Don’t Get Left Behind: Why Pastors Should Consider Preaching through Revelation in Our Cultural Moment


If you want to pastor faithfully in the midst of cultural and political turmoil, then consider teaching through the book of Revelation.

Modern evangelicals tend to have an allergic response any time someone brings up Revelation’s significance for “the times we live in.” Don’t worry. I’m not about to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, that a particular politician is the harlot of Babylon, or that the locusts of Revelation 9 are really Apache helicopters. I didn’t grow up reading Left Behind, but I’ve seen my share of “biblical” apocalypse movies. I’m not interested in following those sensationalized readings of Revelation.

If you’ve got a newspaper in one hand and Revelation in the other, you’re probably seeing things in Scripture that simply aren’t there. Revelation isn’t a play-by-play of 21st century American politics. In short, if you want Revelation to inform your understanding of our culture’s crises, don’t get Left Behind.

At the same time, modern evangelicals can learn something from previous generations’ preoccupation with apocalyptic literature. After all, God gave us Revelation to challenge our temporally-obsessed, earthly perspective of the world. It lifts our eyes beyond political powers, pandemics, elections, and economic crises to spiritual realities: principalities, powers, and the Christ who rules over heaven and earth. It confronts our preoccupation with the immediate and reminds us that the most important and defining features of our world are unseen. By diagnosing our primary problem as outside this realm, Revelation also reminds us that our ultimate hope lies in someone who can overcome the spiritual powers that lie behind this world’s brokenness and corruption. In times of political and cultural turmoil, we need Revelation.


At the same time, we shouldn’t let sensationalized and fantastic interpretations of Revelation keep us from asking what the book has to teach us. This journal is all about pastoring in political turmoil—and Revelation, by-and-large, is about how Christians can walk faithfully amid the world’s political, cultural, and economic tumult. Every interpretive approach to Revelation ought to affirm this. Whether you’re pre-, post-, or amillennial, Revelation simply is about disease, bloodshed, political corruption, materialism, false doctrine, war, and—let’s not forget—the Christ who one day will conquer them all.

Before unpacking a few lessons Revelation can teach us about our current political moment, let me explain how I approach the book. At the risk of oversimplifying and ignoring potential “But what about….” moments you’ll likely experience in the rest of this article, I’ll be brief. Revelation is a book of symbols. As Vern Poythress says, “Revelation is a picture book, not a puzzle book.”[1] As we read, our first aim shouldn’t be to find out what every obscure detail means but simply to look for each symbol’s big idea. Again, as Poythress notes, those big ideas are pretty clear, “Praise the Lord. Cheer for the saints. Detest the Beast. Long for the final victory” (13).

The larger question, of course, is where we locate these symbols in redemptive history. Is Revelation largely a book about future events, even from our own historical location? Or do these symbols represent events throughout the history of the church, or as others assert, events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70?

I think, instead of identifying each symbol with a specific historical event (whether past or future) we should read these symbols typologically; they represent the types of events that recur throughout history. In other words, Revelation provides a symbolic description of the world in every culture and in every age. If 2020’s pandemic, civil unrest, political decadence, government corruption, and overall tumult has felt a tad apocalyptic, well, that’s because it is. These are the characteristics of a demonically influenced old-world order—one both raging against and running scared from David’s heir.

I’m not denying that Revelation lays out prophetic expectations. It surely does. But even when Revelation describes events just prior to the return of Christ, those events are often the culmination of repeated patterns throughout history. Or as John might say, “As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come” (1 Jn. 2:18).[2] There’s a reason every era of human history is dominated by antichrists, false teachers, wars, bloodshed, pestilence, famine, and bloodthirsty political powers. These are patterns that anticipate the final day of God’s judgment, typological warnings in real, time-and-space history that reveal the coming wrath of the Lamb.


So what does Revelation say about Christian faithfulness in political and cultural turmoil? Well, far more than we can cover in this article, but here’s a brief summary of at least some of the data.

For the sake of simplicity, consider Revelation as consisting of two parts. Part One focuses generally on the recurring patterns of political, economic, and social turmoil that come from the Messiah’s hand into our world as a sign of his coming judgment. Part Two focuses on the world powers employed by Satan to persecute and corrupt the church.

