New Believer's Series #23

The Priesthood

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By Watchman Nee

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The Bible speaks of the ministry of the priesthood. This ministry consists of a group of people wholly separated from the world to serve God. They have no other occupation or duty other than to serve God. Such people are called priests in the Bible.

I. THE HISTORY OF THE PRIESTHOOD IN THE BIBLE

Beginning from the book of Genesis, we find God calling men to be priests. Melchisedec was God's first priest. In Abraham's time, Melchisedec separated himself and gave himself solely to God's service.

A. From Genesis to the Period after the Lord's Ascension

From Genesis to the forming of the nation of Israel and thereafter, the priesthood was always present. At the time the Lord Jesus was on earth and even after His departure from the earth, the priesthood did not cease. The priesthood has been on earth for a long time. The Bible shows us that even the Lord Jesus became a priest before God after His ascension to the heavens. He is there now fully consecrated for God's service.

B. In the Dispensation of the Church

The priesthood continues throughout the dispensation of the church; there is no interruption of any kind.

C. In the Millennial Kingdom

At the beginning of the millennial kingdom, those who share in the first resurrection will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years (Rev. 20:6). God's children will continue to be God's priests and Christ's priests for a thousand years. They will be kings to the world and priests to God. This priesthood will remain unchanged; they will still serve God.

D. In the New Heavens and New Earth

In the new heavens and new earth, the term priest will cease to exist. At that time, all of God's children as His servants will do nothing except serve Him. In the New Jerusalem "His slaves will serve Him" (22:3). In other words, God's children will continue to serve Him.

Here we must point out a most wonderful thing. The priesthood commenced with Melchisedec, the one who was without father, without mother, without genealogy, who had neither beginning of days nor end of life (Heb. 7:3), and it extends to the end of the millennium, which means that it extends to eternity.

II. THE KINGDOM OF PRIESTS BECOMING THE HOUSE OF PRIESTS

According to the revelation of the Scripture, God's purpose is not to have only one or two persons as His priests. His purpose is to have all His people as His priests.

A. God Choosing the Israelites to Be a Kingdom of Priests

After the Israelites came out of Egypt, they came to Mount Sinai. God charged Moses to speak to the Israelites, saying, "Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exo. 19:6). God told the Israelites that they would be a kingdom of priests. This expression is somewhat difficult to understand. Why did God say that they would be a kingdom of priests? He meant that He wanted the whole nation to be priests. No one in the nation would be an ordinary person; the whole kingdom would be priests. This was God's purpose.

When God chose Israel to be His people, He set this goal before them. This nation was to be different from all other nations on the earth. It was a kingdom of priests. All the people of this nation would be priests. This meant that every person in the nation would have one unique occupation, the occupation of serving God. God delights in separating men from the earth for His service. He delights in seeing men live solely for His affairs. God wants all of His children to be priests and to serve Him.

God told the people of Israel when they reached Mount Sinai that He would make them a kingdom of priests. This is a wonderful calling. We call England "the kingdom of the navy," the United States, "the kingdom of gold," China, "the kingdom of manners and virtues," and India "the kingdom of philosophers." But here is a kingdom which is called "the kingdom of priests." This is a wonderful thing. Everyone in this nation is a priest. Men, women, adults, and children are all priests. Everyone in this kingdom serves only God. Both adults and children have only one thing as their occupation offering sacrifices and serving God. This is a wonderful picture.

After God promised to establish Israel as a kingdom of priests, He told Moses to go up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments which were written upon two tablets of stone. Moses remained on the mountain forty days while God wrote the Ten Commandments on the stone tablets. The first commandment says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The second says, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" (20:3-4). It seems that God was dictating the commandments one by one.

B. The Israelites Serving the Idols

While Moses was up on the mountain, the people at the foot of the mountain wondered about his delay. They said to Aaron, "Up, make us gods, which shall go before us" (32:1). Aaron succumbed to their words, collected gold, and made a golden calf. The people then worshipped the golden calf and said, "These be thy gods, 0 Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" (v. 4).

