The Importance of Christian Prophecy and Its Purposes for Us Today

Few people today have an accurate or adequate notion of what a Christian prophet is. This is only to be expected: most of us have never met a prophet. In the absence of actual experience our imaginations have taken over. I once wrote an article on prophecy for a magazine. The illustration which accompanied the article captured perfectly one of the most common conceptions of a prophet: on a rugged and desolate crag of a mountain knelt a bearded and bald old man, his feet unshod and his gaunt body draped with an animal skin. As he gazed intently heavenward, rays of eerie light streamed down from a hidden source to light up his face. If that is a prophet, it’s no wonder there are so few!

In order to form a better understanding of Christian prophecy, I want to outline briefly some of the inaccurate or inadequate ideas which float around these days, and compare them with the presented to us by Scripture.

One of the most popular understandings of prophecy features the “ecstatic” prophet who whirls around in a sort of fit or in a trance-like state uttering oracles. That is not Christian prophecy. Paul says specifically that “the spirits of the prophets are under the prophets control, since God is a God, not of confusion, but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:32-33). In a similar way Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century Christian historian, contrasts Christian prophets (who are not “ecstatic”) and the prophets of a sect called “Montanism.” Eusebius quotes an earlier Christian writer named Miltiades who had lived in the second century and opposed the Montanists:

Their (the Montanists’) opposition and their recent schismatic heresy in relation to the church originated thus. There is, it appears, a village near the Phrygian border of Mysia called Arbadu. There it is said that a recent convert named Montanus, while Gratus was proconsul in Syria, in his unbridled ambition to reach the top laid himself open to the adversary, was filled with spiritual excitement and suddenly fell into a kind of trance and unnatural ecstasy. He raved, and began to chatter and talk nonsense, prophesying in a way that conflicted with the practice handed down generation by generation from the beginning…1

But the pseudo-prophet speaks in a state of unnatural ecstasy, after which all restraint is thrown to the winds. He begins with voluntary ignorance and ends with involuntary psychosis, as stared already. But they cannot point to a single one of the prophets under either the Old Covenant or the New who was moved by the Spirit in this way – not Agabus or Judas or Silas or Philip’s daughters; not Ammia at Philadelphia or Quadratus; nor any others they may choose to boast about though they are not of their number…2

In other words, Miltiades’ objection to Montanist prophecy (whether he understood the Montanists accurately or not) is that the Montanists claimed to have the gift of prophecy, but their ecstatic prophets were not behaving like Christian prophets. All the authorities of the early church, from the apostle Paul onward, clearly state that prophets among Christians have full control of themselves, and do not prophesy in trances and ecstasies.3

Another very common notion regarding prophets might be termed “the prophet as a great moral leader.” Many Christians derive this view from the great prophets of the Old Testament, who are said to have acted as the “conscience of Israel.” Accordingly, they call anyone who exerts striking moral leadership a prophet. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, and others have been called “prophets.” There is some justification for speaking of prophets in this way; the prophets did provide Israel with strong moral leadership. But moral sensitivity and moral leadership do not adequately describe the action of the Holy Spirit in prophecy.

The prophets in the Old Testament brought with them more than an analysis of Israel’s moral state – they brought a message from God. They did not claim to speak from their own insight into the affairs of men and women; they spoke of a judgment given directly by God.4

A notion of prophecy very much like that of the “great moral leader” is the notion of the prophet as a “visionary,” a person who can “see into things” in a way which normal people cannot. This, too, is inadequate. The prophets of the Old Testament never claimed any special insight except what was revealed to them by God.5 Their ability to understand the things happening around them and to speak of the true meaning underlying those events was not a product of their own “vision”; God was giving them his understanding and vision.

Finally, we have an understanding of prophecy that has become very popular today—the prophet as one who predicts future events. Jeanne Dixon, for example, claims the gift of prophecy on the basis of some successful forecasts of the future. Prediction clearly occurs in true prophecy, but it is only a part of the gift. When Paul lists some of the purposes of prophecy, he mentions encouragement, consolation, and the building up of God’s people (1 Corinthians 14), but not prediction.

