Regenerated by the Spirit of God


Rev. Martin Vogel, Independent Christian Reformed Church of Ancaster, Ontario, Canada. 1996.


Acts 9 : 1 - 22

1 Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
2 and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven.
4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?"
5 And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" Then the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads."
6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, "Lord, what do You want me to do?" Then the Lord said to him, "Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.
8 Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord."
11 So the Lord said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying.
12 And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight."
13 Then Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem.
14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name."
15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.
16 For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake."
17 And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
18 Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.
19 So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damacus.
20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.
21 Then all who heard were amazed, and said, "Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?"
22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ.


The Bible teaches that through the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, our nature has become so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin. Sin has corrupted us to such an extent that we are wholly incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil.[1] The apostle Paul said in Romans 3:10-12, "There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one." Since the fall of Adam, the human race has been fatally damaged. The whole man is damaged - body and soul, mind, heart and will. In Reformed theology we speak of this as the doctrine of total depravity. Man is not just sick with sin; he is dead in sin. He is totally sinful in his intellect, affections, and will. Scripture says, "The carnal mind is hostile to God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God." In order to please God we need to be radically changed. There is no hope for us whatsoever, unless God makes us a new creature. We are incapable of doing any spiritual good unless we are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Jesus said, "You must be born again."

Well, Saul of Tarsus came to know what this was all about. By sovereign grace the Lord took hold of him and transformed him. From a violent persecutor of Christians he became a preacher, missionary, theologian, leader, soldier of Christ, and perhaps the greatest contender for the faith that this world has ever seen, next to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Saul of Tarsus was regenerated by the Spirit of God.

From Acts 9:1-22, I would have you focus on 4 things:

(1) The antagonism to Christ, in verses 1-2.
(2) The encounter with Christ, in verses 3-9.
(3) The guidance of Christ, in verses 10-19.
(4) The commitment to Christ, in verses 20-22.

(1) As you may know, the apostle Paul had not always been a great preacher and teacher of the gospel. For a time in his life he was very antagonistic to Jesus Christ.

Saul was born in Tarsus, which, at that time, was an important city in the Roman province of Cilicia. His father was a Pharisee. His father must have been a rather devout Pharisee for he saw to it that Saul study in Jerusalem, under one of the greatest rabbis of his day - a man named Gamaliel. Saul proved himself to be an excellent student. In Galations 1 he said that he advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries in his own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers. In his youth, Saul was well educated and well trained to be a faithful pharisee.

The first time Saul's name is mentioned in Scripture is in Acts 7, in connection with the stoning of Stephen. The witnesses, who were the first to cast the stones, laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul, and Saul was consenting to his death. Saul must have heard Stephen debating with the Jews, and he had no use for him. Stephen spoke of salvation through Jesus Christ. As far as Saul was concerned this Jesus Christ was an imposter, a false, self-proclaimed Messiah who went about deceiving people. No, Saul had no use for Jesus Christ. Because Stephen preached Christ, he was considered to be a heretic worthy of death.

Following the death of Stephen, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem and believers were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. The leader of this persecution was Saul of Tarsus. Because he was a devout Pharisee he actually thought that by persecuting believers he was offering service to God (John 16:2). We read in Acts 8:3 that Saul "made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison." Equipped with authority from the chief priests, he went about hunting Christians. He went from house to house, very thoroughly rooting out Christians. He did his job with great zeal and persistent diligence. The chief priests must have been very proud of him. The Jerusalem church was scattered under his attacks.

As chapter 9 opens we read that Saul was "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord." Stamping out Christianity had become the goal and focus of his life. Ever since the death of Stephen he took it upon himself to destroy the church and the followers of Christ. Saul was filled with inner hatred. Everything he thought, said, and did, was controlled by his desire to destroy Christianity. The air that he breathed was that of threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord (disciples here meaning believers). Having made havoc of the church in Jerusalem, successfully scattering the members, Saul decided to continue his mission elsewhere. Hearing of a group of Christians in Damascus, Saul decided to make that his next target. Verses 1 and 2 say that he went to the High Priest and "asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem." The High Priest was the head of the Sanhedrin, and was therefore granted a certain amount of authority by the Romans. The High Priest had the power to issue warrants for arrests of Christians in Damascus. Saul therefore went to the High Priest for this official documentation, which I'm sure the High Priest was more than happy to grant.

