stayed there [Tyre] seven days; and they kept telling Paul
through the Spirit not to set foot in Jerusalem”
(Acts 21:4). From Tyre
they journeyed to Ptolmais and then Caesarea.
There a prophet spoke about Paul’s trip:
As we were staying there for some days,
a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea.
And coming to us, he took Paul's belt and bound his own feet and hands, and
said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem
will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the
Gentiles.’” When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began
begging him not to go up to Jerusalem.
Then Paul answered, “What are you doing,
weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to
die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 21:10-13)
First the Spirit spoke through believers that Paul should
not go to Jerusalem
and then a valid prophet spoke by the Holy Spirit telling Paul what would
happen if he did go. Yet Paul went. If guidance that we know (through the
inspired writer Luke) was from the Spirit was not binding on Paul, how much
less is subjective guidance that we do not know is from the Spirit binding on
decisions that are within the realm of Christian liberty?
of Paul’s journey to Jerusalem
also invalidates the idea that decisions by the church about what the Spirit is
saying are binding on the individual. Earlier in Acts we read: “Now after these things were finished, Paul
purposed in the spirit to go to Jerusalem after
he had passed through Macedonia
and Achaia, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21).
Paul’s own decision to go the Jerusalem
was not overridden by future words from the Spirit or prophecy from the church.
Furthermore, once the church realized that Paul had made his own decision, we
read this: “And since he would not be
persuaded, we fell silent, remarking, ‘The
will of the Lord be done!’” (Acts
21:14). God’s will was
not revealed by the Spirit speaking through church members or by a prophet, but
by Paul’s decision. Thus God’s providential will in matters of Christian
liberty is made known by the decision of the person involved.
We are Safe in God’s Providential Care
One great section of Scripture that every Christian should
learn and apply is Romans 8:26-39.
It describes the doctrine of providence and various implications of it.9
The most important implication is that all of the Lord’s people shall stay safe
in Him and shall be brought to glory and conformity to the image of Christ.
There is nothing in the section that requires specific revelations beyond
Scripture. Our security in Christ is not dependent on our gaining revelation or
personal guidance. In fact that section begins by telling us that we do not
know what we need: “And in the same way
the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we
do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for
us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what
the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to
the will of God” (Romans 8:26, 27).
Beyond Scripture, we do not know God’s future, providential will for us. But
the Holy Spirit prays for us “according to the will of God.” There is no
indication that if we gained PWsFG we then would know how to pray as we should.
The Holy Spirit Himself prays for us according to God’s will.
not judge us for failing to “obey” PWsFG that we cannot know to be from Him.
What God does tell us to do is ask for wisdom: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all
men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Contrary to what some
think, as we will see when we examine a passage later in James, this is not a
prayer for a PWFG. It is a prayer that God would so work in our lives that we
will make wise and godly decisions. This is much like the previous verses in
James which teach that trials and testing produce endurance. God gives wisdom
for decision making, but we make the decisions. The PWFG approach assumes that
God wants to make every decision for us and that we need special revelation of
God’s decision. But that produces “reproach,” which James says asking for
wisdom does not. Why? Because if one thinks he has a PWFG and follows it, and
the result is disaster, he comes under the reproach of assuming he heard
wrongly. But when we ask for wisdom which is the result of the fear of God,
love for the truth, our developing a
Christian worldview and consequently developing Christian values, we make wise
decisions.10 There is
no reproach because we, within our Christian liberty and in light of our
Christian values, made a decision. The outcome of our decision is unknown until
God’s providential will is revealed as history unfolds. But there is no
reproach because of the way we made the decision.
us to a key passage that shows that making decisions based on special
revelation is not God’s normative plan for Christians:
now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and
spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not
know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears
for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the
Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in
your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)
This passage provides very important evidence that the PWFG
approach is not Biblical. If indeed the Biblical pattern was for all Christians
to receive special revelation from God that directs their future plans, then
the passage would say, “You ought to have asked, ‘Lord tell us Your will about
whether to go into this business.” But it does not. It says they should have
said (not asked) “If the Lord wills.” That means they should have not boasted
about the future when they did not
know what it is. To claim to know what one does not know (God’s unrevealed
providential plans for our future) is called arrogant boasting and is condemned. They were free to decide to
travel and start a business, but they were not free to claim to know the future
If we make PWsFG normative, specific
revelation about our plans and the future when in fact these things are unknown
and unrevealed, we boast about what we do not know. We are much better off saying “I do not know” or
“If the Lord wills” than claiming God’s endorsement of our plans based on
supposed personal revelations. We are safe to make plans that fit within the
realm of Christian liberty and know that God will use even our decisions to
bring about His purposes in our lives.
God never binds people to error or uncertainty. Only
inerrant, authoritative, special revelation is binding on all Christians. The
only “words from God” that fit that criteria are those found in Scripture. It
is abusive to make PWsFG to be special revelations of God’s will either to an
individual or to a church. These “words” never have the quality of being
“certainly from God.” When we take them to be that when they are not, then we have become false prophets to our own selves
or to the church.
been ruling only providentially (rather than directly through infallible
prophets) for over 2000 years and not giving further infallible, special
revelation. God could raise up infallible prophets and apostles that meet the
criteria of Deuteronomy 18 and 13, but He has not. Rather than seeking to make
errant “words from God” authoritative and binding, we would be better off
admitting God has not raised up any infallible prophets and accepting His
benevolent providential rule. We are safe in God’s loving, providential care
and are not “missing God” by failing to follow PWsFG that fail the necessary
tests for being God’s authoritative revelations.
Issue 98 - January / February 2007
- Any good systematic theology book contains a discussion of general revelation and special revelation. For example, Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1932 – 1996 combined ed.) 128 – 137. Also, sometimes one hears the phrase “specific revelation” which means the same thing as special revelation.
- Issue 97 http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue97.htm
- See his book Running Against the Wind available here http://www.onetruthministries.com/
- This is different than the case of the weak conscience discussed in Romans 14. The person who is “weak” and eats only vegetables because of that, is not bound by a special revelation from God, but by his own conscience. That conscience can become better informed by the Word of God and may grow stronger. But a “word from God” about eating vegetables cannot “grow” because if deemed to be from God, who cannot lie, that “word” never changes.
- See Issue 95: http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue95.htm
- See chapter 4 of Redefining Christianity by Bob DeWaay that discusses the problems with religious oaths.
- One of the more egregious examples of this reasoning is found in Henry T. Blackaby & Claude V. King, Experiencing God (Broadman and Holman: Nashville, 1994).
- Other references are IMaccabees 9:27; and 14:41. These are not scripture, but part of Jewish history. They are often cited as evidence for the uniqueness of the canon and that the apocrypha is not the product of inspired prophets.
- I wrote an article about this section of Scripture that discusses what it means to be “led by the Spirit”: http://cicministry.org/commentary/issue76.htm
- See Gary T. Meadors, Decision Making God’s Way – A New Model for Knowing God’s Will; (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2003) for an excellent description of this approach to decision making.
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