They began to worship the idol. They sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. They indulged in great celebration. At last they had found a visible golden god for themselves. The God that Moses taught was mysterious; one could not identify where He lived or where He could be located. Even Moses, the one who worshipped this God, was nowhere to be found. Now there was a visible golden calf which they could worship. God had appointed them to be priests, but even before they were able to be His priests, they became priests to the golden calf. God's desire was for them to be a kingdom of priests. But even before they could do that, they had turned to idol worship and served the golden calf. They established other gods and other forms of worship apart from Jehovah their God.

This is man's concept of God. Man always tries to make his own god and worship according to his own ways. Man likes to worship a god created by his own hands. He does not accept God's sovereignty in His creation. He does not like to acknowledge Him as the Creator.

C. God Assigning the Priesthood to the Tribe of Levi

While Moses was on the mount, God told him to go down. Moses turned and went down with the two tablets of testimony, the Ten Commandments, in his hands. As he drew near to the camp and saw the condition of the people, his wrath waxed hot and he cast down the two tablets. Standing at the gate of the camp he said, "Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto me" (v. 26). All the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, "Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor" (v. 27). Regardless of whom they saw, they had to kill them all. Because the people had worshipped the idol, the golden calf, those who were faithful had to draw their sword and slay them, no matter what kind of relationship they had with them.

Many people think that this order was too cruel. Who can slay his own brother? Who has the heart to kill his own friends? Eleven of the twelve tribes did not move. They felt that the cost was too high. As a result, only the tribe of Levi drew their swords, went to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slew about three thousand men on that day. Those slain were the brothers, relatives, and friends of the Levites.

Let us consider this a little. After the incident of the golden calf, God immediately told Moses that from that time on the nation of Israel could no longer be a kingdom of priests. Although nothing was said explicitly to that effect, God had reassigned the priesthood to the tribe of Levi alone. The priesthood was originally for the whole nation of Israel. Now, the priesthood was limited to the house of Aaron of the tribe of Levi.

D. God's People and God's Priests Becoining Two Separate Groups

From that time on, there were always two groups of people in the nation of Israel. One group were God's people and the other were God's priests. God's original intention was for all His people to be His priests. God had no intention of separating His people from His priests. He wanted the whole nation to be a kingdom of priests. God's people and God's priests should have been one. Whoever were God's people should have been His priests. As long as a person was one of God's people, he should have been God's priest. To be His people meant to be His priests. All His people were to be His priests. However, many loved the world and succumbed to human affection and turned away from faithfulness to worship the idol. As a result, God's people and His priests became two separate groups. Henceforth, if a man did not love the Lord more than his father, mother, wife, children, brother, sister, and all, he became unfit to be a disciple of the Lord. Many could not meet this requirement or pay this price. From that day forward, the nation of Israel was divided into two groups—God's people and His priests.

E. The Priesthood Becoming the Privilege of a Household

From that day forward, the kingdom of priests became a tribe of priests. The scope of the priesthood was reduced from a kingdom of priests to a household of priests. The priesthood became the matter of a household instead of a nation. God's people and God's priests were one and the same in the tribe of Levi; that is, His people were His priests. In regards to the other eleven tribes, God's people were only God's people; they could no longer be God's priests. This was most serious. It is serious for a person to be a believer, one of God's people, and yet not be a priest.

III. THE CHARACTERISTIC OF THE PRIESTHOOD—BEING A MEDIATORIAL CLASS

From Exodus until the time of the Lord Jesus on earth, no other tribe could function as priests except the tribe of Levi. They could not offer sacrifices to God. Their sacrifices had to be made through the priests. They could not even come to God to confess their sins; they had to confess them through the priests. They could not separate themselves from the world because they had no authority to touch the anointing oil. The priests alone could anoint and sanctify a person. All the spiritual services had to be carried out by the priests on their behalf.

One special characteristic about the Israelites in the Old Testament was that God was far away from them. Not everyone could contact Him. In the Old Testament we find the evolution of the priesthood, which I call an intermediary class. Man could not go to God directly. God's people had to go through the priests before they could draw near to God. They could not commune with God directly. God came to man through the priests, and man also went to God through the priests. Between God and man, there was a mediatorial class. Man could not come directly to God, and God could not come directly to man. Between God and man there was a mediatorial class.