Notice how brutal Saul was. He didn't care if they were men or women. His plan was to bring them bound to Jerusalem. To walk from Damascus to Jerusalem took about 5 or 6 days, being approximately 150 miles. Saul was going to take women from their families, husbands from their wives, parents from their children, and drive them like cattle for 5 or 6 days from Damascus to Jerusalem. He didn't care if lives were destroyed, families were broken, and marriages were torn apart. His single focus was to bring a halt to this spreading Christianity. These people of "The Way", as they were called, followers of Jesus who claimed to be "The Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6) - these people of "The Way" had to be stopped.

You see, my friends, Saul was very religious. He was exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures, he knew the Law and the Prophets - but he was unregenerate. He was dead in trespasses and sins. What he thought were good works in the eyes of God, were evil works. Instead of a servant of God, he was a servant of Satan. He was born in the covenant, circumcised the eighth day, and observed the law as a faithful Pharisee - but he was living in spiritual darkness; dead in sin. Saul in his spiritual blindness missed the whole point of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Old Testament Scriptures all pointed to Jesus Christ (Luke 24:25-27). Saul was circumcised externally, but not internally. His circumcision should have been to him a seal of the righteousness of faith - faith in Jesus Christ. His circumcision should have pointed him to the need for the circumcision of the heart. Saul was zealous for religious traditions, but he was unregenerate and antagonistic to Jesus Christ.

This can also happen in the church today. Someone can be born and raised in the church, and marked with the sign of the covenant in baptism; he may be zealous for the traditions of his fathers, and yet be unregenerate. Just like Saul, we can have a false security in the covenant without faith in Jesus Christ. How dangerous this can be in the church!

(2) By God's grace Saul was delivered from this life of religious deception. As he made his way to Damascus he was stopped dead in his tracks. We read in verse 3 that suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. As the light shone around him from heaven, Saul and his travelling companions fell to the ground (Acts 26:14). There are those who have tried to explain this experience as being the result of an epileptic seizure or sunstroke. Clearly, this was not the case. The account in Acts 22 and 26 record the fact that it was not only Saul, but also those who travelled with him who saw the light and fell to the ground. No, this was not a fit of epilepsy or sunstroke, it was an encounter with the risen Jesus Christ. In Acts 26, Paul says that he saw a light that was brighter than the sun. Jesus appeared to him in great glory! Saul, the bold, fearless, hardened persecutor of Christians was driven to the dust in terror!

As he lay there prostrate on the ground he heard a voice saying to him,"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" What a frightening, disturbing, and penetrating question that must have been for Saul, "Why are you persecuting Me?" Saul said, "Who are you Lord?" Then the Lord said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." Jesus? The imposter? The false Messiah? The trouble-maker? What a life-shattering revelation this must have been! At this very moment Saul's whole world collapsed. Everything he had learned, and believed, and fought for, crumbled at this encounter with Christ. What a devastating moment this must have been as he discovered that his enemy, Jesus Christ, was in fact the Lord! Stephen was right after all! The Christians in Jerusalem were right after all! Saul was fighting for the wrong side! Jesus was alive, raised from the dead, exalted in glory. Christianity was true! The Gospel was true! The crucified Christ is indeed the Lord!

It is hard to imagine what must have raced through Saul's mind as he lay in the dust before Jesus Christ. "How could I have been so deceived? How could I be so foolish? How could I be so blind? How could I be so ignorant?" By persecuting Christians, Saul was inflicting blows directly on Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ identifies Himself with His people, "Why are you persecuting Me?" Every arrest that Saul made on earth was an attack against Christ in Heaven. Every evil word spoken to believers on earth was an evil word against Christ in Heaven. Every stone against Stephen was a stone against Christ. Every home broken into was an assault upon Christ. Saul had not just been sinning against believers, but against Christ the Lord.

