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Bible Commentaries

Parker's The People's BibleParker's The People's Bible

- Acts

by Joseph Parker


THIS study of Apostolic Life is intended as a sequel to the author's Inner Life of Christ, as revealed in the Gospel of Matthew.

A wonderful record, truly, is the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. Here, all is movement, progress, controversy, and spiritual conquest; the church rears its marvellous form amidst the tumults of the world's most exciting history; and names rise almost visibly out of social obscurity into the noblest fame known to human society. The book may be compared very variously, but not the least pertinently to a battle-field, in which the contest lies between a feebleness socially contemptible, and a strength socially imperial and invincible. How the battle proceeds, the book itself must tell. This is the book which modern church-builders should specially and profoundly study, if they would work in harmony with the purpose of Him who is the sure and only Corner-stone. By such study they will come back to the truth that the Christian Church is not a man-built castle, grand with the petty vanity of mortal ambition, and resonant with the discord of rival successes, but a house not made with hands, a temple set up in quietness, but so set up that it can never be thrown down. Men may build their showy ecclesiasticisms and boast loudly of statistical position, and in the very act of apparent worship may profane the sanctuary of God. That the church must have a visible representation no student of the Acts of the Apostles can deny; neither can it be denied, that visibleness, however broad and lustrous, cannot represent the whole secret the inner and infinite life of Christ's blood-bought and inspired church. That church must always be the mystery of human association, and the truest seal of human brotherhood. The church is, in my view, much larger than many persons seem to suppose. In this respect, as in all others, God's thought is higher than ours, so high that no wordy argument can persuade the minds that doubt it, yet so certain that the issue, with all its glory, must be left to the Providence which we conceal by the name of Time.

I cannot be too thankful that in working out my ministry I was led to undertake this sacred study, for here I have found all the excitement of historic action combined with all the solemn revelation of spiritual doctrine, and have thus been enabled to awaken and gratify the attention of many who could not have been reached by one or other of these characteristics alone. The popular mind is not strongly disposed towards doctrinal study, and is perhaps less so today than ever, hence the supreme advantage of introducing it in connexion with the development of a history often rising into the sublimest passion in its heroism and sacrifice. Whilst thus endeavoring to awaken interest in Christian docrine, I have made no attempt to find a formal theology in apostolic preaching. No such theology is there to be found. The supposed finding of it anywhere has been the heaviest Cross which the Risen Christ has had to carry, and the greatest hindrance to the extension of His reign. Theology is as indefinable as Life. It admits of multitudinous expression, and like Inspiration itself must take the colour of the individual soul that receives it. As Theology deals with the Infinite it cannot admit of complete and final statement in words. There is always a nameless quantity beyond. An infinite theology should create an infinite charity, yet probably there is less charity in theology than in any other subject of human thought, a fact which involves the greatest contradiction possible in human action. It appears to me, with increasing distinctness, that the only radical cure for this mischief is a close study of Apostolic methods and a zealous return to their practice. The Apostles preached Jesus and the Resurrection. What need have we to preach more? What more, indeed, is it possible for any man to preach? Closely considered, all that is noblest in prophecy, all that is deepest in history, all that is purest in morals, is involved in the topic Jesus and the Resurrection! By these facts themselves, and not by any interpretation of them are the souls of men to be saved. We are bewildered by interpretations. The reason is that interpretations return upon themselves, and by a kind of self-consciousness are always seeking to amend and refine their own expression. The sophism which underlies all this formal and standard theology is Surely it is possible to say in words what we believe in thought. No! Not where the subject thought about is itself infinite. We can offer suggestions; we can point out beginnings; we can compare one aspect of human consciousness with another; but beyond this we cannot move, because as no arm can reach the horizon, so no word can embrace and symbolize the immeasurable circumference of Truth. Are we to be left then, so to say, at the mercy of "suggestions" and "beginnings"? Certainly not. "Jesus and the Resurrection" are not suggestions, they are Facts, and on those facts the church stands as upon a foundation of imperishable rock. Of course, there are minds so constituted as to find themselves unable to resist such inquiries, as What do you believe about Jesus? What do you believe about the Resurrection? Such inquiries are supposed to lead to an enlightened theology and an intelligent faith. Let us take care lest an "intelligent faith" become the worst type of self-trustful rationalism, by drawing the whole emphasis into the word "intelligent" and depleting the word "faith" of its grace and force. To be saved by intelligent faith, is to be saved by works. Why should not intelligence stop at the facts, and faith go forward, as it alone can go, into mysterious and inspiring communion with God? JESUS is a greater term than any definition of Jesus; so with Resurrection, so with Atonement, so with Faith, so with every word that points towards the secret of God. When this truth is recognized there will be a great coming together of Christian thinkers, and a general lowering of standards which human hands have impiously erected.