This class was not found in God's original design. God's original intention was to approach His people directly and for them to come to Him directly. But now there were three parties. The people had to come to God through the priests, and God had to approach His people through the priests. God and man could no longer commune with each other directly. All contact became indirect.

IV. THE CHANGE IN THE PRIESTHOOD

For about fifteen hundred years, from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, God's people were unable to come directly to God. Only one household was qualified to be the priests. A man had to belong to this household to come to God. If he drew near to God directly, he would die. During that period, the ministry of the priests became a very powerful ministry. Man could not come to God directly; he needed the intercession of the priests. How noble and great the priestly ministry was! There was no way for man to come to God without the priests. But with the coming of the New Testament age, we find salvation and redemption reaching all men. Now we hear the word: "You yourselves also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (I Pet. 2:5).

A. Every Redeemed One Being a Priest in the New Testament Dispensation

In I Peter 2:4-7 Peter tells us that Christ is the foundation of the church. He was the stone rejected by the builders who has now become the head of the corner. We have become the living stones and are joined and built up to become a spiritual house. We also have become a holy priesthood to God. It is as if a voice from heaven burst forth announcing, "All who are saved are now God's priests. All the living stones, those who are part of the spiritual house, are now priests of God."

B. The Church Recovering the Universal Priesthood Again

Right then a promise which had been set aside for fifteen hundred years was recovered by God. What the Israelites lost has been recovered by the church. The universal priesthood was lost to Israel. In the New Testament age, it is as if a voice from heaven bursts forth with the promise that the universal priesthood is with us once more. All the saved ones are called to be priests.

C. The Church Being a Kingdom of Priests

The same word can be found in Revelation 1:6, which says, "And made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father." Originally, the whole nation of Israel were priests. Later, this changed. But what about today? Today the church is a kingdom of priests. What the Israelites lost in the presence of the golden calf, the church has fully regained through the Lord Jesus. Today the entire church has become priests. God's ordained kingdom of priests has now been fully restored.

D. The Unique Occupation of a Christian—Serving God

What God could not secure among the Israelites, He is now securing through the church. The church today is the kingdom of priests. The church is a priesthood. What does this mean? It means that everyone who has tasted God's grace has only one occupation left, that of serving God. I have said this before to the young people: If a person is a doctor before he believes in the Lord, his occupation is medicine; if he is a nurse, his occupation is nursing; if he is a teacher, his occupation is teaching; if he is a farmer, his occupation is farming; if he is a businessman, his occupation is business. But the moment one becomes a Christian, his occupation completely changes. Every Christian has only one occupation—serving God. From the time we were saved, we became priests to God. Henceforth, we have to serve God in His presence. This is our lifelong spiritual goal.

Every Christian has only one occupation, that of serving God. A Christian doctor can no longer expect to make a name for himself as a famous doctor; his practice as a doctor is only useful in sustaining his living. His real occupation is to be a priest to God. A professor or a teacher can no longer strive to be a famous or outstanding academician. Rather, he must now strive to be a proper priest before God. His teaching becomes merely his vocation; his main occupation is to serve God. Craftsmen, businessmen, farmers, and all the other professionals are no longer living for their own professions. There is now only one profession for everyone, that of serving God.

E. Only One Ambition—Pleasing the Lord

Every brother and sister should set aside their old occupation on the day they are saved. I hope that you will give up all your ambitions and aspirations the day you begin your Christian life. You should no longer aspire to be someone special. You should no longer strive to be someone outstanding or distinguished in your field or line of occupation. You should learn from Paul, who had only one ambition—to be well pleasing to the Lord. You should not have any ambition other than this. All worldly occupations should be put aside. You should no longer have any aspiration to be great or outstanding. You should only aspire to serve the Lord in His presence.

V. THE GLORY OF THE PRIESTHOOD

During the early years of my Christian life, I always felt that it was a hard job to exhort young believers to serve God. It seemed that I had to try very hard to beckon, beg, and plead with others to serve God. But God's view is totally different from ours. God took the priesthood away from the Israelites when they sinned. In God's eyes service is a great privilege and a high honor. If a man fails or backslides, God takes away the priesthood from him. God has no intention to persuade or beg man to serve Him. He has no intention of seeking man's approval. It is man's glory, not God's, for him to be called to be God's priest.

