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Pentecost, the Spirit, and Peter's First Gospel Presentation -- a study of Acts 2

Updated: Jun 6

God is doing something new in the name of Jesus.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 2

In Acts 2, Luke truly shows us his heart for this book. We see the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, we hear Peter's first (and fantastic) gospel presentation to an amazed crowd, and we realize that God is sending the Spirit to empower the Christians to be witnesses about Jesus to the entire world.

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (2:36)

We Covered This Passage in 2016

I'll make a few references to this former lesson below.

In it, I give ideas for:

  • "The Perfect Church"

  • Power source

  • "The Baptism of the Holy Spirit"

  • God's presence

  • The Upper Room

International Missions at Home

Here are some fun statistics to share with your group:

  • More than 23 million American voters are naturalized citizens. (Pew)

  • More than 46 million people in the US weren't born in the US. (Census)

  • There are 430 languages spoken in the US, 177 of them indigenous.

In this week's passage about Pentecost, we find out that God has brought the world to Jerusalem, and that would kick-start the worldwide growth of the church. Well, that's not too far off from where we are in the United States. People from all over the world live here -- if you want to do cross-cultural missions, you don't have to leave home or get a passport!

Do you have any stories about attending a non-English speaking church, sharing the gospel with someone who is ESL, or simply building a relationship with someone you work with or go to school with who is from a different culture than yours?

This week's passage should greatly encourage us that we should try to build relationships (in the name of Jesus) with everyone around us, even if they didn't grow up in the same culture we did.

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What Do You Remember about Your Baptism?

In this week's passage, Peter is going to tell the astonished crowd that they need to be baptized. We will read about some of the ways his words have been misinterpreted, but I think a fun way to introduce the topic is simply to ask for stories about baptism. These stories will probably vary widely based on age at baptism and church. I'm very interested in how much they appreciated the day. Do they remember how they felt during the event?

Possible Related Topic: What Is Baptism?

We will talk in much greater detail about baptism in a future lesson, but you may still want to bring it up here. Every church tradition treats baptism slightly differently (see below), so if you have group members for other churches, this topic might take some explanation.

Burnout (in Life, Work, or Ministry)

Have you ever experienced burnout? Sorry -- silly question. Of course you have. Rather, you might frame it like this: What tends to cause you to feel burnout? In what part of your life do you experience feelings of burnout the most? What has helped you work through it?

I'll speak from a pastor's perspective (because what else would I do?); you will almost certainly have similar statistics for your line of work or stage in life.

You should know that the pandemic was awful for pastor wellbeing. All of a sudden, they were expected to become experts in online technologies and care for hurting people without being near them, not to mention that a significant portion of their congregations disappeared and may not have come back. If you want to make a pastor question his calling, that'll do it. I noticed that a lot of "recent" headlines about pastor wellness still refer to 2022 data, like this article by Carey Nieuwhof.

A more recent survey from Barna (March 2024) indicated that things had gotten slightly better. Unfortunately, "slightly better" still means that 1/3 of pastors are considering quitting their ministries.

What causes burnout in pastors is probably very similar to what causes burnout in anyone -- feelings of inadequacy, isolation, failure, opposition, and overall tiredness. Incidentally, if you're a ministry leader or any kind, you've probably had similar feelings!

I have ONE BIG POINT I would want you to make if you decide to use this topic:

The solution to overcoming burnout is greater reliance on the Holy Spirit. But reliance on the Holy Spirit does not mean that you will never face burnout or failure.

This is so important to understanding this week's passage that I want to put it at the very beginning of my post. Jesus will never call us to do something and not give us the tools necessary to completing our task. The whole point of last week's lesson was to establish that Jesus gave the church a clear mission, and this week we learn that Jesus gave the church the power to fulfill that mission: the Holy Spirit.

In my experience, many people I know experienced burnout because they were trying to fulfill their calling or ministry in their own power, based on their own intelligence, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, so to speak.

But that doesn't mean that the solution to burnout is as simple as "you just need to pray harder". I lost a friend when I suggested to her that the solution to her dad's feelings of burnout in his job was Philippians 4:13:

13 I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.

"Are you saying that my dad is burned out because he doesn't have enough faith?" Looking back, I'm shocked at how callous I was, and I'm also pretty embarrassed at how superficial my understanding was of the Bible in those days. I tried to present a much more effective view of Philippians when we studied it a few years ago:

Not relying on the Spirit to empower your life and ministry will always cause you to burn out. But "relying on the Spirit" is not a magic formula for having great success, boundless energy, and an ever-sunny disposition.