Part One begins with John’s vision of the exalted Christ (Rev. 4–5)—the beating heart of Revelation’s message. Here he is both the Lion of Judah and the Lamb standing as though slain. Christ’s singular ability to open the scroll of heaven and break its seven seals reveals that he is the Lord of history—sovereign over political movements, military conquests, and even global pandemics. By and large, the seals, and the horsemen that come from them, represent the Lamb’s wrath against his enemies, a provisional judgment that he will one day pour out on them without restraint. What are these judgments? Military conquests (6:1–2); war (6:3–4); scarcity and famine (6:5–6); and violence, pestilence, and death (6:7–8).

Yet through all these judgments the Lord cares for his people, keeping them for himself and promising them final deliverance (7:1–17). These provisional judgments are described again with the blasting of seven trumpets—anticipatory signs of the Lamb’s wrath that echo the Egyptian plagues. The exodus allusion cements the point of these trumpet blasts. The Lord has brought political superpowers to their knees before and he will continue to do so until he comes again. He will expose the highest achievements of human ingenuity as mere pretense.

Part Two introduces the dragon (Satan) and his violent efforts to destroy Israel and ultimately the Messiah (Rev. 12:1–6). But his efforts prove vain. Having been defeated by Christ’s death and resurrection, he is no longer able to access heaven and accuse the saints (12:7–11). Defeated on that front, the dragon turns his bloodlust against Christ’s church on earth (12:12), empowering an unholy trinity bent on destroying Christ’s people: the Beast, the false prophet, and the harlot of Babylon.

John describes the Beast as a composite of the world empires of Daniel 7: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome. The Beast is an archetype of the kingdoms of the world, characterized by violence and bloodlust like the violent beasts who symbolize them. Even more striking, however, is the way the Beast attempts to assert itself as the true messiah. It presents itself as having risen from the dead (13:3), invites worship (13:4), and claims authority “over every tribe and people and language and nation” (13:7; cf. 7:9).

The false prophet primarily symbolizes false ideology and deception, particularly deception that serves the ultimate supremacy of the state (Rev. 13:14). This prophet speaks words “like a dragon”—showing it’s ultimately empowered by the father of lies himself. As Poythress notes, the false prophet is the Beast’s “propagandist.”[3] Just as the Beast is a false messiah, the false prophet is a counterfeit Holy Spirit, testifying to the power and authority of the Beast. The false prophet bucks no rivals to the Beast, marking all who are loyal to it (13:16) and stripping those who won’t bow to the Beast of their ability to buy and sell (13:17)—an attempt to impoverish the saints who won’t embrace his Satanic agenda.

Finally, the harlot of Babylon represents the material and sexual seductions of the world (17:2). Like the Beast and the false prophet, she is a counterfeit—a whorish, satanic substitute of the pure bride of Christ. She allures the world into allegiance with the Beast with promises of pleasure—a pleasure that can only be realized by silencing the witness of the saints (17:6).

The rest of Revelation returns to that glorious picture of Christ in heaven. In its final chapters, we see Christ not opening the seals of prospective judgment but coming to rescue his people, fully and finally, by destroying the harlot, the false prophet, the Beast, and eventually the dragon himself.

Summing up, Revelation shows us a portrait of the world characterized by political, social, and economic turmoil. It provides us a symbolic vocabulary for seeing our world from Christ’s heavenly perspective.

How then do we shepherd people in light of this? Here are five lessons Revelation teaches us in the midst of political turmoil.


1. Embrace Revelation’s supernatural perspective on reality.

One of the most important lessons Revelation can teach us is that things aren’t always as they seem. Dennis Johnson summarizes it well:

The church in Smyrna appears poor but is rich, and it is opposed by those who claim to be Jews but are Satan’s synagogue (Rev. 2:9). Sardis has a reputation for life but is dead (3:1). Laodicea thinks itself rich and self-sufficient, but this church is destitute and naked (3:17). The beast seems invincible, able to conquer the saints by slaying them (11:7; 13:7); their faithfulness even to death, however, proves to be their victory over the dragon that empowered the beast (12:11). What appears to the naked eye, on the plane of human history, to be weak, helpless, hunted, poor, defeated congregations of Jesus’ faithful servants prove to be the true overcomers who participate in the triumph of the Lion who conquered as a slain Lamb. What appear to be the invincible forces controlling history—the military-political religious-economic complex that is Rome and its less lustrous successors—is a system sown with the seeds of its self destruction, already feeling the first lashes of the wrath of the Lamb. On the plane of visible history things are not what they appear, so Revelation’s symbols make things appear as they are.”[4]