The risen Lord said to him, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads." For all this time, Saul had been like an unwilling ox who kicks back only to feel the pain of the sharp goads. When the ox kicks back, in stubborn disobedience, it leads to pain. For all his life Saul had been fighting against God, and it resulted in pain. A life apart from Jesus Christ is a difficult life, a painful life. Until Jesus confronted him, he continued to kick against the goads.

But now Saul's resistance was crushed. He was broken by his Lord. He was overcome by the guilt of his crimes and the weight of his sin. Look at verse 6: "So he, trembling and astonished, said, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" In fear and trembling he surrendered himself to the Christ that he once hated. He submitted himself in reverential awe to the Lord Jesus Christ. Trembling and astonished, he said, "What do you want me to do?" He had no other option but to devote his life to the Lord Jesus Christ, the living glorious Lord. Here we see, my friends, the evidence of true conversion. One who is brought from death to life surrenders his will to the will of Christ. One who is born-again by the Spirit of God gives himself to serve Jesus Christ. One who is truly regenerated is willing to leave his old life forever behind him, in order to serve the Master.

"Lord, what do you want me to do?" Dear reader, have you ever asked that of the Lord? Have you ever come to that profound awareness of your sin? Have you ever realized the enormity of your guilt before God? Perhaps you have never persecuted believers, as Saul did, but your sin is also worthy of hell. Have you fallen in reverential awe before Jesus Christ, and said, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" "Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee." "Lord, I don't want to kick against the goads. I don't want to live in stubborn rebellion against Your will. Lord, what do you want me to do?" Have you surrendered your will to the will of Christ in that way?

Saul was broken. He was crushed. A broken and a contrite heart God will not despise (Psalm 51:17). The Lord did not destroy him for his sin, but rather he told him to "arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." God was going to use this man in a wonderful and mighty way. God would reveal His will to him in the city of Damascus.

Now, while all this was going on, we read in verse 7 that "the men who journeyed with him stood speechless hearing a voice but seeing no one." Acts 26 says that they had all fallen to the ground when they saw the brilliance of the light. Now they stood speechless. They heard a voice, but they were not able to understand the words that were spoken. Notice the particularity of God's Grace. Of this group of men the Lord Jesus Christ singled out one man - Saul - as the object of His grace. God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. Saul was no better than the others. He was the ring-leader. He later referred to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Yet, God chose him as the special object of His mercy. No wonder Paul would later write with such fondness of the electing grace of God, having chosen His own in Christ from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1). Paul came to understand the privilege of being a recipient of God's electing love.

And so we read in verse 8 that "Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus." Saul's entry into the city of Damascus was very different than what he had planned. Instead of entering as the bold and fearless persecutor of Christians, he entered as a helpless blind man being led by the hand. He was in the city of Damascus three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. He had three days without any distractions to contemplate his encounter with Christ. He had time to meditate, to restructure his thinking, and to pray. What a remarkable turn of events this was. He who had come to battle the Christian faith was himself conquered by the Christian faith. He who had gone to Damascus to make prisoners was himself a prisoner in his blindness. For three days he fasted. For three days he communed with God. For three days he considered what the Lord would have him do. Physically he was blind, but spiritually he was now able to see. He was brought from death into life. The encounter with Christ was the great turning point in his life.

(3) We come, then, to consider the third point, namely, the guidance of Christ. We have seen the antagonism to Christ, and the encounter with Christ; now the guidance of Christ.

Saul was not left on his own in the city of Damascus. While he was in darkness for three days the Lord was preparing the way for him to be received into the Christian church, which he had hoped to destroy. The exalted Christ was guiding the way. Verse 10 says that there was a certain disciple in Damascus named Ananias. Acts 22:12 describes him as a "devout man", and "well spoken of by all the Jews." Ananias was a godly man, perhaps one of the leaders in the church of Damascus. If he was one of the leaders of the church, he would have been one of Saul's first victims. Ironically, it is this very man that Jesus appointed to go to Saul. We read in verses 10-12 that the Lord appeared to him in a vision and said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight."