We will quickly run into difficulties if we make successful prediction of the future our only criterion for true prophecy.  Some people who are not Christians at all can predict future events successfully, yet we cannot accept their “prophecies” as God’s word to us. Israel was once sternly warned against those who predicted the future but did not follow the Lord:

If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God….

Deuteronomy 13:1-5

In other words, a person can accurately predict future events, yet still be a false prophet. 

Well, if all these ways of describing a prophet are inadequate or misleading, where can we find an accurate description? I think that the clearest explanation of a true prophet can be found in the Book of Exodus as part of a conversation between God and Moses. When God called Moses to take the people of Israel out of Egypt, Moses tried to decline, telling the Lord that he could not speak well enough to talk to the Pharaoh. That excuse didn’t help Moses much, however, because God had a solution for the difficulty: Moses’ brother Aaron would do the talking: “When he [Aaron] sees you his heart will be glad. You are to speak with him then, and put the words in his mouth. I will assist both you and him in speaking and will teach the two of you what you are to do. He shall speak to the people for you: he shall be your spokesman, and you shall be as God to him” (Exodus 4:15-17).

In that last line, God makes a direct comparison between the role which Aaron has as Moses’ spokesman and the role which an Old Testament prophet has as God’s spokesman. The common term for a prophet in Hebrew, “nabi,” probably meant “one made to speak.” The standard Greek word, “prophetes,” meant “an interpreter” or “one who speaks for another.” Farther on in the story the Lord says to Moses: “See! I have made you as God to Pharaoh, and Aaron your brother shall act as your prophet. You shall tell him what I command you. In turn, your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave his land” (Exodus 7:1).

That is the role of the prophet – to speak for God. One is not a prophet because of what one says, but because of his or her relationship to God. One is not important in oneself; one is important because he or she comes as a messenger of the Lord:

And Haggai, the Lord’s messenger, proclaimed to the people as the message of the, Lord: I am with you, says the Lord. 

Haggai 1:13

To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak.

Jeremiah 1:7

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” “Here I am,” I said; “send me!” And he replied: “Go and say to this people…” 

Isaiah 6:8-9

Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites… But you shall say to them: Thus says the Lord God! … Son of man, take into your heart all my words that I speak to you; hear them well. Now go to the exiles, your countrymen, and say to them: Thus says the Lord God!

Ezekiel 2:3-4; 3:10-11

I was no prophet, nor have I belonged to the company of the prophets; I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees. The Lord took me from following the flock, and said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” 

Amos 1:14-15

In each of these cases God takes a man and makes him a messenger, a spokesman for God himself. The relationship between God and a person is the heart of prophecy.

The Importance of Christian Prophecy

The New Testament prophets were less prominent among the people of God than their predecessors in Israel, though as we have seen, the New Testament prophets still played a vital role. The difference in the role of the prophets under the old and the new dispensations is the result of a change not in the relationship between God and the prophet, but in the relationship between God and his people as a whole. The Old Testament prophet was a man unique among God’s people because of the Holy Spirit’s action in him. He was in direct communication with the Lord, while the people as a whole were not. But under the New Covenant, all of God’s people receive the Holy Spirit, all of God’s people are in direct communication with God himself. In Old Testament Israel the prophet was thoroughly unique; in the “new Israel” the prophet is one means among many by which God can speak directly to his people.

But the relationship of God to the prophet, the relationship of king to messenger, remains the same in the New Testament. All of God’s people can now hear God’s word directly without the mediation of the prophet, yet the prophet remains an official spokesperson, authorized to publicly declare the word of God. The image of God as a king ruling his people can illustrate the role of the prophet under both the old and the new dispensations.

Let us imagine God as a king, seated upon the throne in his castle. Under the Old Covenant, the people were greatly blessed by God because (1) God himself was their king; (2) his palace was with them, in the midst of their city; (3) God would from time to time call men and women into his presence and through them speak to his people. But most of the people could not themselves enter the palace and hear the words of the king from his own mouth.