Christians should beware the hyper-naturalist pressures of our secular age. After all, if we believe the Bible, then we should shamelessly remember that we live in a world where angels are dispatched to answer the prayers of the saints but have to call in reinforcements against demonic opposition just to reach them (Dan. 10:10–14). The world wants to make you feel silly for saying things like that. After all, if Christians get embarrassed about their supernaturalism, then it won’t be long before they stop talking about a Jewish carpenter who rose from the dead.

Revelation teaches us not to succumb to the parochial, naïve interpretation this world offers of itself. Despite appearances, the powers of this world are not ultimate, the judgements of its political leaders are not final, and its pleasures are not as lasting as Satan might have us believe. The world’s seductions are Satan’s ruse. Despite the false prophet’s propaganda, the Beast cannot save us and is not worthy of our worship. The perceived power and glamor of our political, economic, and cultural institutions will one day be revealed for what they truly are: powerless and empty.

Christians should never see the world by the standards of this age. We have access to Christ’s heavenly perspective, a view of what’s truly true and really real—spiritual realities behind earthly experiences. What may seem ultimate and all-consuming to the world is, in reality, a passing thing, and Christians shouldn’t be taken in by the lie.

No, the next election isn’t the most important political moment in history. No, the hopes of economic prosperity shouldn’t dictate our every decision. No, the church isn’t an irrelevant band of defeated losers. No, it’s not silly to resist illicit, worldly pleasure. No, our political parties and leaders aren’t worthy of the unquestioning devotion they demand. No, resisting LGBT indoctrination is not placing yourself on “the wrong side of history.”

Revelation helps us see past the façade of this world’s power and glory and reminds us that at the center of creation and the fulcrum of history lies another paradox: a lamb, standing as though slain (Rev. 5:6).

2. Don’t be surprised by the turmoil or forget the one behind it.

Revelation reminds us that our current political and cultural upheavals are nothing out of the ordinary. The seals and trumpet blasts repeat in every generation and culture. Just consider the last century. Ten out of the last 100 years were spent with the entire world at war; over 100 million people were killed as a result. In fact, humanity became so skilled at killing one another, they ignited an arms race and built weapons capable of incinerating millions at a moment’s notice. In 1918, the Spanish Flu swept across the globe killing somewhere between 17–50 million people. A global depression destroyed lives and made food and resources scarce.

Moreover, longstanding European empires and monarchies fell to violent mobs and revolutionaries—many of them spearheaded by men who would commit unspeakable atrocities against their own people. An Austrian lunatic came to control one of the most formidable armies ever assembled and used his political and military power to attempt to wipe out the Jews, brutalizing and killing six million of them before finally being stopped. Communist leaders such as Stalin and Mao killed tens of millions more. Finally, our new century opened with terrorists killing thousands of innocent civilians by flying planes into towers.

In our day, Revelation’s patterns represented by the seals and their horsemen continue to play out. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic is yet another iteration of the pestilence described by the fourth seal. Christ is exposing the emptiness of human power and beckoning us to give up worldly hopes. He has sent pandemics to cripple world powers before as a foreshadowing of his ultimate victory. In fact, the original readers of Revelation would have seen in Christ’s breaking of the seals his ultimate authority even over the might of Rome. As one historian observed:

Again and again, the forward march of Roman power and world organization was interrupted by the only force against which political genius and military valor were utterly helpless—epidemic diseases . . . and when it came, as though carried by storm clouds, all other things gave way, and men crouched in terror, abandoning all their quarrels, undertakings, and ambitions, until the tempest had blown over.[5]

Our world is anything but safe. We shouldn’t be surprised by the tumult. But neither should we fear it. We can trust our Savior because we know he stands sovereign over all. The Lamb is breaking the seals and commissioning the horsemen to carry out his judgments. We know these trials ultimately come from the sovereign hand of our Lord, the one who will ultimately deliver his people.