Think about the people in the room at Pentecost -- we said last week that many of them would be killed for their faith. Their churches would be scattered, they would suffer from infighting and disagreements, and most of the people they reached out to would reject them. Does this mean they didn't rely enough on the Spirit? No! It's just a reminder to us all that the task we are about is impossible if not for the grace of God.

The solution to burnout is to find your identity and your contentment in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in you. God may move you to another area of ministry (this happens multiple times in the New Testament) -- but not because you quit due to burnout, but because it was time for you to move on. Does that distinction make sense?

This Week's Big Idea: #1: Pentecost

I know -- it sure seems like I already gave a big idea, doesn't it?

God was very intentional about His selection of Pentecost for the sending of the Holy Spirit. The internet is full of handy diagrams and drawings of the feast calendar; I'm just going to give a very simple one here:

If you do your own research, you'll find that a lot of Christian bloggers really don't understand the Jewish festival calendar (and seem determined to find a specific, unique element of Jesus' life that each festival corresponds with). Here's my best shot at a summary of a great summary in my Bible Dictionary:

There are three annual "pilgrimage" festivals (where all males are supposed to go to Jerusalem):

  1. Passover (+ Unleavened Bread)

  2. Pentecost (Weeks / Firstfruits / Harvest)

  3. Atonement (+ Trumpets + Tabernacles)

Passover. Passover commemorated how God passed over the firstborn of the Jews (because of the blood of the lamb -- Ex 12) and rescued them from slavery in Egypt. It was followed by a 7-day Festival of Unleavened Bread, commemorating the haste of their departure from Egypt. It eventually became associated with the barley harvest. Two separate events celebrated at the same time.

Pentecost. This was a celebration of the harvest. It took about 7 weeks to gather all of the grain harvests (from barley to wheat), so the Feast of Weeks was placed on the calendar 7 weeks after Passover ("Pentecost" comes from the Greek word for "fiftieth"). Eventually, the Jews celebrated two different things here: the offering of the firstfruits (which is why every Jewish male was supposed to come to Jerusalem), and the giving of the law. But really, Pentecost and the Feast of Weeks and the Festival of Firstfruits are the same thing.

Atonement. This is another festival that evolved over time. The Day of Atonement (Lev 16) takes place 5 days before the Feast of Tabernacles and is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. The entire festival was a reminder of God's miraculous provision for the Jews in the wilderness. The Feast of Trumpets takes place ten days before the Day of Atonement (the "ten days of awe"). Eventually, all three events became one massive celebration.

Let's go through the choice of Pentecost, then:

  1. A lot of people would be in Jerusalem.

  2. It gave room for 40 days of appearances by Jesus.

  3. It was the capstone of the "pillar of fire" imagery.

The Bible Project video below gives a great overview of "pillar of fire" / "tongues of fire", so I don't need to belabor that here. If Passover was the beginning of the "pillar of fire" (remember how God led them out of Egypt and defended them by a pillar of fire?), and Tabernacles was the continuation of the "pillar of fire" (remember how while the Jews lived in their tents, God identified His presence in the central Tabernacle by a "pillar of fire"?), then Pentecost would be the fulfillment of the "pillar of fire". Now, God's dwelling would not be with people but in people.

[As you can imagine, Pentecost has taken on a very different meaning in Christian circles than Jewish ones.]

This Week's Big Idea #2: The Holy Spirit

Because this is in a packed passage of important topics, I'm going to scale back my discussion of the Holy Spirit on this post and refer you to other articles where I've talked at greater length about the Spirit.

  • a focus on who the Spirit is

  • a focus on controversies about the Spirit

  • a focus on the baptism of the Holy Spirit

This is a great video on the topic from Bible Project:

A quick summary of the key points (quoting from the Bible Dictionary):

The Holy Spirit is one of the three persons of the one triune God of Scripture, the others being the Father and the Son. That He is such a Person is not a point that can be established from the OT alone, and so Jewish interpreters do not see the Spirit as a "personality" in the way Christians do. It is only in light of Jesus' teaching, the experience of Pentecost, and the subsequent NT revelation that such a truth becomes clear. It is also apparent that it is the Spirit who communicates to humans the benefits of God's redemptive activity.

The key point to keep in mind is that the disciples' experience at Pentecost was something new. Yes, the Holy Spirit had "come upon" people in the Old Testament for specific purposes at specific times, but nothing like this -- a permanent indwelling.

The coming of the Spirit changes everything for the early disciples. In fact, I'm going to leave that to you -- at some point during your lesson, carve out time to ask your group what does the indwelling presence of the Spirit change for the early church? Think in particular about what it changes with respect to the Jews around them who were not Christians.