But under the New Covenant God throws open the gates of the palace and all of his people can themselves enter (Hebrews 10:19). Thus, each of God’s subjects can hear God’s word from his own lips. Under this new arrangement, there still remains a role for the prophet. When a king chooses a messenger from among his people, he provides that person with both a message and with the authority to proclaim the message publicly. The many subjects who can now enter the palace can hear a message directly from God, but he does not confer upon them the authority to publicly proclaim the message. The prophet then retains a unique function in declaring publicly the word of the Lord. For instance, let us say that the king has a message to declare to all of his subjects in a particular province. Many individual subjects can come into the presence of the king. But he will not speak to all of them about the message he has for that province. Probably he will speak to most of his subjects about matters which refer to them individually. Perhaps he will tell some of them, “I am about to send this message to the province.” But it would be inappropriate for those subjects to return to the province, mount the royal grandstand, and proclaim that the king says “such and such.” The king did not ask or authorize those people to act as his official messenger. He entrusts that specific task to his appointed messengers.

Of course it is a mistake to carry such analogies too far. There are important differences between God’s dealings with his people and this royal messenger illustration, differences which I will point out later. For the moment, this example can serve to illustrate some aspects of the change from the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament prophets. The prophet in the New Testament is less prominent than the prophet in the Old Testament, but the relationship to God as a divine messenger is preserved, and the prophet retains an important role The language of the messenger bringing God’s word remains “Thus says the Holy Spirit “ (Acts 21:11)

There are two other differences between prophecy in the Old Testament and prophecy in the New Testament which should be pointed out. First of all, there is a sense in which every Christian is a prophet. Every Christian knows (or should know) the preeminent message of God to men and women, that God has come in the flesh in Jesus Christ and that through his death, resurrection, and ascension there is salvation for all who believe. Further, every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit, and can proclaim the message of salvation in the Holy Spirit. For this reason, many – especially in the Protestant tradition – have equated evangelism or preaching with prophecy. It is true that both evangelism and preaching are in an accommodated sense prophetic, but that does not mean they are equivalent to the charismatic gift of prophecy. Nonetheless, it is proper to claim a prophetic role for all the Christian people in their ongoing announcement of the good news of salvation.

Second, while Old Testament prophets were not infallible in their prophesying, their writings are now canonical, and thus have an authority no Christian prophecy can have. Christian prophecy must be regarded as a fallible vehicle of revelation. We can be wrong. And if Christian prophecy is fallible, there is a bit of a danger in writing it down. I am not against ever writing down charismatic prophecy, but I do believe we should be very cautious about it. Prophecy in written form seems to take on a weight of authority which it does not have when spoken. The mere writing of it seems to “canonize” it. Therefore. written copies of charismatic prophecy should be handled carefully. See the fuller discussion of this in Chapter Eight.

Four characteristic functions of Christian prophecy can be used to demonstrate the importance of the gift.

Initiates the action of God

Prophets frequently initiate the action of God among God’s people. Though it is possible for all Christians to hear the voice of the Lord, we very often do not hear God speaking to all of us personally about his will and his plan. Sometimes we fail to hear the Lord because we are not attentive, or because distracting thoughts or personal problems cloud our minds. Very often too, God simply elects to speak to us through his prophets. We have no reason to believe that the Lord spoke to anyone but Agabus about the famine which afflicted the Roman empire in A.D. 49-50. Yet the disciples were stirred to action by this prophetic message and undertook famine relief for Christians in Judea (Acts 11:27-30).

In a very similar way, the Lord spoke through prophecy to a group of Christians in Beirut, Lebanon during the civil war in the fall of 1975, telling them to leave their homes and take refuge temporarily in the United States. Prior to that time, they had all felt they should remain in Beirut despite the fierce fighting which racked the city. Shortly after their departure their section of the city came under heavy attack, and the building they had lived in was bombed.