While Saul was fasting in his blindness, meditating upon his Damascus road experience, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke to Ananias and gave him a task to do. What an incredible test this must have been for Ananias. Saul of Tarsus was widely known for his violence against the church. He was greatly feared. Imagine how Ananias must have felt when the Lord gave him this message, "Arise and go to the house of Judas and inquire for one called Saul of Tarsus." The Lord told Ananias that Saul was praying. He was pouring his heart out to the Lord. He also told Ananias about His vision to Saul. The Lord had informed Saul, in a vision, that Ananias was coming to restore his sight.

Nevertheless, Ananias was understandably reluctant. Verse 13 says, "then Ananias answered, 'Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.'" The church in Damascus had heard all about Saul's persecution in Jerusalem. When the Christians fled from Jerusalem, some of them probably ended up in Damascus. Therefore, the Christian community in Damascus was fully aware of the danger. It would appear that what the Lord was asking of Ananias was suicidal. To go to the home where Saul was staying was like walking into a death trap. I trust that any one of us would be reluctant.

But the Lord overruled the objection of Ananias with the words of verses 15 and 16. The Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake." God said to Ananias, "I have chosen him. I have chosen him for a special task. The man that you fear is going to bear the gospel you love. The man that you fear is going to preach the gospel of salvation. He is going to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles. He is going to preach Christ before kings. He is going to preach Christ to the children of Israel."

If you follow the life of the apostle Paul you see that these words were perfectly fulfilled. Paul became the great apostle to the Gentile world. In his epistles he often states his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He also testified before kings; King Agrippa, and perhaps even Caesar. And on numerous occasions he had opportunity to address the Jews. And as he proclaimed the Word, you know how much he suffered. His suffering did not end until he died. Already, shortly after his conversion, his suffering began as the Jews plotted to kill him in this very chapter. Saul, who had persecuted others, would himself be persecuted. Saul, who hated others, would himself be hated.

Well, Ananias obeyed the word of the Lord and went to the street called Straight, and found the house of Judas where Saul was residing. Verse 17 says, "He entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.'" Isn't this a very striking scene? Saul, who had come to lay his hands upon believers to harm them, instead has the hands of a believer layed upon him to heal him. He had planned to lay hands on Christians to arrest them. Instead, the hands of a Christian are layed upon him to restore him to health. Rather than the Christians being hurt under Saul's persecuting hands, Saul is helped under a Christian's healing hands. The ones that he hated have come to help him.

And notice how Ananias addressed this feared persecutor of the church. In verse 17 he said to him, "Brother Saul." Brother Saul? Is this man a brother? This man who assisted in killing the children of God? Brother Saul? This man who scattered the church in Jerusalem? At this very moment he may have still had the documents in his pocket, granting permission from the High Priest to arrest Christians. And yet, Ananias calls him "Brother". Instead of despising him, Ananias accepted him, and welcomed him as a true brother in Christ. Saul was adopted into the family of God. Through the regenerating power of God he was made a son, and thus a brother of Ananias. How it must have touched Saul's heart to hear Ananias call him "Brother".

Furthermore, Ananias not only promised that Saul would regain his sight, but verse 17 says that he would also be "filled with the Holy Spirit." The Holy Spirit was already present in Saul's life on the road to Damascus. It was the Holy Spirit who convicted him of sin. It was the Holy Spirit that brought about regeneration. It was the Holy Spirit that caused him to say, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" It was the Holy Spirit that drove him to prayer and fasting for three days. But now the Holy Spirit is promised to come upon him in order to equip and empower him for service. The Holy Spirit would equip him in a unique way, so that he might faithfully serve his Lord.

As Ananias laid his hands upon Saul, immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized (verse 18). By receiving baptism Saul openly identified himself with the people that he had formerly persecuted and despised. He also openly identified himself with the Name of Jesus Christ. He was baptized into the Name of the triune God; the Father who adopted him, the Son who purchased him, and the Holy Spirit who converted him and dwelt in him. And following his baptism, Saul immediately joined in the fellowship of the believers. Verse 19 says, "And when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus."

