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How Should Christians Celebrate the Passover?

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Every year, towards the end of Abib 14 of the Hebrew calendar, many in the Jewish community gather for the Passover seder. This special meal includes a shank of lamb, herbs, wine and an egg. A place is set for Elijah and during the ceremony children formally ask why this night is observed.

Passover customs at the time of Christ included formal temple ceremonies as well as a meal. The “Last Supper” recorded in the three Synoptic Gospels is a Passover celebration. But Christ’s practices on that night opened a whole new dimension for Christians.

God’s Covenant With Abraham

Understanding the history and theology of the Passover begins with God’s dealings with Abraham. Genesis 15 records God’s recommitment to an earlier covenant promising Abram that his descendants would be numerous and prosperous (Genesis 12:1-4 Genesis 12:1-4 1 Now the LORD had said to Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you: 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing: 3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse him that curses you: and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed. 4 So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken to him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.
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). In Genesis 15:2-3 Genesis 15:2-3 2 And Abram said, LORD God, what will you give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? 3 And Abram said, Behold, to me you have given no seed: and, see, one born in my house is my heir.
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Abram reminds God that because he has no natural heir, the promises remain unfulfilled. God then instructs Abram to present animals suited for sacrifice.

The unusual rituals found in Genesis 15 are not explained in the Bible but are found in ancient Middle Eastern covenant rites. The Kiel &amp Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament states: “The transaction itself was not a real sacrifice, since there was neither sprinkling of blood nor offering upon an altar, and no mention is made of the pieces being burned. The proceeding corresponded rather to the custom, prevalent in many ancient nations, of slaughtering animals when concluding a covenant, and after dividing them into pieces, of laying the pieces opposite to one another, that the persons making the covenant might pass between them” (Vol. 1, 1996, pages 136-137).

God, as the initiator of the covenant, is represented by the “smoking oven” and “burning torch” of Abram’s vision. (Fire and smoke are common manifestations of God’s presence.) It is interesting that Abram didn’t pass between the cut animals as was customary in a covenant between equals but was incapacitated. The covenant ultimately includes a promise of the land of Canaan (Genesis 15:18-21 Genesis 15:18-21 18 In the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates: 19 The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, 20 And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, 21 And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.
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Genesis 15:13-14 Genesis 15:13-14 13 And he said to Abram, Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not their’s, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance.
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contains a prophecy concerning Abram’s descendants spanning over four centuries: “Then He said to Abram, ‘Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterward they shall come out with great possessions.”

The rest of the book of Genesis details the lives of Isaac (including the near sacrifice of Isaac with its foreshadowing of Christ’s sacrifice—Genesis 22), Jacob and Joseph and how Abraham’s descendants migrated to Egypt. The book of Exodus begins hundreds of years later when Israel is enslaved just as God predicted.

The Exodus Passover

The 400-year prophecy of Genesis 15 is fulfilled during the life of Moses as Israel’s deliverer, making the Passover of the Exodus a prophesied event of the Abrahamic covenant. Exodus chapters 1 through 11 outline God’s judgment on Egypt leading to the 10th plague of killing the firstborn. In Exodus 12 God institutes the Passover sacrifice:

• Verses 1-6: A lamb, without blemish, to be selected on the 10th day of Abib and held until the 14th when it is to be killed.
• Verse 7: The blood of the lamb to be spread on the doorposts of the houses.
• Verses 8-9: The Israelites are to roast the lamb.
• Verses 10-11: The Israelites are to eat it with sandals on their feet and staff in hands.
• Verses 12-14: This is to be a memorial of when God passed over them in Egypt.
• Verse 21: The lamb itself is called the Passover.
• Verses 22-28: The Israelites trusted God and obeyed Him.