Awakens God’s people to hear his word

Prophets can awaken God’s people to hear his word. When John prophesied to the church at Sardis that they should “awake and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death,” he was trying to shake them from a slumber that was taking their very life. It was not that the Christians at Sardis could not have heard that word themselves; they just did not hear it. I recall a time some years ago in a covenant community when we seemed to be losing our vitality. We did not very often speak about what the Lord was saying to us or where he was leading us. Then the Lord spoke to us through prophecy: “Repent and restore me to the center of your attention where I ought to be.” We seemed to wake up and take notice of our growing apathy. The ability which we all had to hear and respond to God’s word was stirred up, and soon we were all once again hearing the Lord and experiencing his action. The prophetic word opened our ears and ignited a desire in our hearts to seek and to find God’s will for us.

Proclaims God’s word publicly

The prophetic word is a public word. It focuses our attention as a group on the message which the Lord wants us to hear. If we are to respond to the Lord communally, his word has to be presented to us publicly. Prophecy is not the only way in which the word of the Lord can be made public, but very often prophecy is the means which God will choose to draw our common attention to the word which he wants us to hear.

Unleashes the power of the Holy Spirit

Through the gift of prophecy the power of the Holy Spirit, at work in the word of God, is unleashed among us. When someone speaks prophetically, the Holy Spirit is at work both in the person who speaks and in all of those who hear. This is a very important truth, and a key to understanding the power of the prophetic word: when God speaks things happen. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all of their host by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6).

God’s word is a word of power and authority. When the Lord, in the vision of Ezekiel, made the valley of dry ‘ones a living army, he did it through the word which Ezekiel spoke. A very real spiritual power abides in the prophetic word, a power that can change people. It can change the course of nature and of history: “Behold, I make my words in your mouth a fire, and this people is the wood that it shall devour!” (Jeremiah 5:14).

The speaking of the prophetic word itself brings into action the power of God.6 Four years ago during a meeting of our covenant community, one of the leaders stood up and said, “I believe that the Lord has shown me that there is a man present here who is living in sin.” He went on to describe the circumstances of the man’s life, and told him that he could, right at that moment, turn to God and receive forgiveness and the power to change. At the end of the meeting a young man rose and told us all that he was the individual the Lord had spoken to. He changed his life and became a Christian at that moment. He had heard of Christianity many times before, but when the word of the Lord came directly to him, he experienced an immediate change of heart and a desire to live as a Christian. The prophetic word changed him.

The Purposes of Prophecy

God sends his word for a purpose, to accomplish something in the world:

For just as from the heavens
the rain and the snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to him who sows
and bread to him who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth.
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11

There are four distinct purposes for which God gives the prophetic gift to the church.

Encouragement. Most often God’s word through prophecy is a message of encouragement or exhortation. Paul lists encouragement as one of the benefits of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:3), and Acts 15:32 records the prophets Judas and Silas “encouraging and strengthening” the believers at Antioch.

Encouragement, in the New Testament sense, is intended to revive a person’s spirits, to strengthen or give hope to someone. All of God’s people at times run into difficulty or opposition, and at those times need to hear that God is with them, that he will help them, that he loves them. An excellent example of prophecy sent by God to encourage can be found in the book of Haggai. The Jews returning from exile to Jerusalem had begun to rebuild the city and its temple, but pressure from sur rounding enemies had soon caused them to cease Eighteen years later the Lord’s words of encouragement through his messenger Haggai fired them to return to the work: 

“Haggai, the messenger of Yahweh, passed on the message of Yahweh to the people, as follows, ‘I am with you – it is Yahweh who speaks.’ And Yahweh roused the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, high commissioner of Judah, the spirit of Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and set to work on the temple of Yahweh Sabaoth their God”.

Haggai 1:13-15

Many of the prophetic messages which we hear are as simple and unspectacular as the message which God addressed to the Israelites through Haggai: “I am with you, says the Lord.” And yet a simple word like that, received with faith, can be profoundly encouraging. It is only a simple expression of concern and support, but the speaker is God.