3. Beware the Beast and the false prophet—governments who would devour the saints.

Human government is often an agent of good, an institution of common grace that orders society and keeps unrighteousness in check. Yet human government is also fallen, co-opted by the dragon to appease his bloodlust and wage war against the saints. In fact, the blessings of sound government are often the very thing Satan employs to promote the state as a false Messiah. As Johnson explains, “Rome had come to the rescue of some of the Asian cities [mentioned in Revelation 1–3] in time of need. It is no wonder that emperors, at least after death, were lauded in the eastern empire as ‘lord and savior.’”[6]

State powers are often monuments to human hubris and achievement. Rome lauded itself as the ultimate power, demanding that its subjects affirm “Caesar is Lord.” As “the Beast” in John’s time, it promised stability, wealth, safety, and justice. Like every political institution and ideology, it promised utopia. But it also demanded devotion, even worship, from its subjects. It wanted to be seen as a savior.

As a result, Christians in the first century often found themselves at odds with Rome in particular and the culture in general—not because they were bad citizens but because they refused to engage in the civil religion of the empire. “Civil religion,” notes Johnson, “seems so credible and satisfying, so affirming and nonconfrontational, so supportive of the social order and conducive to cultural harmony—as long as everyone docilely complies.”

This hubris and self-aggrandizing messianism ultimately characterizes every political entity. Utopianism is alive and well, a fact made clear every four years in our own political climate. Pastors and Christians must remember that the state beckons our worship. Like Rome, it too wants to be perceived as a savior.

What might Western, and particularly American, Christians learn from Revelation’s depiction of the Beast and the false prophet?

First, while I deeply appreciate the innumerable social goods birthed out of America’s political commitments, every Christian must recognize that the United States is not the kingdom of God, but part of the cadre of nations in Psalm 2 that rages against the Lord and his anointed.

Despite the evidences of common grace in the American political system (common graces worth preserving), we also see evidence of the Beast’s image imprinted there as well. We find the Beast reflected in America’s founding when it embraced a system of race-based slavery that considered black image-bearers only 3/5 of a person. We find that same bestial bloodlust today as the government upholds and funds institutions responsible for the slaughter of nearly 60 million unborn babies in the last 50 years, and as recently as last year failed to pass legislation protecting babies who survive abortion from infanticide.[7]

Second, Revelation teaches that the Beast’s violence often manifests as state-sponsored persecution against Christians.

The Beast makes “war on the saints . . . to conquer them” (Rev. 13:7). While Christians in the West have yet to face this reality, we shouldn’t assume it will never come, particularly given the pace of radical secularization. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world already experience this persecution. Western Christians would do well to note their faithfulness and willingness to suffer the Beast’s violence for the sake of faithfulness to Christ.

More likely, Western Christians will find themselves objects of the false prophet’s antagonism. State-sponsored false ideology—ideologies promoted with evangelistic zeal in university classrooms, television shows, hit songs, advertising, political campaigns, and the media—ultimately seeks either to deceive or displace Christians, removing them from any meaningful cultural participation. The false prophet “marks” the Beast’s loyalists “on the right hand or the forehead,” symbolizing that they do his bidding (hands) and think in accord with his lies (head) (13:16). Those who won’t follow suit and “get on the right side of history” are excluded from society, even kept from buying and selling—persecuted not by violence but through economic belittling (13:17).

It’s easy to imagine how the LGBT revolution, now embraced and championed by Western governments, might lead to the very situation described in Revelation. We already see evidence along these lines as professors and public school teachers jobs’ hang in the balance depending on whether they’re willing to get in line with calling men women and women men.[8] As Revelation teaches—and as history has shown—such social ostracization is Satan’s endgame in state-sponsored deception.

Finally, Christians need to beware the Beast in how our nation’s political movements and parties beckon our unswerving devotion, inviting us to view them as a savior. Political promises are often endowed with eschatological significance, the hope of heaven on earth. Political powers claim that they alone can fix the system, drain the swamp, or, at the very least, stop the other side from leading us to ruin.