A writer, now deceased, held in the highest reputation by all sections of the Evangelical Church, said to me, "How do you account for it that whilst the age is insisting upon the greatest definiteness and precision in science, it is becoming more and more indefinite in theology?" I did not feel the difficulty of the question then, nor do I feel it now. The two things are not to be compared. The universe is measurable, its Creator is immeasurable: that is the reason of the supposed indefiniteness of theological thought and expression. I say supposed indefiniteness, for it may not be real. It is the indefiniteness of amazement, not the indefiniteness of doubt. The thing thought about is so much larger than was at first suspected, that words are felt to be unequal to the task of definition. The man who receives a legacy of ten pounds without doubt or misgiving, might hesitate to believe that a million pounds had been bequeathed to him. The magnificence of the bequest almost paralyzes his faith. What wonder? Is it not also the same with divine things? Divine revelation may be the measure of human indefiniteness, and that indefiniteness may bring with it the greatest of all prayers "Lord increase our FAITH," that is to say, "Thy revelation is so much larger than our capacity, it shines upon us like heaven above heaven, radiant with glory unimagined, rising to intolerableness of burning splendour, that we can bear it only in proportion to the enlargement of our faith: Lord, we believe, help Thou our unbelief: Lord, increase our faith!" It is no mean gift that is offered. It is INCARNATION, God with us: RESURRECTION, Life abounding over death: ATONEMENT, Forgiveness made possible: INSPIRATION, Material words turned to spiritual uses: IMMORTALITY, The completion of the divine purpose! Let us now turn to the Acts of the Apostles, and see whether it be not so.


The City Temple,

Nov. 1 st, 1882.

The Acts of the Apostles

1. In the title the Greek MSS. present considerable variations, as for example "Acts of the Apostles;" "Acts of all the Apostles;" "Acts of the Holy Apostles;" sometimes the author's name is given, in one instance thus " Written by the Holy and Illustrious Luke, Apostle and Evangelist." Chrysostom called it "The Book, the Demonstration of the Resurrection."

2. The book is in no sense a history of the Apostles as a body. The names of the eleven occur but once. They are mentioned collectively eight times. St. John appears in three instances only.

3. The history begins at Jerusalem and ends at Rome. At the beginning the Church was but a Jewish sect, numbering 120 persons; it ends by breaking down every barrier, and including every nation.

4. The writing of the book may be referred to the 70th or 80th year of the first Christian century.

5. In the book there are seven parts:

( a ) Pentecost, with the events preceding it Ch. Acts 1-2 ( b ) The acts in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, among the Circumcised...... " Acts 3-9, Acts 3:12 ( c ) The acts in C├Žsarea, and the admission of the Gentiles..... " Acts 10-11 ( d ) The first journey of Barnabas and Saul among the Gentiles.... " Acts 13-14 ( e ) The deputation sent, and the council of Jerusalem as to the Jews and Gentiles being on the same footing... " Acts 15:0 ( f ) The second journey of Paul... " Acts 16-19 ( g ) The third journey as far as to Rome " Acts 19-28

The following material was presented at the end of Acts in the printed edition:

Chapter 108


Almighty God, speak unto us, for thou hast now given unto us the hearing ear and the understanding heart. This is thy holy gift; this, indeed, is the very miracle of grace. Our faculties are now of use; we begin to see the purpose of our creation. By thy grace in Christ Jesus, we are enabled to stand in thy light, and to see somewhat of the outline of thy truth. This is a great vision; for this we bless thee with ardent love. We knew not the great world before; but now we enter into larger spaces, and enjoy boundless liberties, and feel that we are no longer children of the earth and prisoners of time, but sons of God and born for eternity. So then we are lifted up with great elevation of thought and feeling; the world in all its littleness is far below us, and the great new sky revealed by thy grace heightens and brightens above us, and we are challenged to arise and take possession of the inheritance of the saints in light. We are no longer little in our thought and bounded in our feeling and hope: we have escaped the chain, we are captives no longer; we are out in God's boundless firmament, yet are we centred to his eternal throne. The Son has made us free; therefore are we free indeed. Thou hast shown us the meaning of the letter and led us into the liberty of the spirit. It is a glorious liberty! We feel its inspiration; we would answer all its nobleness by larger service and deeper humility. Show us that thou art the Righteous One, tempering judgment with mercy. Thou wilt not overstrain us, for our strength is but weakness; thou wilt not flash upon us the intolerable glory, but reveal thyself unto us in growing light according to our growing capacity to receive it. God is Love. Thou dost remember that we are dust; thou wilt not oppress us with burdens grievous to be borne; thou knowest that our day here is a very short one, and thou hast caused it to be shorter still, by reason of the uncertainty of our possession of it. But we look onward to the other school, where the light is brighter, where the day is nightless, where the teaching is more direct; in thy light we shall there see light, and growing knowledge shall be growing humility, and growing power shall be growing service. This is our hope, and this our confidence, so that now we are but preparing for the great issue and the grand realisation. Meanwhile, let thy Book be unto us more and more precious, thy Sabbaths filled with a tenderer light, and every opportunity to know thy truth and study thy will more critical and more urgent. May we not reckon as those who have boundless time at their command, but rather as those who are uncertain of their next pulse, who are expecting the King and must be in readiness to meet him. Thus may we live under high discipline, in the enjoyment of great delight, eager with expectancy, calm with confidence, inspired by hope, yet resting in the completeness of Divine assurance. Thus shall our life be a mystery Divine, a creation of God, an infinite apocalypse. We have come from out-of-the-way places to one home this day. We represent many dwellings, but we cling to the one house which holds us all within its hospitable embrace. This is our Father's house, where there is bread enough and to spare, where the servant may become a son and the son receive duly double assurance of his sonship. We would seize the opportunity; we would rise to the inspiration of this new hope; we would dwell within the security of thy Zion and know thy banner over us is Love. Thou hast led us by a strange way: thou hast often disappointed us, but only to enrich us with still brighter hopes; thou hast set mysteries in our families which terrified us because we found no solution of their meaning; thou hast cut the heart in two and made the life sore at every point by reason of the ingratitude of some, the stubbornness and selfishness of others; in some houses thou hast turned the day into night, and afflicted the night with sevenfold darkness. But thou art leading us all the time, chastening us, mellowing us, perfecting our hearts in the riches of thy grace and enriching us with the wealth of thy love. Others are wholly at ease: they have not known the weight of darkness, the sting of disappointment, the bitterness of unspeakable woe; and therein thou hast kept from them the highest joys. They know nothing of heavenly delights, of healing after disease, of joy after sorrow, of the song that comes in the morning which succeeds the long night of waiting. We would not change our places with them; our wounds have been the beginning of health, our distresses have been the roots of our purest joys, our disappointments have led us through crooked and thorny ways right into the light where stands the eternal throne. We will always tarry at the Cross: we can rest only there; we can read all its superscriptions, but high above them all the writing of God "Behold the Lamb, that taketh away the sins of the world." That is the writing of thine own finger; that is the Gospel of thine own heart. We read it once, and again, and still again, and as we read the light grows and the music increases, and the Lamb descends from the Cross and ascends as Intercessor into the heavens, and begins the infinite prayer of his priestly love. These are the mysteries in which we hide our littleness; these are the doors at which we wait until, opened from within, we be admitted into the inner places, the sanctuary of the heavens. Amen.

An Epitome

Today we close the Acts of the Apostles. It is not, therefore, a happy day for me. We have lived so long in the company of the great men who fill this sacred portion of the Holy Scripture that we feel as if called upon to speak a very pathetic and sad farewell. This comes of reverent familiarity with things Divine. We have not allowed the familiarity to descend into frivolity; but, having kept the sacred line of true friendship all these many days, we feel as if turning our back upon a host of friends whose comradeship we should like to have continued in all its freshness and stimulus until we enter together into the common city which is our home. Thus we leave man after man, church after church, and book after book. We no sooner begin than we end; our delight is cut off in its ecstasy, and just as our expectation begins to burn into that glad agony which the heart understands, behold, the vision ceases, and we are sent back into shadows and desert places.