Conviction, admonition, correction. The Holy Spirit will reveal to us our sin, so that we can turn away from sin and be freed from its tyranny. In this aspect of his work, the Holy Spirit can be likened to the defense attorney in a trial. Let’s say a man is on trial for armed robbery. There are, in most legal proceedings, two people who will point out to him his wrongdoing. The prosecuting attorney will expose the defendant’s wrongdoing of armed robbery in order to secure his punishment. The defense attorney, on the other hand, will also point out to the defendant where he has done wrong in committing the robbery, not in order to condemn him, but in order to save him. Satan, “the accuser,” corresponds in this analogy to the attorney for the prosecution; his goal is our condemnation. But the Holy Spirit, like the attorney for the defense, reveals our sin so that we might escape condemnation.

In Isaiah, the Lord says, “A voice shall sound in your ears: ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or the left” (Isaiah 30:3 1). In other words, God will let us know when we do wrong, and will warn us when we are about to do wrong, so that we can escape from the deception and the power of sin. Through the gift of prophecy that voice sounds in our ears: “… put away from yourselves your anger, your jealousy, your irritability…” “Turn your hearts back to me…” 

Prophetic admonition or correction can be directed to either groups or individuals. Several months ago a young married couple, who had not been Christians, began to come to our community meetings. They were seeking God, but were not convinced that he could be found in Christianity. They were also being troubled by jealousy and animosity in their own relationship. During one of the first meetings they attended, the husband was feeling great doubt that Christianity held out any hope for him at all. He silently offered an almost despairing prayer, asking for some sign that God could be found among Christians. At the very moment he concluded that prayer, another young man stood to speak: “I believe that God has shown me a young married couple present at this meeting tonight” (there were about six hundred people at the meeting).  “These people are seeking God, but are encountering doubt and confusion. Furthermore, they are having difficulty in their own relationship because of anger and jealousy.” He went on to tell them, in the name of the Lord, that if they forgave one another and trusted in God, God would reveal himself to them and strengthen their marriage. Of course, the young husband was thunderstruck. This person had perfectly described their situation, and offered a solution at the very moment he had asked for it. The young man who spoke to them in prophecy had neither met them nor ever heard of them. That young couple heeded God’s word, repented of their anger with one another, and are now living happily as Christians.

Inspiration. Very often prophecy will function in the Christian community as a source of inspiration. When the gift functions in this way, the Holy Spirit is primarily doing something to people through prophecy rather than primarily operating through speech, although something will always be said. In that sense, inspirational prophecy is not so much concerned with communicating information as with evoking a response.

Frequently people have commented to mc that they are troubled because they do not always remember what has been said in prophecy at a community meeting. That is a problem only when the Lord is intent upon giving us direction or telling us something specific. Most of the time, however, the intention of the Holy Spirit is simply to lead the community in a worshipful response to God. At those times, the important thing is to respond to God, not to remember the exact words of the prophecy. Prophecy seemed to occupy the prominent place in the worship of the early church (see Didache 10). The gift enabled the prophet to lead the people in praise and thanksgiving. I have seen the value of prophecy for worship in many Christian groups. It brings the Holy Spirit into the group in a powerful way. Literally, it inspires people.

In 1 Chronicles 25:3 we read of prophets participating in the solemn worship of Yahweh. There is reason to believe that at least some sections of the psalms are prophetic oracles which originated in ritual worship (for example, Psalms 46:11; 81:6-17). Often in charismatic worship I have heard prophetic exhortations much like that of Melito:

So then come here all you families of men, weighed down by your sins.
And receive pardon for your misdeeds. For I am your pardon.
I am the Passover which brings salvation. I am the lamb slain for you.
I am your lustral bath. I am your life. I am your resurrection.
I am your light, I am your salvation, I am your king.
It is I who bring you up to the heights of heaven.
It is I who give you resurrection there.
I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up with my own right hand.7

After a prophetic exhortation like that, spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit, our worship of God can be taken to new heights.