Furthermore, the state uses military and technological power to posture itself as a messianic figure. Military might promises security while cultural achievements and technology promise comfort. As Poythress explains, a state’s cultural achievements are turned from acts of servant leadership into invitations for spiritual devotion. “Technology,” he writes, “becomes the worker of miraculous signs (13:14). The signs tell us that true power resides in the modern view of the world. Worship the power of the Beast, the power of the technocratic state organization, the power of the expert, because technology can work wonders like no one else.”[9]

Christians must resist the messianic claims of political figures and state power. I’m not asserting that Christians refrain from political action. By all means, give your political party your vote, just don’t give them your heart. Again, as Johnson notes,

The worship of rulers as gods, descendants of the gods, or gods in the making . . . is less overt in Western culture today than it was in the ancient world. Even in so-called secular states, however, governments can arrogate to themselves quasi-divine powers and issue quasi-divine promises of salvation to their loyal and believing subjects. Such states have no qualms about exploiting religious establishments in the interests of civic loyalty and cultural conformity. But people who, in allegiance to “another king, Jesus,” resist the state’s claim to ownership over forehead and hand, mind and deed, are seen as threats to good order and the common weal—and must be eliminated.[10]

Before moving on to the next point, let me quickly note that I don’t mean to give the impression that state power is an unmitigated bad or that Christians should only have a negative posture toward government authorities. Obviously, both Genesis 9 and Romans 13 highlight that government is established by God, a common-grace institution that orders society and makes life possible in a fallen world. None of what John teaches in Revelation should be used against Paul’s injunction that we both submit to the government (Rom. 13) and pray for its leaders (1 Tim. 2:1–2).

My burden in this article, however, is to show how John’s apocalypse gives Christians a symbolic vocabulary that accounts for the deep-seated, Satanic evil which Christians encounter in political and cultural powers in every age, and how the vision of Christ reigning over history in heaven provides the church militant both marching orders for our age and an unconquerable hope in the age to come. Its stark good vs. evil dualism cuts through the fog of life under the sun, preserving Christians from Pollyannaish naivete.

American Christians have long known peace and prosperity. We would do well to let Revelation’s symbolic world capture our imaginations for at least two reasons: first, our culture is growing increasingly hostile toward the church. Second, the pervasive dangers of materialism often go unnoticed in our hearts and churches. Revelation’s portrait of the majesty of Christ emboldens Christians. The more we focus on Revelation’s Christology, the more our churches will be marked by courage and fortitude in the winds of stiff opposition.

4. Beware the harlot of Babylon—forces that would seduce the saints.

The church’s most insidious enemy is perhaps the harlot of Babylon, the promise of worldly pleasure at the expense of fidelity to Christ. Satan has devoured far more professing Christians’ souls through sensuality and pleasure than social pressure and persecution. The harlot’s seduction for material gain is often inextricably linked to the power of the state and its affluence (Rev. 17:3). Poythress summarizes the harlot’s seduction well:

The cities of the first century have not been the only centers of idolatry, greed, materialism, and sexual immorality. Our modern cities, with their wealth, false religions, and sexual exploitation, are modern forms of Babylon. The media and their advertisements can bring into our homes and thoughts the seductions of money, sex, power, and pleasure. Advertisements tell us that satisfaction and meaningful living can be found if only we buy the latest product. They say, “If only you have enough money and toys and sensual pleasures, you will be fulfilled.”[11]

The church must resist the allure of personal affluence when that affluence demands we participate in unrighteousness. Worldliness, particularly the self-indulgent sort, is always a danger amid affluence. Of course, money and affluence aren’t evil in and of themselves, but living for material wealth or embracing the spirit of materialism at the center of the secular worldview is.

According to John, seeking after the pleasures of the world is to leave the pure bride of Christ and wed yourself to the harlot of Babylon. But that harlot is destined for destruction. She may hold a cup made of alluring gold, but inside it are the “abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality” (Rev. 17:4). Her beauty will be stripped, she will be publicly humiliated, and “in a single hour all [her] wealth” will dry up (Rev. 18:17).