[Illustration idea: something that runs off of AC power and also battery.]


Part 1: The Church Receives Power (Acts 2:5-13)

5 Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout people from every nation under heaven. 6 When this sound occurred, a crowd came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 They were astounded and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 How is it that each of us can hear them in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts), 11 Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the magnificent acts of God in our own tongues.” 12 They were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But some sneered and said, “They’re drunk on new wine.”

The last time we studied this passage, the lesson began with verse 1. Let's just take the few seconds to go back to verse 1:

1 When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. 3 They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them. 4 Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.

In 2016, I made the point that Jews looked for 3 things to indicate God's presence: wind, fire, and inspired speech. This passage clearly identifies all three. (Btw, can you guess which of the two paintings below was commissioned by St. Mary's Coptic Church?)

The sound of the wind attracted the attention of the people in the streets. We don't know anything about this house. We don't know if it's the same house mentioned in other places in Acts. We don't know if they stayed there or immediately went out into the streets. The Bible doesn't tell us. That's why I like this map; they just put a big ol' question mark on it.

Wherever they were was close enough to the people that they could attract a crowd quickly. And then it's immediately apparent why God chose the Feast of Pentecost to send the Spirit:

There were Jews from all over the known world, all in Jerusalem. And they all spoke different languages. The further out their home, the more noticeable (and surprising) to hear someone speaking their home language.

[Note that Luke is threading a needle here. He's introducing the concept that the message of Jesus is for the entire world, but he starts with a Jewish audience in specific.]

There's lots of debate about this, but here's the clearest argument I've heard: the Spirit came upon the disciples, not the crowd, so this was a miracle of speaking, not hearing.

Most importantly, the disciples were not speaking in gibberish; they were speaking in a language that someone in the crowd could understand (because it was a real language).

Now let's get to the real point: what was the first thing the Spirit empowered the disciples to do? Miraculously speak about Jesus to a crowd.

Christians who obsess about the Spirit focus on the miracles of healing, breaking out of prison, or raising the dead. But the first thing God empowered Christians to do by the Spirit was tell others about Jesus.

We're about to focus on Peter, but realize that all of the early Christians were out in public speaking about a Man who had been executed by the local Jewish authorities. If you want more evidence that the Spirit was present within them, that must be it. These people were hiding and praying just a few minutes before. And now they're drawing attention to themselves in the streets. Wow!

If they can tell others about Jesus, you can too.

Take heart in the fact that they immediately drew critics. Of course, the complaint is rather odd. I've never known a drunk person to spontaneously break out into a foreign language they didn't know (and speak it perfectly) (a language they didn't know).

Peter uses that as a springboard to present the gospel (in a very clever way) ...


Aside: Object Lessons to Present the Gospel

In my first evangelism course in seminary, the professor asked us to take something out of our pocket, and he proceeded to walk around and give example of how you could turn that thing into a gospel conversation. I had pulled out my cell phone; he walked over to me and said something to the effect of, "Those things are amazing; I just have trouble getting mine to do what I want it to do all the time. It's kinda like life. Do you wish you had someone to help you make your life work the way you want it to?" And then he went into a gospel presentation, and I was absolutely ready to give my life to Jesus again and get baptized. (The spiritual gift of evangelism is real, and it's beautiful to be around someone who has it.)

In this week's passage, Peter turns a proposed insult into a chance to share the gospel. "You think we're drunk? No -- let me tell you what's going on here."

Take this challenge on as a group -- create a list of five things you commonly see someone doing or holding, and come up with a way you could turn that into a gospel conversation.


Part 2: Peter Steps Up (Acts 2:14-16)

14 Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed to them, “Fellow Jews and all you residents of Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and pay attention to my words. 15 For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it’s only nine in the morning. 16 On the contrary, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

Think about the last time Peter was confronted by somebody in public (let's stick with Luke's account):

Luke 22:55 They lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, and Peter sat among them. 56 When a servant saw him sitting in the light, and looked closely at him, she said, “This man was with him too.” 57 But he denied it: “Woman, I don’t know him.” 58 After a little while, someone else saw him and said, “You’re one of them too.” “Man, I am not!” Peter said. 59 About an hour later, another kept insisting, “This man was certainly with him, since he’s also a Galilean.” 60 But Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Immediately, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed.

Luke goes out of his way to make sure we know it was a servant girl who first put Peter on the back foot.

And here we are, not two months later, and Peter is standing up in a crowd in Jerusalem responding to someone who had scoffed at the Christians. That's astounding.

I love Peter's wry humor here. A deadpan, really, that put the scoffer in his place. ("That was a really stupid accusation, my dude.")