A. God Honoring Us by Calling Us to the Priesthood

Those who offered strange fire in the Old Testament were burned to death. Some died when they entered the holy place. Others died when they tried to offer sacrifices to God. God would not allow anyone except the priests to come to Him. In God's eyes the priesthood is a trust He has placed upon man. He is bestowing glory and honor to man and uplifting man when He calls him to the priesthood. A person would die if he volunteered to take up the priesthood according to his own will. Uzzah, who stretched out his own hand to steady the ark when it tilted, was immediately smitten to death.

B. Foolish Men Considering Service to Be a Favor to God

There are many people who think that they are granting God a favor by offering themselves to Him. Over the past decades, I have always felt uneasy when preachers pleaded with believers in revival meetings to give themselves to serve God. Many people give a little money to God and think that they are doing Him a special favor. Many people offer themselves to serve God and think that they are doing Him a favor. Some people think that they are bestowing honor upon God when they give up a little position in the world. Their hearts seem to be saying, "I give myself, someone as important as I, to serve God today!" Some give up their little positions and think that they are exalting the Lord. But this is blindness! This is nothing but folly and darkness!

C. Our Greatest Honor Being to Serve God

If God in heaven has called us to be His priests, we should be on our knees before Him to receive His calling. This is our greatest honor. God has elevated us. We do not say that we can give anything to God. We say that our greatest honor lies in God's acceptance of what we offer to Him. What a tremendous honor that persons such as ourselves can serve God. This is pure grace! This surely is the gospel! It is not only a gospel about Jesus' salvation; it is a gospel that even persons such as ourselves can serve God. This is indeed the gospel, a great gospel.

VI. UPHOLDING THE PRIESTHOOD

A. There Being No Church without the Universal Priesthood

In the church today the priesthood is no longer restricted to only a few people; it has become a universal priesthood. The nation of Israel failed; the church cannot fail again. The nation of Israel failed in that God's people and God's priests became separated. May the Lord have mercy on us. May there be no separation between God's people and His priests in the church today. In the church God's people are His priests. All the people of God are priests of God. There must be as many priests as there are brothers and sisters. Everyone must come to God to offer up spiritual sacrifices and sacrifices of praise. Everyone should take part in spiritual service. This is not a selective ministry. Everyone should come to God to serve Him. A church that comes short of universal and direct access to God is not a church.

Please bear in mind that there is no church if the priesthood is not universal. The nation of Israel failed; the church should not fail again. During the past two thousand years, the scope of the priesthood has never been recovered to include all the people of God. The two thousand years of church history show us a frequent separation between the people and the ministry of the priests. An intermediary class has time and time again come between God and His people. This is the work and teaching of the Nicolaitans.

B. No Longer Tolerating the Intermediary Class

We can no longer tolerate an intermediary class. We can no longer accept a hierarchy. We can no longer allow priests to stand between God and His children; we can no longer accept an intermediary class. We need to see what the church is. The church is the place where every child of God is a priest. We cannot have one person or a few persons monopolizing spiritual service. They cannot be the only ones through whom God speaks or the only ones through whom we approach God to settle spiritual matters. Such an intermediary class cannot exist in the church.

Our controversy with denominations is not a matter of outward forms but a matter of inward content. Today there is a hierarchy in the denominations—one group of people is serving God, while the rest are merely pew members. One group of people is serving God as a profession, while the rest of the pew members, though equally born to be God's children, need to approach Him through them. This hierarchical practice is tolerated by many organizations in Christianity today. But we cannot accept any intermediary class. We cannot set aside the grace given to the church in the New Testament. We cannot forsake it as the Israelites did.

C. The Intermediary Class Abolished When Everyone Serves

We need to abolish the intermediary class. In order for us to abolish this class, we all have to become part of it. When all of us become a part of that class, the hierarchy is gone. How can we make the three groups two groups? How can we turn three-way traffic into two-way traffic? How can these Three—God, the priesthood, and the people—become two? There is no other way except to kneel down before the Lord and say, "Lord, I am willing to serve You. I am willing to be a priest." When all of God's children become His priests, the three parties will be reduced to two.