Look at the Acts of the Apostles as a whole, supposing the little book to be in your hands in its unity. It is a living thing; it is like nothing but itself The Master is not in it visibly, and yet he is throbbing in every line of it influentially. It is a bush that burns. Strange looks we have seen come out of it, and voices above voices and under-voices marvellous subtleties of tone only to be explained by the Divine and supernatural element. We have studied together the Gospel by Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles; putting the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles together, what a marvellous reproduction we have of the Pentateuch! These four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles together constitute the Pentateuch of the New Testament; and if you will take the Pentateuch of Moses with the Gospel Pentateuch and compare the one with the other, you will be struck with the marvellous analogies and correspondences between the two, which, being duly connected and interpreted, constitute an illustration of what is meant by the Divine inspiration of Holy Scripture. What have we in the second Pentateuch? How did the first Pentateuch begin? With creation. How does the second Pentateuch begin? With creation. What was the first creation? The moulding of matter, the settlement and distribution of vast spaces and lights and forces. What is the second creation? A Church, a living universe men the planets; souls the burning suns, redeemed lives the great and immortal heavens. The Son is Creator as well as the Father; yea, the very old creation, the tabernacle of dust and light, the heavens and the earth these were all made for the Son, by the Son; he was before all things as he is above all things, so that in his creation a spiritual, gracious human creation he pales the little universe and puts it into its right place a mere speck upon the infinite being of God. So then we have our New Testament Pentateuch, and we cannot do without it, because it is fall of history; and therein it resembles the first Pentateuch full of anecdote, story, tragedy, change, movement, colour: a wonderful beginning and the only possible beginning from the highest standpoint, not a beginning in great doctrine, profound philosophies and metaphysics, all these lie thousands of miles along the road; no man may fly after them, or plunge into them with heedless impetuosity. We begin with matter, we begin with light and force, with water and earth, with things that fly and things that swim; and then we pass into the human tragedy, and through all the marvellous evolutions of history, we come into doctrine, philosophy, spiritual thought, the inner meaning, the marvellous music of things. So it is in the New Testament. We begin with a little Child, to what he may grow we know not; great is his name Immanuel: God God with us, the great God, the great Man. Now we must go forward into historical movements, activities, collisions, contradictions; now we must be lost in the centre of dusty, cloudy battlefields and then emerge into wide spaces where the summer spreads her banquet, where the air is clear of all but sweetest music. That is God's way of training the individual life. We all begin, so to say, Pentateuchally; we all have five books, or at least five chapters of history creation, history, movement, activity, hardly knowing what we are doing moved, touched, stung, led, and wondering how it will all issue, in what eventuation it will establish itself, and what it will prove when the process has been completed. It enriches one's thought and establishes one's heart in the tender grace of God to see how the lines of life correspond with one another: how things are matched today by things that happened yesterday; how one life is part of some other life, how one nation belongs to all the nations, and to mark how God has not been making detached links without connection or association, but has rather been fastening those links together into a great chain, a golden chain the first link fastened to his throne, the chain dropped down, link after link added, and, lo, it begins to rise again at the other end and comes back, and the links form a chain and the chain a circle and the centre the very throne of God. We cannot do without the historical line. Man must begin with history, he cannot begin with thinking; man must begin with toys, he cannot begin with ideas, abstract thoughts, and emotions that involve metaphysical mysteries. He must have a garden to work in, he must have a flock to keep, he must have a vineyard to dress; every night he must tell how the day has been spent; and thus he is led on into the great service, and into the fidelity that keeps no diary because it is so complete as to be beyond mere registration and beyond that book-keeping which is supposed to guarantee itself against the perfidies of felonious hands. But we must begin with the garden; man thinks he is doing something when he is tilling a garden. We must begin with objective work, outside work; it is adapted to us. The absorption, the speechless contemplation, the song without words these are the after-comings, the marvellous transformations. Meanwhile, keep thy lamp burning, watch thy door with all faithfulness, and attend to thy little garden plot as if it were the whole of God's universe; and afterwards thou shalt come to the higher studies the nobler culture, the richer, deeper peace.