What wonderful days they must have been, both for Saul, as well as for the church in Damascus! After overcoming their fear of him they must have rejoiced in the Grace of God! How they must have celebrated his conversion! What overwhelming joy there must have been in the salvation of this seemingly unsavable sinner. What an encouragement of the Lord to this once fearful church!

How gracious is the Lord our God! He saves the unsavable. He redeems the unredeemable. He is able to take the most unlikely candidate, and drive him to his knees. He is able to do this also today. If you are a believer with a rebellious son or daughter or neighbour or husband or wife, you may give up hope, but God is able to bring them to their knees. He takes sinners and molds them and shapes them as a potter shapes a vessel for his own purpose. And then he uses that vessel for His own Glory!

(4) In verses 20-22 we see how the Lord immediately began to use Saul in a positive way. His commitment to Christ was instantly evident. Being transformed by the Grace of God he could not help but speak of it. Verse 20 tells us, "Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God." Of all places he went to the synagogues! In verse 2 of this chapter he asked for letters from the High Priest, that he could present at the synagogues of Damascus, authorizing him to arrest Christians. Now, instead of coming to the synagogues with warrants for the arrest of believers, Paul came to the synagogues with the arresting message of the gospel. He preached that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

The result of his preaching was that "all who heard were amazed, and said, "Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?"" (verse 21). The whole community was shocked at the radical change in this man. He expounded the Old Testament in a whole new light. He proclaimed Christ as the central message of the Old Testament. As the people listened to him they wondered: Is this the same man? Is this the same Saul of Tarsus? Is this the same ardent defendent of Judaism? The people of Damascus could not comprehend the transformation in this man. With the same energy that he once opposed Christianity, he now defended and promoted Christianity. Having been its greatest opponent, he became its greatest promoter.

We read in verse 22 that "Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ." Being filled with the Holy Spirit, Saul increased in strength. All his former education was now used for the advancement of the gospel; the truth of salvation in Jesus Christ the Messiah. No one was able to stand against him. No one was able to match his grasp of Scripture. No one was able to prove him in error. No one was able to challenge the truth. Having been regenerated by the Spirit of God Saul could not help but proclaim the glorious message of salvation through faith in Christ.

Now dear reader, if you have come to understand the forgiveness of your sins through Jesus Christ, then your commitment to Him must become clearly evident to those around you. Your commitment to Christ must become clearly visible in your works. It must become evident that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. People need to see the difference in your life, that you are regenerated by the Spirit of God.

You have not had a dramatic encounter with Christ, as Saul did on the road to Damascus. Saul was chosen as an apostle, and therefore he had to have seen the risen Christ - that was one of the marks of an apostle (1 Corinthians 9:1 ; 15:8 ; Acts 1:22). But, even though you have not seen the risen Christ personally, it is the same Spirit who transformed Saul that also works in his people today. It is the Spirit of Christ that brings sinners from death to life; from darkness to light.

If you do not know the transforming power of the Spirit in your life, plead with the Lord, that He might dwell with you. Jesus said, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!" (Luke 11:13)

Then ask Him! Ask Him for the Spirit! Ask Him to transform you as a useful vessel to the glory of God, that your works might be pleasing to Him. You might never be a great preacher or missionary as Paul was, but the Lord will nevertheless use you as the Spirit controls you. He will use you in your home, church, community, and at the job. As He uses you, you might experience suffering for the Name of Christ. You might experience opposition and rejection. You might experience hatred on account of the Word. But God will guide you every step of the way! As He led the apostle Paul, so He will lead you.

Then trust in Him. Walk with Him. And offer yourself to His service saying, "Lord, what do you want me to do? Lord, what do you want me to do? Here I am! Use me as your servant. Use me to the honour of your name."


Endnotes:

[1] Lord's Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism - Question and Answer 7 and 8

Where does man's corrupt nature come from?
From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise. (Genesis 3) This fall has so poisoned our nature (Romans 5:12-19), that we are born sinners - corrupt from conception on. (Psalm 51:5)

But are we so evil and corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good, and inclined toward all evil?
Yes (Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Job 14:4; Isaiah 53:6), unless we are born again, by the Spirit of God. (John 3:3-5)


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