Guidance. All through the Scriptures, we read of God speaking to his people to guide them into his ways. Sometimes his guidance was very general: he revealed his plan for salvation and gave men and women a way of knowing him and following him in all ages. But at times that guidance was very specific, even to the point of telling Israel what political alliances to make or warning someone that he or she would die within a year unless there was repentance for serious wrongdoing (Jeremiah 28:16). In the time after Jesus, God spoke through prophecy and warned of a famine (Acts 11:27-30.). Many people also believe that the Lord used prophecy to warn the Christians in Jerusalem about the impending destruction of the city by the Romans, so that before the city was actually destroyed all the Christians moved to the nearby town of Pella. The guidance received by Christians in Beirut which I described earlier is a modern day counterpart to the story of the Christians in Jerusalem.

The guidance which we receive from God can apply to important directional questions as well as to specific individual needs. Peter received prophetic guidance concerning the salvation of the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-16), and Paul states that it was in part through prophets that he received his gospel for the Gentiles (Ephesians 3:5).

The Christian people today need guidance from God as much as they ever did. The difficulties and questions which confront those who are trying to spread the gospel are formidable, in fact insurmountable, unless God provides the means to overcome them. The gift of prophecy is one of the most important means by which God can guide and direct us, and we should not be without it.

On several occasions I have been involved in planning meetings in which prophetic guidance played a decisive role. On one occasion, for example, the group I was working with had no clear sense of direction for its work. We stopped for a few moments and prayed. During those few moments, one person present spoke in prophecy. The words were straightforward direction for our meeting: “Put your own relationships in order first.” The “relationships” in question were not simply personal relationships, but work relationships as well. The prophecy was directed at our practical needs. We resumed our discussion and followed out the directive to “put our relationships in order.” The results were spectacular. From that discussion flowed a clear, practical direction which has since molded the whole life of a particular community.

Relying on prophecy for guidance can create problems if we expect that every decision we face will be made for us in a prophecy. We could adopt the attitude that we do not have to think about things ourselves, because if we wait long enough the answer will be given prophetically. But the desire to avoid this abuse is no reason to avoid prophecy altogether. The help which we see prophets giving in the Old Testament is still available in the New; when we face an important decision we can ask the prophets if they have a word from the Lord. Old Testament prophets did not “guarantee” that they would receive a word from the Lord if they were asked about something, but they did have expectant faith that if God’s people sincerely wished to know his ways, he would not withhold his word from them. Often the Lord will use prophecy to guide us into his ways when we are not expecting it. Sometimes when we do expect prophetic guidance the Lord will not speak prophetically. But if we have faith that God will give us guidance, he will, and some of that guidance will come through prophecy.

All in all, the access to the mind of the Lord which the gift of prophecy provides is a powerful, valuable resource. Valuable enough that we should all, as Paul encourages us, “set your hearts on spiritual gifts – above all, the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1).

1.      Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamston (Baltimore, Md.: Penguin, 1965), Book V, 16, 218-19.

2.      Eusebius, The History of the Church, Book V, 17.

3.      Cf. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, vol. II (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), chapters eight and nine.

4.      Heschel, The Prophets, 207.  Bruce Vawter, “Introduction to Prophetic Literature,” The Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmeyer, and Roland Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 227, 234.

5.      Heschel, The Prophets, 207.

6.      Vawter, “Introduction to Prophetic Literature,” 237.

7.    See chapter one.

This article is excerpted from Prophecy: Exercising the Prophetic Gifts of the Spirit in the Church Today, Chapter 3, by Bruce Yocum, © 1976, 1993 The Servants of the Word. Revised edition published in 1993 by Servant Publications.

Top photo: Bruce Yocum delivers a prophecy at the Charismatic Renewal Conference held in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica in May 1975. Source: New Covenant Magazine, Volume 5, No. 1, July 1975.

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