Looking at the Acts of the Apostles as a whole, what a representative book it is! What varieties of character; what contradictions; what miracles of friendship; what bringing together of things that apparently are without relation and between which cohesion is, from our stand point, simply impossible! We have marked the characters as the panorama has passed before us these years; we wonder how ever they came together, how any one book can hold them; and yet, as we have wondered, we have seen men settle into relation and complement one another so as to furnish out the whole circle with perfect accuracy of outline. We belong to one another. The hand cannot say to the foot, "I have no need of thee"; nor can the ear say to the eye, or the eye to the ear, "I have no need of thee." All those men in the moving panorama Apostolic belonged, somehow, to one another, sphered one another out into perfectness of service and endurance. The human race is not one man; one man is not the human race. The difficulty we have with ourselves and with one another is the difficulty of not perceiving that every one of us is needful to make up the sum total of God's meaning. Failing to see that, we have what is called "criticism," so that men are remarked upon as being short of this faculty, wanting in that capacity, destitute of such and such qualification, not so rich in mental gift as some other man; and thus we have such foolish talking and pointless criticism. Man is one. God made man, not men; he redeemed man, he became man. Your gift is mine; mine is yours. We are a total, not a fraction; not carping individuals, but one household built on one rock, a living temple raised upon a living Corner-stone. Why fix upon individuals and remark upon their imperfections and their shortcomings? They claim the virtues of their very critics; they leap up in the hands of their vivisectors and say, "Your life is ours; your strength should perfect our weakness." The world will not learn that lesson. The world is lost in selfishness. Christianity is now a game of selfishness, that is to say, resolving itself into "Who can get into heaven? who can safely escape into heaven?" a question that ought never to be asked; it is the worst and meanest selfishness. Who can fight best, suffer best, give most, do most, wait most patiently? these are the great questions which, being honestly asked by the soul, ennoble the soul that asks them, and challenge the life to the nobler services which the fancy contemplates. So the men in the Acts of the Apostles belong to one another. Think of Peter and Luke: Peter all fire; Luke quiet, thoughtful, contemplative, musing, taking observations and using them for historical purposes. Think of Paul and Barnabas; think of all the names that are within the record, and see how wondrous is the mosaic. There are only two great leaders. Were I to ask the youngest of my fellow students, now when we are closing the book, whose names occur most frequently in the Acts of the Apostles, hardly a child could hesitate in the reply "Peter and Paul." They seem to overshadow everybody; their names burn most ardently and lustrously on the whole record. That is quite true; but where would they have been but for those who supported them, held up their arms, made up their following and their companionship? If they are pinnacles, the pinnacle only expresses the solidity and massiveness of the building that is below. You see the pinnacle from afar; but that pinnacle does not exist in itself, by itself, for itself; it is the upgathering of the great thought, and represents to the farthest-off places the sublime fact that the tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth. To be in the record at all is my ambition; to be on the first page or on the last, to be anywhere in it, that is the beginning of heaven. This is a representation of the Church of all time. You have your great names and your lesser names; you have Peter and James and John and Paul, and you have Philip and Thomas and James and Simon and Judas. To be in the list is enough. No man can write his own name in the list. Sometimes it is absolutely essential that a man should make his own signature, do it with his own finger, either in letters or by mark; his own living hand of flesh must have touched the page. In other records we are written down by consent. We are thankful for the honour of the registration; we have been invited to form a part of the commonwealth, and we have assented to the proposition. No man can write his name in the Lamb's book of life. Every man must open the door of his heart to admit the knocking Saviour as his Guest. God works; man works. There is a marvellous commerce between the Divine and the human, the human and the Divine; the result of that commerce, being happily consummated, is sonship, is liberty, is heaven!