Hierarchy comes from the world, the flesh, idol worship, and the love of the world. If all the brothers deny the world and reject idolatry from the beginning, they will all offer themselves up to God. They will say, "From this day forward, I will live on earth for the sole purpose of serving God." Then hierarchy will disappear spontaneously. If all the brothers realize that their sole occupation is to serve God and if all of them will serve God in coordination, the intermediary class will disappear!

D. One Needing to Be a Priest As Long As One Is a Christian

I hope you will not allow any intermediary class to come in. Uphold this from the very beginning. Only among the fallen and backslidden ones and among those who walk according to their own way could there be the resurgence of an intermediary class. Among those defeated ones, it is natural for some to serve the Lord and some not to serve the Lord. Those who do not serve the Lord attend to their own affairs, while those who serve the Lord take care of spiritual affairs. Those who do not serve the Lord, at most, offer some money to support those who serve. They may be businessmen, teachers, or doctors, but they all attend to their own affairs and walk their own way. They do not seem to have anything to do with God's service. In this kind of setting, what does a person need to do to qualify to be a good Christian? He only needs to set aside a little time every week to attend a worship service. If he has some money, he only needs to offer a small portion of it. But this clearly makes God's people and His priests two classes of people! Today we should realize that either we are not Christians at all or we have to be those who consecrate everything to the Lord. As long as we are Christians, we have to be priests to God.

VII. THE RECOVERY OF THE PRIESTHOOD

A. There Being No Problem in the Early Churches

The danger that haunted the nation of Israel is the same problem that has confronted the church over the past two thousand years. From the time of the Lord's departure until the time of the writing of Revelation and a little beyond that point, all of God's children were priests. Everyone who considered himself a child of God was a priest of God. There was no problem then. There was no problem from the first century up through the third century. Individually, there were isolated problems here and there, but as a whole there was no problem. Here and there some of God's children refused to be priests, but as a whole we did not see any problem. As long as a person was a child of God, he was a priest of God.

B. The Church's Nature Being Changed after the Roman Empire's Acceptance of Christianity

When the Roman Empire endorsed Christianity, many people began to creep in. There were material benefits in believing in the Lord; one became a fellow believer of the emperor and a brother of Caesar. Originally, the Lord's charge was, "Render then the things that are Caesar's to Caesar and the things that are God's to God" (Matt. 22:21). Now both the things of Caesar and the things of God were rendered to God. This indeed was a big victory for Christianity. Constantine was converted to Christ. The result was a gradual but significant shift for the church. Believers were no longer the same as those who professed their faith at an earlier age. During the ten periods of persecution under the reign of Rome, tens of thousands of Christians suffered martyrdom. It was not easy to pretend to be a Christian. But then the situation totally changed. It became fashionable to be a believer and to share the same faith as the emperor and to call him one's brother. When this shift occurred, many decided to join Christianity. As a result, the number of people increased, while the number of priests remained the same. It is easy to creep into the Christian fold, but it is absolutely impossible to creep into God's service.

C. A Separation between the Spiritual Ones and the Worldly Ones

The church witnessed a drastic change in the fourth century. During that period, many who joined the church were either unbelievers or half believers. They appeared to be believers, yet they held worldly power in their hands. They had no desire to serve the Lord in the church. At the most they were saved, but they could not serve the Lord. Spontaneously, some spiritual ones rose up to take care of the affairs of the church. The others then said, "You do it! Go and serve the Lord. We are the secular ones." The word secular was introduced in the fourth century. Some would attend to earthly affairs, while others would attend to spiritual work. As a result many served God, but many more no longer served.

At the time of the apostles in the first century, every believer served the Lord. From the fourth century on, men began to say, "We are merely God's people. We attend to our own affairs in the world and keep our positions in society. Once in a while, we give a little money. This should qualify us as Christians. Let the spiritual ones take care of the spiritual things for us." From that time forward, the church followed the footsteps of the nation of Israel; it worshipped "the golden calf" and created an intermediary class. No longer were all of God's people priests. Some became merely His people but not His priests.