I think it's important to go into Peter's actual sermon, though. Remember how I said that Luke was very careful in the sermons he chose to include in Acts? This is a great example.

Please read Peter's sermon in Acts 2.

Peter quotes extensively from the Old Testament. This should only make sense, considering he is preaching to a Jewish audience! The first thing he does is quote the book of Joel. Joel, along with the other latter prophets, warned about "the day of the Lord". There was coming a day when the Lord would pour out His wrath on the sin of the earth, and only those who were His children in heart (not by name only, i.e. "Jew") would be saved.

In the book of Joel, a locust swarm was the primary warning -- that catastrophe should drive the people to repent and turn back to God. But the book of Joel was also well-known for a different prophecy of the end of days -- this idea of God pouring out His Spirit on His people. It would be one of the signs of the end just like the moon turning to blood.

Peter tapped into that prophecy here. (And because he was inspired by the Spirit, we can trust it to be an accurate application.) What the crowd had observed was the fulfillment of Joel 2:28. God's judgment was coming. [And yes, this would create confusion in the early church that Christ's return would be "any minute". We've talked about that a few times.] But Joel told the people how to be saved from that judgment:

21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

This leaves two key questions:

  1. Who is this Lord? and

  2. How does one call on His name?

(Do you see why Luke included this sermon?)

Here's where Peter makes his dramatic twist: that Lord is Jesus. To a crowd who had clearly observed evidence of God's presence and experienced a miracle that could only be from God, this must have been a thunderclap. (In the next section, we'll talk about the answer to the other question, how one calls on the name of Jesus.)

To "prove" that, Peter taps into a swirling rumor in Jerusalem -- Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to many people in and around Jerusalem. Many in the crowd would have been aware of that rumor. Peter then quotes Psalm 16 in which David rejoices that God would "not let His Holy One see decay". Well, David's dead, and we have his tomb. So this must have been a prophecy. And indeed it was -- a prophecy that the Messiah would die and be raised from the dead. That leads to the first of two key verses:

32 “God has raised this Jesus; we are all witnesses of this."

(The second is the verse that starts our final section below.)

It's a truly profound gospel presentation. Peter takes what the crowd would have known (the Old Testament, the rumors about Jesus), what the crowd would have experienced (evidence of the presence of God), and his own testimony (I saw the risen Jesus; I experienced the indwelling of the Spirit) and tells them that they are going to be on the wrong side of God's judgment if they don't ...

What a powerful way for Luke to begin his history!


Part 3: The Crowd Responds (Acts 2:36-38)

36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” 37 When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 36 is obviously the other key verse. And it has the desired effect. The crowd is cut to the heart and asks the question Luke wants all of his readers to ask:

What should we do?

Next week's lesson goes into the verses about what happened next, so hold off on that. Here, we want to camp out on what Peter said and all of the ways that churches have misinterpreted this over the centuries.

An Important Section on Misinterpretations of Acts 2:38

If you just read these verses and nothing else in the Bible, here is what you would conclude:

How do I get saved? Repent and be baptized.

What is baptism? Immersion in the name of Jesus.

What does baptism accomplish? The forgiveness of sins.

What is the result of baptism? The gift of the Holy Spirit.

What damage has this superficial reading of the Bible caused? Let me count the ways. Are these simplified answers necessarily wrong? Well, no. But when pushed to a certain conclusion in isolation from everything else the Bible teaches, they create confusion. Catholics lean into this to defend their sacramental system -- salvation requires actions such as penance and baptism. Unitarians (and specifically "Oneness Pentecostals") lean into this verse to say that Jesus is the only true God. One brand of that belief leans into the idea of "Jesus-Only Baptism" to defend a doctrine called "baptismal regeneration" which says that baptism is necessary for salvation. Certain branches of Pentecostalism emphasize the "gift of the Spirit" above any other aspect of salvation; in some of those branches, "speaking in tongues" is the only proof that one has been given the Spirit.

Those beliefs, and the churches that teach them, have caused so much confusion among people who are searching for the truth of Christianity (in other words, the very people Luke wrote Luke-Acts for). We have the rest of the Bible (starting with next week's passage!) to explain clearly what's wrong with those conclusions. I would love for you to take a little time on your own this week to come up with the fuller biblical answer to these questions:

  • How do I get saved?

  • What is baptism?

  • What does baptism accomplish?

  • What is the result of baptism? and also

  • What is the gift of the Holy Spirit?

You have more than enough biblical knowledge to answer those questions. [Important note: we are going to cover baptism in detail when we study Acts 8, so try to hold some of that particular discussion off until then!]

So, a counter-complaint I've heard is "Why was Peter so reckless with his words here? Why would he say things that could be so easily twisted and misinterpreted?"