Instructions in Exodus 12:43-49 Exodus 12:43-49 43 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: 44 But every man’s servant that is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. 45 A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereof. 46 In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry forth ought of the flesh abroad out of the house; neither shall you break a bone thereof. 47 All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. 48 And when a stranger shall sojourn with you, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. 49 One law shall be to him that is home born, and to the stranger that sojournes among you.
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specify that the Passover could only be eaten in households where the males were circumcised. No one could participate in the Passover without entering into God’s covenant and accepting the sign of that covenant.

Since the Sinai covenant, or what is often called the Old Covenant, hadn’t yet been instituted, the reference here is to the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17:21-27 Genesis 17:21-27 21 But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear to you at this set time in the next year. 22 And he left off talking with him, and God went up from Abraham. 23 And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house; and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said to him. 24 And Abraham was ninety years old and nine, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 25 And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. 26 In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son. 27 And all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him.
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). To be a participant in the Egyptian Passover, a person had to be a participant of the Abrahamic covenant. The death angel “passed over” those who placed the lamb’s blood on their doorposts, and the Israelites left Egypt for the Promised Land as God had prophesied.

The Deuteronomy Passover

Months later, as Israel camped before Mount Sinai, God instituted a new covenant with them that was an extension and fulfillment of promises made under the Abrahamic covenant. The Sinai covenant eventually involved a formalized priesthood and tabernacle, which necessitated some changes in the Passover administration as recorded in Deuteronomy 16:1-7 Deuteronomy 16:1-7 1 Observe the month of Abib, and keep the passover to the LORD your God: for in the month of Abib the LORD your God brought you forth out of Egypt by night. 2 You shall therefore sacrifice the passover to the LORD your God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the LORD shall choose to place his name there. 3 You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days shall you eat unleavened bread therewith, even the bread of affliction; for you came forth out of the land of Egypt in haste: that you may remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. 4 And there shall be no leavened bread seen with you in all your coast seven days; neither shall there any thing of the flesh, which you sacrificed the first day at even, remain all night until the morning. 5 You may not sacrifice the passover within any of your gates, which the LORD your God gives you: 6 But at the place which the LORD your God shall choose to place his name in, there you shall sacrifice the passover at even, at the going down of the sun, at the season that you came forth out of Egypt. 7 And you shall roast and eat it in the place which the LORD your God shall choose: and you shall turn in the morning, and go to your tents.
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• Verses 1-4: These instructions encompass the sacrifices of the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread (notice verse 2 mentions both flocks and herds or cattle, while cattle were not to be slain as the Passover), but also seem to specifically deal with changes in the administration of the Passover.
•Verses 5-7: Under the Deuteronomy administration the Passover lamb was to be slain at a central place, which later became Jerusalem, the site of the temple.

The Torah also emphasizes that events of Abib 14, specifically the killing of the Passover, are distinct from events of Abib 15 (Leviticus 23:4-8 Leviticus 23:4-8 4 These are the feasts of the LORD, even holy convocations, which you shall proclaim in their seasons. 5 In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD’s passover. 6 And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the LORD: seven days you must eat unleavened bread. 7 In the first day you shall have an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein. 8 But you shall offer an offering made by fire to the LORD seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: you shall do no servile work therein.
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; Numbers 28:16-17 Numbers 28:16-17 16 And in the fourteenth day of the first month is the passover of the LORD. 17 And in the fifteenth day of this month is the feast: seven days shall unleavened bread be eaten.
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Jesus Institutes a New Covenant

