The majority opinion of the nature of the second coming is that it will be a physical, visible, bodily return of the Lord Jesus Christ to earth that every eye will see. There is no question that that is the view held my the majority of Christians today, but is it what the Bible teaches? Where does the Bible teach that Jesus Christ will return to earth in a physical, bodily manner? Some would say that Acts 1:11 teaches a physical bodily second coming. Let's look at it.
Acts 1:9-10 (NKJV) Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11 who also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven."
His ascension was physical and visible, so won't His return be also? It says he will come in "like manner." The words, "like manner" are the Greek phrase, "hon tropon." By examining the usage of "hon tropon" in the New Testament, it is clear that this phrase does not mean "exactly the same in every detail," but has the idea of "similar in some fashion." For example look at how this phrase is used in:
Luke 13:34 (NKJV) "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!
Did Jesus want to gather Jerusalem in exactly the same manner as (hon tropon) a hen gathers her chicks? I don't think so. The emphasis of Acts 1:11 is that Christ's coming would be a cloud coming, just as he left in a cloud, so he would come in the clouds. We will examine the idea of cloud comings later in more detail. There is no Scripture that explicitly teaches that Jesus would return in a physical, bodily fashion. An understanding of the language of the Old Testament will help us see that His coming was not to be physical.
The study of Matthew 24 could change your eschatological paradigm if you let it. I believe that this is one of the most significant chapters in the Bible on the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Understanding this chapter will change your view of the nature of the second coming.
In verses 23-26 of Matthew 24, Jesus seems to stress that his coming will not be a physical bodily coming. If someone says, "Here is Christ, or there," they were not to believe them. If someone said, "He is in the desert or he is in the secret chamber," they were not to believe them. Why? If His coming was to be physical and bodily, why would someone not be able to say, "He is over there?" They were not to believe that because His coming would not be physical and bodily and yet it would be plainly seen. How would they see His coming? They would see it in the judgement that was to fall upon Jerusalem. His coming would be like lightening, (verse 27). I think that by comparing Scripture with Scripture we can see that lightning refers to God's judgement. It seems to me that when Jesus compares his coming to lightning that he is saying that His coming will be seen in judgement. His coming will be like a bird of prey going after a corps (verse 28). This language is also seen in the judgement language of the Old Testament. His coming would be an earth shattering event:
Matthew 24:29 (NKJV) "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
If you are not familiar with the apocalyptic language of the Old Testament, you will not understand what Christ is saying here. This language is common among the Old Testament prophets. In apocalyptic language, great commotions and judgements upon earth are often represented by commotions and changes in the heavens. This language is not to be taken literally.
As a side note, let me give you another thought on verse 21: Jesus said that the great tribulation would be, "such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be." Gary Hardison said, "The phrase 'nor ever shall be' implies time would go on after the tribulation." I agree. The great tribulation is not going to happen at some future day when the world ends, it happened in 70 AD when the Old Covenant age ended.
As we continue our study of Matthew, we come to verse 30 and 31 which go together with verses 27-29. Verses 23-26 tell us what the second coming won't be like. It won't be a physical bodily return. Then in verses 27-31, he tells us what the second coming will be like. We have already seen that it will be manifest in judgement.
Matthew 24:30 (NKJV) "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
When is "then?" "Then" refers to "immediately after the tribulation of those days" of verse 29. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which was the great tribulation, this sign will be seen. What is the sign? As you can imagine, there are all kinds of guesses as to what the sign was. Some of the Church fathers, such as Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome, and Erasmus believed that the sign would be a cross appearing in the heavens. Some believed it was the return of the star that marked His birth. Some Dispensationalists believe that the sign may involve the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, which may descend at this time and remain as a satellite city suspended over the earthly city of Jerusalem. Hal Lindsey said, "Perhaps the 'sign of the Son of Man' will be a gigantic celestial image of Jesus flashed upon the heavens for all to see. This would explain how all men suddenly recognize who He is and see the scars from His piercing at the cross." As you can see, the sign can be whatever your imagination lets it be if you don't keep in mind audience relevance. Who asked what the sign of his coming would be? His disciples (verse 3). Who was Jesus talking to? The disciples. Whatever the sign was, it was to appear in 70 AD immediately after the tribulation of those days, which was the destruction of Jerusalem. It was a sign to "that generation" not to us some 2,000 years later.
To understand what this sign was, we first need to have a correct translation. The NIV really adds to the confusion, it reads, "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky." A word-for-word rendering from the Greek reads: "And then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven." Notice carefully that the location is heaven, not the sky; and it is not the sign that is in heaven, but the Son of Man who is in heaven. The point is this: The destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple was the sign that the Son of Man was in heaven.