Here's my best answer: did Peter's audience have problems understanding Peter's words, or do we have problems today?

That hopefully stills any complaints anyone has. Peter's audience knew exactly what Peter was getting at, and we will read in the subsequent verses that the people who responded to Peter had turned into a healthy, "biblical" body of believers.

What did they know that we don't?

First, remember that the context for this entire event is the coming of the Spirit. The Jews who observed it understood they were observing the presence of the Sprit, and Peter made it clear in his sermon that the events were a fulfillment of the promise of the Spirit in Joel 2. Peter's audience was Jews who faithfully worshiped God and desired God's Spirit. How do you get God's Spirit? Be saved in the name of Jesus.

To Peter's audience, the gift of the Spirit was evidence of God's salvation from His coming judgment. They weren't going to have an argument about a "second blessing" or a "third blessing" or anything like that. They immediately understood that "the gift of the Spirit" and "God's salvation" were synonymous.

Second, remember that to Peter's audience, the person and work of Jesus Christ was something they knew (about) personally. Some of the audience had probably heard Him preach. Most (all?) of the audience had heard rumors about Him. The Jewish authorities had declared Him anathema, and to be associated with the name of Jesus would have been a likely path to being kicked out of synagogue.

Why would Peter focus on the name of Jesus when he had not 10 days before heard Jesus' commission to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit? Because that's what he wanted to emphasize to his audience. They were starting something new; this was not an offshoot of Judaism, this was the fulfillment of Judaism. Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets, and His name was to be held above every other name.

And what was Jesus' message? "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near"! Why do the people need to repent? Because we need to be forgiven by God for our sins so that we can escape God's judgment on the wicked world. Exactly what Joel 2 prophesied. Is what Peter said -- repent of your sins and God will forgive you -- all that different from what we say today? Well, we add the important idea "and trust in Jesus for salvation" in the middle. And that's exactly what Peter was doing with the phrase "and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ". What did Peter's Jewish audience think about baptism? It was (1) necessary to be identified with Judaism as a convert, and (2) necessary for the Jewish rituals or purification. When Peter told them to be baptized in the name of Jesus, they inherently knew Peter was calling them to identify with a "new religion" about Jesus, and Jesus would be the One to purify them (of their sins, which would subsequently be forgiven).

There was probably some uncertainty in the early church about the "mechanics" of what was going on (we will read about a few in the months to come), but nobody would have drawn the conclusion that "the singular act of baptism in the name of Jesus is how my sins are forgiven". They knew too much about baptism, too much about the Jewish sacrificial system, and too much about the Day of the Lord to be that superficially distracted.

Unfortunately, in our world of myriad competing churches with competing messages about salvation that are steeped just enough in Bible-talk, we have to clarify those things for our audience today. Does that make sense?

Make sure that everybody in group can answer two main questions:

  • What was the purpose of the gift of the Spirit?

  • What was Peter's message to the crowd?

This will be the foundation of the rest of the book of Acts:

  • The message of the church.

  • The power of the church.

And all of that is still true of us today.


Closing Thoughts: "Have Thine Own Way, Lord"

At my church, we're going to sing "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" as the invitation (spoilers!). This song is a really good example of what our passage represents, though it has been pulled into some weird directions (probably because the author drifted into Christian mysticism in later years). Lyrics:

1 Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay.

Mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.

2 Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Search me and try me, Savior today!

Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now, as in thy presence humbly I bow.

3 Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Wounded and weary, help me I pray!

Power, all power, surely is thine! Touch me and heal me, Savior divine!

4 Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Hold o'er my being absolute sway.

Fill with thy Spirit till all shall see Christ only, always, living in me!

The story behind the hymn is that the author had fallen into depression that she was unable to raise enough money to go to Africa as a missionary. But in a prayer meeting, she was inspired by a woman who simply prayed that God would have His way in her life, whatever that looked like.

The "power" she was seeking from God was the power to confront her disappointing circumstances and humbly wait for God to give her guidance. (Which is exactly what our passage is about, as well as that Philippians 4 passage I had so badly misinterpreted!) Her desire was that the Spirit would help her live as a perfect witness of Christ. (Which is exactly the desire Jesus had for His disciples.)

[Closing aside: where things go off the rails is when people come to the conclusion that they can be a truly perfect witness of Christ. This is what led John Wesley to plant the seeds that would eventually become the Holiness Movement which eventually drifted into Pentecostalism. The problem is that we cannot fully escape the taint of sin in this life, no matter "how hard we pray". We can and should flee from sin at all times, but we should also be realistic about our continuous need for a Savior.]


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