Today, clergymen in the Roman Catholic Church are called priests. In China they are known as fathers. These so-called fathers are actually called priests. Some state churches follow the example of the Roman Catholic Church and give their pastors the title of priests. Those who tend to earthly affairs are called God's people, while those who manage spiritual things are called priests. The church has been divided into priests and people.

D. The Lord Taking the Way of Recovery

There is something I would like all of us to see: In this end time, God is doing a work of recovery; He is taking the way of recovery. I believe God is leading all of His children up to this position in this last age. Here is one segment of the pathway of the church that is waiting for a fundamental Recovery—the universal priesthood of God's children. As long as a person is one of God's people, he should be a priest. There are priests today. In the kingdom to come, there also will be priests. God wants to secure His priests. He wants all of His people to be His priests.

VIII. THE SERVICE OF THE PRIESTS

As soon as you become a Christian, you become a priest. If you want to be a Christian, you have to be a priest. Do not expect anyone to be a priest for you. You have to be a priest yourself. There is no intermediary class among us. No one will attend to spiritual affairs for us. No one will work for us. Among us we must not have another class of people called workers.

A. The Need for the Whole Church to Serve

If God is merciful to us, all the brothers and sisters will spontaneously be working, preaching the gospel, and serving the Lord together. The more universal the priesthood is, the more visible the church will be. Once the priesthood becomes non-universal, we have failed and our pathway has been corrupted.

B. God Honoring Us by Allowing Us to Serve Him

We are poor, weak, blind, and crippled. For the Lord to accept persons such as ourselves to be priests is an honor to us. In the Old Testament, such people could not be priests. All who were disabled, lame, or blemished could not be priests. However, today the base, the unclean, the blind, and the disabled have all been called by God to be priests! He is the Lord. I have said this before: We should gladly give ourselves to His service even if it means crawling to His feet to beg for service. We should be happy to kneel down to beg for this honor. I am happy to crawl on my knees and plead with the Lord, "Lord, I want to serve You. I gladly offer myself to Your service. You honor me by allowing me to come to You." To be a priest is to draw near to God. To be a priest is to have no distance between us and God; it is to be able to enter in directly and to wait for no one. To be a priest means that we can touch God ourselves.

C. God's Kingdom Realized When Everyone Serves

If one day all the brothers and sisters in all the churches rise up to serve, the kingdom of God will come among us. It will be a kingdom of priests; all the people will be priests. This is glorious. I look forward to the day when all idols are removed from among us. Before the Lord, we should pay whatever price it takes to achieve this. The Levites paid the price; they were faithful in setting aside their personal affection. Only such people can have a share in the priesthood.

D. The Basis of the Priesthood—God's Acceptance

In order to fully understand the priesthood, we need to understand the way God dealt with the priests in the Old Testament. It is a great matter for God to allow a person to draw near to Him without being smitten. Only the priests could eat the showbread, serve at the altar, and enter the holy place. Only they could offer the sacrifices. Others died when they entered the holy place. God's acceptance is the basis of the priesthood. Since God has accepted us, should we not enter in today? Formerly, anyone would die if he dared to enter in. But today God says, "You can come!" How strange it is if we still feel reluctant to come.

E. God's Mercy Enabling Us to Serve in Grace

We need the Lord to open our eyes. It is grace in its highest form for a person to be given the privilege to serve Him. Those who really know God will say, "The grace that allows me to serve God is greater than the grace which brought me to salvation." The dog under the table can eat the crumbs underneath the table, but it cannot serve at the table. To be saved by grace is relatively simple, but not everyone can serve by grace. Today in the church, everyone who is saved by grace can also serve. It is foolish not to consider this to be a great grace.

F. Rejecting the Principle of Having an Intermediary Class

Today's Christianity acknowledges the presence of an intermediary class. Christianity as we see it today even divides God's priests and God's people into two classes. We look forward to the day when there is no more hierarchy among us. There may be one or two persons in the church who have failed. But the principle does not change. Today it is fashionable in Christianity to compromise principles. In principle, today's Christianity has fallen and has taken the way of the Israelites—the people and the priests have become two. May we not fall into such a system!

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