Biblical scholars debate on whether the “Last Supper” was a traditional seder. The Gospels contain very specific language signifying that these events were in fact, if not a seder, a Passover meal. Notice Luke’s account in Luke 22:7-23 Luke 22:7-23 7 Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. 8 And he sent Peter and John, saying, Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat. 9 And they said to him, Where will you that we prepare? 10 And he said to them, Behold, when you are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he enters in. 11 And you shall say to the manager of the house, The Master said to you, Where is the guest room, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? 12 And he shall show you a large upper room furnished: there make ready. 13 And they went, and found as he had said to them: and they made ready the passover. 14 And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. 15 And he said to them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: 16 For I say to you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. 17 And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: 18 For I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. 19 And he took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and gave to them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. 20 Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. 21 But, behold, the hand of him that betrays me is with me on the table. 22 And truly the Son of man goes, as it was determined: but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed! 23 And they began to inquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
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• Verse 7: The Passover was to be killed on Abib 14. Jesus’ instructions are on the 13th because the next day was the 14th. Since biblical days begin at sunset, the meal and ceremonies that night would be after sundown and occur on the 14th.
• Verse 8-13: The wording here is definite in declaring that Jesus and the disciples are participating in a Passover service.
• Verses 14-16: Jesus says that He has desired to eat this Passover with His disciples before His “suffering.” Jesus clearly calls this meal with His disciples a Passover.
• Verses 17-23: Jesus now institutes a new Passover observance. The administrative elements of the Passover were to take on a new meaning because a new covenant was being established.

The New Covenant Passover

It is important to notice the profound administrative differences in the Exodus, Deuteronomy and New Covenant Passovers.

The Exodus Passover entailed a slaying of a lamb on the 14th of Abib so that the death angel would pass over the Israelites. The Deuteronomy Passover entailed sacrificing lambs as a memorial of the Exodus Passover. In Israel’s history it was also seen as a means of sanctification. Hezekiah’s Passover included sprinkling the lamb’s blood on those present (2 Chronicles 30:15-17 2 Chronicles 30:15-17 15 Then they killed the passover on the fourteenth day of the second month: and the priests and the Levites were ashamed, and sanctified themselves, and brought in the burnt offerings into the house of the LORD. 16 And they stood in their place after their manner, according to the law of Moses the man of God: the priests sprinkled the blood, which they received of the hand of the Levites. 17 For there were many in the congregation that were not sanctified: therefore the Levites had the charge of the killing of the passovers for every one that was not clean, to sanctify them to the LORD.
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). The New Covenant Passover entails the reality of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God (1 Corinthians 5:7 1 Corinthians 5:7Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
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The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers entailed eating a meal including a lamb. The New Covenant Passover entails eating bread and drinking wine as symbols of Christ as the Lamb of God. With the reality of Christ fulfilling the Passover sacrifice, it was necessary to change the symbols of the Passover service. It was no longer essential to sacrifice a lamb as a type of a future event.

On the night before He died, Jesus instituted bread and wine as symbols of His body and blood. Neither the Exodus nor Deuteronomy Passovers contain any instructions about drinking wine. The Jewish seder contains wine, but the seder is a Jewish tradition, not a scriptural injunction. Notice Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 1 Corinthians 11:17-26 17 Now in this that I declare to you I praise you not, that you come together not for the better, but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when you come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. 19 For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. 20 When you come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. 21 For in eating every one takes before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have you not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise you the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not. 23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come.
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• Verses 17-22: Paul instructs the Corinthian church not to have a meal during this communal ceremony.
• Verses 23-25: Paul instructs the Church to follow Christ’s example of taking the bread and wine on the same night He was betrayed.

The Exodus Passover involved the painting of the lamb’s blood on the doorposts. The Deuteronomy Passover involved the sacrificial blood of a lamb. The New Covenant Passover involves its participants being “washed” in the blood of Christ (Revelation 1:4-6 Revelation 1:4-6 4 John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be to you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne; 5 And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. To him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, 6 And has made us kings and priests to God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
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The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers contain no instructions for foot-washing. The New Covenant Passover contains instructions for foot-washing (John 13:1-17 John 13:1-17 1 Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him; 3 Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; 4 He rises from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. 5 After that he pours water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 Then comes he to Simon Peter: and Peter said to him, Lord, do you wash my feet? 7 Jesus answered and said to him, What I do you know not now; but you shall know hereafter. 8 Peter said to him, You shall never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash you not, you have no part with me. 9 Simon Peter said to him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. 10 Jesus said to him, He that is washed needs not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and you are clean, but not all. 11 For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, You are not all clean. 12 So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said to them, Know you what I have done to you? 13 You call me Master and Lord: and you say well; for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. 17 If you know these things, happy are you if you do them.
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The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers entailed sacrificing lambs as a memorial of the Egyptian deliverance. The New Covenant Passover is a memorial to Christ’s deliverance of Christians from the slavery of sin (Romans 6).