J. Marcellus Kik said, "A sign was not to appear in the heavens, but the destruction of Jerusalem was to indicate the rule of the Son of man in heaven."
The wording of this passage refers us back to the expression, "The Son of Man," found in Daniel 7:13, which Jesus used concerning Himself when referring to His coming.
Matthew 24:27 (NKJV) "For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be.
The judgement of Jerusalem was a sign that the Son of Man was in heaven in fulfillment of Daniel 7:13-14.
Daniel 7:13-14 (NKJV) "I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. 14 Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed.
Here we see Jesus, the Son of Man, coming to the Ancient of days and receiving His everlasting kingdom. This prophecy was fulfilled at the Ascension.
Acts 2:30-36 (NKJV) "Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, 31 "he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. 32 "This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. 33 "Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. 34 "For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: 'The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, 35 Till I make Your enemies Your footstool."' 36 "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
The kingdom received from the Ancient of days is no other than the kingdom symbolized by the stone cut out of the mountain:
Daniel 2:34-35 (NKJV) "You watched while a stone was cut out without hands, which struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces. 35 "Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver, and the gold were crushed together, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; the wind carried them away so that no trace of them was found. And the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
The kingdom was given to Christ at His ascension, and this was made manifest to all Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Jerusalem's destruction was a sign that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God.
Matthew 26:63-64 (NKJV) But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, "I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!" 64 Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Here Caiaphas, the high priest, asks Jesus if he is the Son of God, the Messiah. Notice the similarities between Jesus' answer to Caiaphas and what he said in our text.
Matthew 24:30 (NKJV) "Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Jesus told Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power." He said to His disciples, "They would see the sign that the son of man was in heaven." He told Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven." He told His disciples, "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." It is obviously the same event in both passages. Notice Caiaphas' response to Jesus' statement.
Matthew 26:65 (NKJV) Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, "He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy!
What did Jesus say that was blasphemy? Caiaphas understood that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we need to understand the idea that is behind "coming in the clouds."
God's "coming on the clouds of heaven" is a symbolic way of speaking of His presence, judgement and salvation. All through the Old Testament God was coming "on clouds," in salvation of His people and judgement of His enemies.
Coming on the clouds indicates His Presence:
Exodus 16:10 (NKJV) Now it came to pass, as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the children of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.
Exodus 19:9 (NKJV) And the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I come to you in the thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and believe you forever." So Moses told the words of the people to the LORD.
Exodus 34:5 (NKJV) Now the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.
Leviticus 16:2 (NKJV) and the LORD said to Moses: "Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat.
Numbers 11:25 (NKJV) Then the LORD came down in the cloud, and spoke to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him, and placed the same upon the seventy elders; and it happened, when the Spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, although they never did so again.
Salvation: In Psalm 18, David speaks of his deliverance from Saul using apocalyptic language.
Psalms 18:9-12 (NKJV) He bowed the heavens also, and came down With darkness under His feet. 10 And He rode upon a cherub, and flew; He flew upon the wings of the wind. 11 He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters And thick clouds of the skies. 12 From the brightness before Him, His thick clouds passed with hailstones and coals of fire.
Judgement: The idea of God's coming in the clouds is also associated with His judgement of his enemies.
Isaiah 19:1 (NKJV) The burden against Egypt. Behold, the LORD rides on a swift cloud, And will come into Egypt; The idols of Egypt will totter at His presence, And the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst.
We know from chapter 20 that God used the Assyrians as instruments of His wrath on Egypt, yet it says, "The LORD rides on a swift cloud..., Egypt will totter at His presence." God came to Egypt in judgement. His presence was made known in judgement. But it was the Assyrians who were literally present. Similar language is used of Nineveh's fall:
Nahum 1:3 (NKJV) The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, And will not at all acquit the wicked. The LORD has His way In the whirlwind and in the storm, And the clouds are the dust of His feet.
Nahum 1:5-6 (NKJV) The mountains quake before Him, The hills melt, And the earth heaves at His presence, Yes, the world and all who dwell in it. 6 Who can stand before His indignation? And who can endure the fierceness of His anger? His fury is poured out like fire, And the rocks are thrown down by Him.
We know that Nineveh was destroyed, not by a literal coming of God out of heaven on the clouds, but by the invading armies of the Chaldeans and Medes in 612 BC.
When Jesus said he would come on the clouds, He was using the apocalyptic language of the prophets to identify himself as the Messiah, the Judge. Caiaphas reacted the way he did because he knew that only God came on clouds, that was a claim to deity. He knew that Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah of Daniel 7. Notice what Jesus says to Caiaphas in:
Mark 14:62 (NKJV) Jesus said, "I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven."