5. Remember who’s coming.

Despite John’s urgent and serious calls not to be taken in by political deceit or worldly pleasure, every chapter of Revelation rings with confidence that the church will prevail precisely because Christ has already conquered. No power threatens his regency. World history plays out by his command. Even the horsemen of conquest, war, scarcity, pestilence, and death are sent by him to carry out his bidding (6:1–8). His victory over Satan is already secured (12:7–12), and one day he will come to dispatch the dragon’s servants: the Beast, the false prophet, and the harlot. The Beast’s power will prove vain, the false prophet’s lies will be exposed (Rev. 19:17–21), and the harlot’s hidden ugliness will come to light (Rev. 18:2).

None of this means churches should be characterized by triumphalism. Revelation reminds us that we are the church militant, at war against principalities and powers—awaiting our final rescue. Political turmoil should neither shock the church nor unsettle it but reinforce its identity as an embassy of a heavenly kingdom, one unwilling to capitulate to an old-world order that fawns at the pleasures of a harlot and worships the might of a Beast.

Resisting Satan’s calculated snares and the allures of the world requires suffering. But throughout Revelation we’re reminded that Christ turns Satan’s attacks in on themselves. The Beast thinks he can slay Christ’s people, but in reality his violence only causes them to “come to life” to “reign with Christ” (Rev. 20:4). Poythress again: “Even when demonic forces are ravaging the church, they are only establishing Christians in positions of real and permanent power!”[12]

Revelation reminds us that even in the midst of political and cultural upheaval, the church need not fear. It unfurls Satan’s schemes and, in the process, gives Christians, particularly in times of increasing cultural and political opposition, a symbolic vocabulary to help them navigate their commitment to Christ.

Pastor, in this time of political turmoil, consider teaching your people Revelation. After all, our posture toward the world and its political institutions should be shaped by one great reality: he is coming (Rev. 22:20).

* * * * *


[1]Vern Poythress, The Returning King (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2000), 13. Throughout this article I have liberally relied on Vern Poythress’s The Returning King and Dennis Johnson’s The Triumph of the Lamb (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001). My hope is that these quotations will whet your appetite to read these books yourselves. Poythress and Johnson write from an amillenial perspective. For an excellent premillennial commentary on Revelation, see Jim Hamilton’s Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches (Wheation, IL: Crossway, 2012).

[2] For those familiar with the terminology, I am an amillenialist and a modified idealist, one that embraces some preterist and futurist elements of Revelation. Dennis Johnson helpfully explains how modified idealism embraces the prophetic, futurist elements of Revelation: “Occasionally idealist interpreters, overreacting (I think) to futurism’s fixation on the final tribulation, minimize Revelation’s clear expectation that Christ’s return will be preceded by a period of brief but intense persecution for the church. Revelation shows in various ways that the church’s present experience of persecution, although genuinely painful, is nevertheless limited by God’s powerful restraint of the dragon and. His minions. The two witnesses’ enemies cannot destroy them until their testifying mission is complete, at which time the beast will conquer and kill them. The evil trio will deceive and gather the kings and nations to wage war against the Lamb and his army, the camp of the saints—but not until the dragon is released to resume the deceptive power he wielded over the Gentiles prior to Christ’s death and resurrection. Idealism that pays careful attention (as we should) to all that Revelation reveals will not conclude that history will go on normally and then Jesus will return. Revelation presents a more complex picture: the kingdom is advancing and gathering in the nations through the church’s witness amid suffering; and then, just before the end, intensified and coordinated hostility of the non-Christian world against the church, which is rescued by the glorious return of Jesus our Defender” (Johnson, Triumph of the Lamb, 363).

[3] Poythress, 143.

[4] Johnson, 9.

[5] Hans Sinsser, Rats, Lice and History (1934; reprint ed., New York: Bantam, 1960), 99. Quoted in Johnson, 124

[6] Johnson, 337.

[7] “Senate blocks bill on medical care for children born alive after attempted abortion,” The Washington Post, Feb. 25, 2019.

[8] “Professor Sues after University Requires He Use Student’s Preferred Pronoun,” National Review, November 5, 2018.; “‘This Isn’t Just About a Pronoun.’ Teachers and Trans Students Are Clashing Over Whose Rights Come First,” Time, November 15, 2019.

[9] Poythress, 145.

[10] Johnson, 196–197

[11] Poythress, 161.

[12] Poythress, 181.

Sam Emadi

Sam Emadi is Senior Pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

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