Participation in the Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers was limited to families whose males were physically circumcised. The New Covenant Passover is only for those who have been spiritually circumcised symbolized by baptism (Romans 2:28-29 Romans 2:28-29 28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
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; Colossians 2:11-12 Colossians 2:11-12 11 In whom also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also you are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised him from the dead.
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The Exodus and Deuteronomy Passovers involved the quick killing of the lamb. The New Covenant Passover involves the suffering of the Lamb of God (Isaiah 52:13-53 Isaiah 52:13-53 13 Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. 14 As many were astonished at you; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men: 15 So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
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:12; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 3 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; 4 Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God. 5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds by Christ. 6 And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. 7 And our hope of you is steadfast, knowing, that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation.
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). Christ’s sacrifice was more than the act of a Roman soldier stabbing Him around 3 in the afternoon of Abib 14. It included all the events that began the night before.

Typology of the Passover

Many of the types of the Exodus or Deuteronomy Passovers are celebrated in the reality of the New Covenant Passover.

The Exodus or Deuteronomy slaying of a lamb were types of Christ’s sacrifice. Israel’s leaving of Egypt is a type of the Christian leaving spiritual Egypt. Christians should gather on the anniversary of the night before Christ’s sacrifice, not as a type of Israel’s experience, but as a celebration of the profound reality of Christ’s sacrifice and their deliverance from spiritual bondage.

It is important for Christians not to base their Passover observance on the Exodus or Deuteronomy administrations, but to follow Christ’s instructions as the Passover Lamb and High Priest of a better covenant.

Controversy in the Early Church

Eusebius (A.D. 263-339) gives us a glimpse into the early church in The History of the Church. He records that in the early second century a bishop from Asia Minor named Polycarp confronted the bishop of Rome over the issue of observing the Passover on Abib 14 instead of celebrating Easter. Polycarp claimed to have been a disciple of the apostle John and taught that the Passover was the true observance of the apostles.

In the latter half of the second century the Passover controversy became critical and divided the churches in Asia Minor from those who observed Easter in the West. The Passover contingent, known as Quartodecimans, were led by Polycrates. In a letter to the bishop in Rome, Polycrates wrote, “We for our part keep the day scrupulously, without addition or subtraction. For in Asia great luminaries sleep who shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s advent, when He is coming in glory from heaven and shall search out all the saints… All of these kept the fourteenth day of the month as the beginning of the Paschal festival, in accordance with the Gospel, not deviating in the least but following the rule of the Faith” ( The History of the Church, Eusebius, pages 230-231).

In the resulting conflict the churches in Asia Minor who observed the Passover on Abib 14 in accordance with the Gospel accounts were excommunicated by the bishop of Rome.

Henry Chadwick sums up the dilemma in The Early Church: “It was impossible in so weighty a practical question for diversity to be allowed, but there can be little doubt that the Quartodecimans were right in thinking that they had preserved the most ancient and apostolic custom. They had become heretics simply by being behind the times” (1985, page 85).

The Exodus, Deuteronomy and New Covenant Passovers all reflect God working out His plan of salvation. Each administration involves different ways of celebrating both the temporary realities of the people of those times and the future reality when Jesus Christ would become the Passover and administer the New Covenant as the High Priest of God.

Christ leaves a clear example of how the New Covenant Passover is to be observed. As Paul wrote, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 23 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered to you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: 24 And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do you, as oft as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you do show the Lord’s death till he come.
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On the night He was betrayed, Christians are to gather together to conduct a foot-washing ceremony and take bread and wine as symbols of His sacrifice. Christians are to celebrate this special occasion as a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice, our present relationship with God through the resurrected Christ and the future establishment of Christ’s priesthood at His return.

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