We cannot look at the book as a whole without being struck with its candour. Nothing is kept back; there is no desire to make men appear better than they really were; all the sin is here, all the shame, all the virtue, all the honour everything is set down with an impartial and fearless hand. That is one of the strongest incidental proofs of the inspiration of the whole book. This is not a series of artificial curves or carvings; the men we have had to deal with are men of flesh and blood like ourselves wholly; about their humanity we can have no doubt. Here is a record of selfishness: the story of Ananias and Sapphira is not kept back. "How much better," some would have said, "to omit it." As well omit the story of Adam and Eve. In every book there is an Adam and Eve, if it be a faithful portraiture of human life; in every soul there is an Adam and Eve, a fall, an expulsion, a day of cherubic fire that asserts the sovereignty of outraged righteousness. These are not inventions, but they are representations of ourselves as we know ourselves, and therefore we can confirm the book. The accident varies, the substance is constant; the mere outside of color changes in every instance, but the heart is bad with selfishness throughout. Dissensions are reported: Paul and Barnabas separated; Paul withstood Peter "to the face, because he was to be blamed." Peter to be blamed! That was an honest book! There is no man-painting here; there is no touch of merely exhibitional genius; there is no attempt to get up. a Christian exhibition in the Acts of the Apostles with the motto, "Behold the perfect men!" There is a stern reality about this that compels the attention which it charms. Christianity is not represented here as to its earthly lot in any very attractive way. Who would say, after reading the Acts of the Apostles, were we to judge by the fate of its apostles and teachers, "Let us also be Christians"? There was not a noble man in the fraternity; there was hardly a man in the whole brotherhood that could trace his ancestry beyond yesterday. If you wanted to join an unfashionable sect, the Christian sect would have presented to you innumerable and overwhelming advantages; if you wanted to suffer, Christianity would find the opportunity. It is a record of suffering, misrepresentation, persecution, terrible sorrow and agony; a record of cold and hunger and thirst and nakedness and night-travelling. The men of the Acts of the Apostles wandered about in deserts and in mountains, in dens and in caves of the earth; they had no festival, no banner, no music, no honour amongst men. We thought that towards the last surely we should hear some better account of it; but in the last chapter Christianity is represented as the sect which is everywhere "spoken against." All of these circumstances and instances illustrate the candour, the intense honesty and reality of the record. Human authors study probabilities. It is a canon amongst literary men that even in a romance nothing shall be put down though it may actually have occurred which exceeds the bounds of average probability. The circumstance you narrate you may have seen, but you are not allowed by literary criticism to put down anything that is merely phenomenal so extraordinary as probably not to occur more than once in a thousand years. You must keep to probability if you would build according to technical rules. There is no study of parts, proportions, colours in the Acts of the Apostles; there is no poetry-making, no romance elaboration; things are put down every night as they occurred every day there stands the record, with all blotches, blemishes, faults, all heroisms and nobilities, all endurances and glorious successes; nothing is extenuated; the whole tale is told exactly and literally as it occurred.

Reading the Acts of the Apostles through from beginning to end at one sitting which is the only right way of reading any book in order to get into the swing of its thought and the music of its rhythm reading the Acts of the Apostles straight through from the first verse to the last, I feel as if I had been present in a great and busy seed-time. I have come home, as it were, from a great field that has just been sown all over sown with truth seeds, sown with buried men, sown with buried deeds. The seed thus sown does not look very beautiful. Tomorrow it will look like a desert, and for a week or a month there may be no change, but in a week or a month more there will be first the blade; by-and-by, the ear; by-and-by, the full corn in the ear; by-and-by, the flashing sickle in the hand of the angel; by-and-by, the harvest home; by-and-by, Christ's contentment the satisfaction of his soul.

This is the way to judge a book namely: to judge it in its wholeness; and this is the way to judge of any Church, or of any institution, or of any man. I must not take your individual actions and attempt to find the whole character in any one conversation, or in any one little sentence; I must not take you at unawares, and when I see you in high temper say, "See how bad he is!" I must not find you in some act of apparent meanness and judge the whole character by it, saying, "See the man's dishonourableness!" I must not find you in some solitary fault, or under the pressure of some tremendous temptation, and say, "See in that instance the whole man!" Society judges so. Harsh judgments are founded upon little detached instances of temper or of spirit; but when he comes who made us made us so marvellously, made no two of us alike when he comes who knows our ancestry, our birth, our physical constitution, our advantages and disadvantages, our trials and our sorrows; when he comes who knows us altogether, he will judge us in the totality of our life, and mayhap the worst of us may be recognised by the redeeming Son of God as having upon him the sprinkled blood which will save the life from the destroying stroke.

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