Here it says that they will see Him "coming with the clouds of heaven" while He is "sitting at the right hand of the Power." If this is literal and bodily, how could He do both at the same time? This is clearly apocalyptic language. His coming with the clouds is proof of His sitting on the right hand of power.
John Lightfoot says this, "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man. Then shall the Son of man give a proof of himself, who they would not before acknowledge: a proof, indeed, not in any visible figure, but in vengeance and judgment so visible, that all the tribes of the earth shall be forced to acknowledge him the avenger. The Jews would not know him: now they shall know him, whether they will or no, Isa. xxvi. II. Many times they asked of him a sign: now a sign shall appear, that he is the true Messiah, whom they despised, derided, and crucified, namely, his signal vengeance and fury, such as never any nation felt from the first foundations of the world."
Our text says that at the time of His coming, "and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn." The word "tribes" is a reference to Israel. Gentiles are not referred to as "tribes" in the Bible. There were tribes in Israel at that time, but since its destruction in AD 70, there have been no "tribes" in Israel. This reminds us of:
Revelation 1:7 (NKJV) Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen.
John said that Jesus was coming "soon" and "quickly" and that the "Jews," those who pierced him, would mourn at his coming.
We must see that this is not a physical, bodily coming of Christ, but a coming in judgement. The idea of "seeing" here is not physically seeing but "to recognize, to be aware, to perceive." The destruction of Jerusalem would cause the tribes of Israel to recognize that Jesus was indeed the Son of man and the Messiah.
Thomas Newton (1754) said, "Our Saviour proceedeth in the same figurative style, ver. 30 - "And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.' The plain meaning of it is, that the destruction of Jerusalem will be such a remarkable instance of divine vengeance, such a signal manifestation of Christ's power and glory, that all the Jewish tribes shall mourn, and many will be led from thence to acknowledge Christ and the Christian religion. In the ancient prophets, God is frequently described as coming in the 'clouds' upon any remarkable interposition and manifestation of his power; and the same description is here applied to Christ. The destruction of Jerusalem will be as ample a manifestation of Christ's power and glory as if he was himself to come visibly in the clouds of heaven."
John Gill (1809) a premillennialist said, "He shall appear, not in person, but in the power of his wrath and vengeance, on the Jewish nation which will be a full sign and proof of his being come:"
The prophetic language of the Old Testament clearly shows that the Lord coming on a cloud speaks of his coming in judgement. And that is exactly what it means in the New Testament when it speaks of Christ coming on clouds. People saw him come in judgement, but it was not a visible appearance of Christ in person. Jesus predicted both the destruction of Jerusalem and His parousia in the same context. Since Jerusalem was destroyed, just as He said it would be, why would it be hard to believe that He came, just as he said he would? The destruction of Jerusalem was as substantial a manifestation of Christ's power and glory, as if he was himself to come visibly in the clouds of heaven. The same sort of metaphor is carried on in the next verse
Matthew 24:31 (NKJV) "And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Does the Lord, all of a sudden, drop the apocalyptic language and begin to speak literally? I think not. This also is apocalyptic language. The most important thing that I want you to see here is that whatever this means, it happened 2,000 years ago. In verse 34, Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place."
The generation that He was speaking to was to experience all that He had spoken of, including the gathering together of the elect. With that in mind, let's see if we can understand what is being spoken of here.
We need to try to get an understanding of the use of the trumpet in the Old Testament. The trumpet was used to call the people of Israel together.
Numbers 10:2 (NKJV) "Make two silver trumpets for yourself; you shall make them of hammered work; you shall use them for calling the congregation and for directing the movement of the camps.
The trumpet was to be blown on the Day of Atonement in the jubilee year to signal the release of slaves and debt. Please note that AD 70 was a jubilee year.
Leviticus 25:9 (NKJV) 'Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land.
We can get some Old Testament background on the trumpet and gathering from Isaiah.
Isaiah 27:12-13 (NKJV) And it shall come to pass in that day That the LORD will thresh, From the channel of the River to the Brook of Egypt; And you will be gathered one by one, O you children of Israel. 13 So it shall be in that day: The great trumpet will be blown; They will come, who are about to perish in the land of Assyria, And they who are outcasts in the land of Egypt, And shall worship the LORD in the holy mount at Jerusalem.
Isaiah says that when the trumpet of God sounds, the outcasts of Israel would be gathered. This is a reiteration of an earlier Messianic promise of the regathering of the remnant.
Isaiah 11:1-5 (NKJV) There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. 3 His delight is in the fear of the LORD, And He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, Nor decide by the hearing of His ears; 4 But with righteousness He shall judge the poor, And decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins, And faithfulness the belt of His waist.
11 It shall come to pass in that day That the LORD shall set His hand again the second time To recover the remnant of His people who are left, From Assyria and Egypt, From Pathros and Cush, From Elam and Shinar, From Hamath and the islands of the sea. 12 He will set up a banner for the nations, And will assemble the outcasts of Israel, And gather together the dispersed of Judah From the four corners of the earth.
Here we see the idea of gathering from the four corners of the earth. So a time was to come when God would gather His people together.
John Gill said, "The Jews say, that 'in the after-redemption (i.e., by Messiah) all Israel shall be gathered together by the sound of a trumpet, from the four parts of the world. Zohar in Lev. 47:1."
Jesus' disciples would be familiar with the Old Testament language and would no doubt remember Isaiah's promise when they heard Jesus speak of the sounding of the trumpet. We get a little more insight on trumpets and gathering from other passages where this same language is used:
1 Corinthians 15:51-52 (NKJV) Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
Notice what happens here, the trumpet sounds and the dead are raised. This is a reference to the dead in Christ. The dead are raised into the presence of God, and the living are changed. The living put on immortality. Is this a different trumpet than the one Isaiah spoke of? No! The trumpet was sounded to gather God's people. This is a spiritual gathering into the presence of God, this is the resurrection. This is the same idea found in Matthew 24:31, the trumpet is sounded and the elect are gathered, or resurrected. Daniel connects the resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem.
Daniel 12:1-2 (NKJV) "At that time Michael shall stand up, The great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; And there shall be a time of trouble, Such as never was since there was a nation, Even to that time. (see Matt. 24:21) And at that time your people shall be delivered, Every one who is found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Just in case we miss it, he further clarifies it as the time of Jerusalem's destruction in verse:
Daniel 12:7 (NKJV) Then I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever, that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished.
Daniel is told that the resurrection will be when the power of the holy people (the Jews) has been completely shattered.
We also see this same idea of trumpet and gathering in:
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 (NKJV) For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven (see Exodus 34:5) with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first (resurrection). 17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Notice that Paul does not say, "THOSE WHO ARE ALIVE when Christ comes" ; he said, "WE WHO ARE ALIVE AND REMAIN UNTIL THE COMING OF THE LORD."
Again, we see the same idea, the trumpet sounds and the elect are gathered. "The Lord Himself will descend from heaven," the word "descend" was commonly used with priest's decent out of the temple to announce that atonement had been completed. The idea of, "being caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air," could be referring to the idea we looked at earlier of clouds representing God's presence. This is a picture of God's elect being brought into His presence in the Holy of Holies. Is Paul talking about a literal rapture here? I don't think so, but it is possible.
The parallel text in Luke helps us to see that this gathering is a time of redemption.
Luke 21:27-28 (NKJV) "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 "Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near."
The word "redemption" here is apolutrosis, (the act) ransom in full, i.e. (fig.) riddance, or salvation. These New Testament believers were saved by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 1:7 (NKJV) In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace
The payment had been made at Calvary, but until their high priest returned, their redemption was not complete.
Ephesians 4:30 (NKJV) And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
They were sealed awaiting the day of redemption, which happened at the second coming when the Lord gathered His elect into his presence.
When Israel gathered each year for the Passover, the culmination event was the Day of Atonement. The High Priest entered the temple's Holy of Holies to offer the atoning sacrifice on behalf of the people. And while the priest was in the Holy of Holies, the people anxiously awaited his return. No return, no atonement.
The new covenant parallel to this is Jesus. He is our atoning sacrifice and our High Priest. The generation to whom Jesus spoke was the congregation waiting for His return. No return, no atonement, no redemption.
Hebrews 9:24-28 (NKJV) For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another; 26 He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. 27 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, 28 so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
Jesus ascended out of the heavenly Holy of Holies signifying that our salvation was complete and bringing us into the presence of God. This could not be accomplished until the earthly Jewish temple had been destroyed.
Hebrews 9:8 (NKJV) the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing.
The destruction of the Jerusalem and the temple was the sign of his coming in power and glory. Matthew 24 makes it clear that the great gathering of God's people took place when the earthly temple was destroyed in AD 70. No longer would the dead be confined to the waiting place called Hades. No longer would sin death separate us from God. This is what the resurrection was all about, the dead in Christ were resurrected into the presence of God. Those alive at that time were given immortality. This all happened in AD 70. Believers today don't need a resurrection because Jesus said, "Whosoever lives and believes in me will never die." We have immortality, and when we physically die, we will be in the presence of God. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
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