4. Paul's Labors for the Church (Colossians 1:24-2:5)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (29:35)

Rembrandt, "St. Paul in Prison" (1627)
Rembrandt, "St. Paul in Prison" (1627). Oil on wood panel. 72.8 x 60.2 cm Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany.

Paul began his letter with a prayer for the Colossians and a hymn that exalts the preeminence of Christ. Now he turns for a moment to describe his own ministry. Why?

The members of the Colossian church don't know him -- except by reputation from afar. He is about to exhort them concerning both doctrine and faith. It is important that he establish before them that he is called to minister -- not only to the church at large -- but also to them.

As we study this lesson, we begin to understand better our own call to ministry. No, we're not apostles, but we are certainly called to God's own purpose. Paul laid it all on the line. What must we undergo to serve Christ faithfully in our situations?

A Servant of the Gospel and the Church (1:23, 25)

Paul introduces his ministry in the previous paragraph as he has exalted the gospel:

"This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant."  (1:23b)

Instead of exalting himself, he exalts the gospel and then introduces himself as a "servant" or  "minister" of the gospel. The word is diakonos (which we saw in 1:7), from which we get our word "deacon." It means generally, "one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone." Here it denotes, "one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, intermediary, courier." 1 In verse 25 he uses the same word in relationship to the church. Thus, we should think of ourselves as:

  1. Servants of Christ (1:7, 4:7)
  2. Servants of the gospel (1:23)
  3. Servants of the church (1:25)

That's what you and I are, if we're faithful -- agents, intermediaries, carriers of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for the sake of his church, his body. The message is primary; carrying it and spreading it is our mission.

Let me comment a moment on the third concept introduced in verse 25: servants of the church.

"24b ... For the sake of his body, which is the church. 25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me...."  (1:24-25)

Are we servants of the church in the sense that it is our master? No. We are servants of the church by God's calling. God is our master, and caring for the church is his assignment for us. Sometimes churches, especially churches with a congregational form of government, tend to see its pastors as its employees. Certainly human accountability can be helpful. But it is important to know that pastors, as well as volunteer workers, serve the church on behalf of Christ, not primarily as hirelings of the church organization. We submit to one another, yes, but "out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). We don't serve Christ's church as "menpleasers" (3:22, KJV), but "work at it with all [our] heart, as working for the Lord, not for men" (3:23, NIV).

Suffering for You (1:24)

Now Paul turns to suffering -- something that we'd rather not experience, but which is part of the ministry.

"Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."  (1:24)

"Suffered/sufferings" is pathēma, from which we get our English words "pathos" and "pathetic." Here it means, "that which is suffered or endured, suffering, misfortune." 2 Paul's statement is remarkable in two ways. He makes two amazing claims:

  1. To complete in his body what is lacking in Christ's sufferings. How could that be possible? and
  2. To suffer for the sake of the church. How do your sufferings help the church?

First, Paul talks about filling up or supplementing. The rare double compound word antanaplēroō means to "take one's turn in filling up something," 3 with the preposition anti- suggesting the idea "in turn." 4

Of course, Christ's redemptive suffering on the cross for our atonement was complete and finished, "once and for all" (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 9:26-28). But that doesn't mean that Jesus is the last to suffer for the gospel. It was Christ's time to suffer on the cross. Now it is Paul's, and perhaps soon it will be yours.

Paul sees something still lacking in Christ's afflictions,5 a "need, want, deficiency." 6 It's as if there's something preordained about this suffering. Consider the vision in Revelation:

"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed (plēroō)."  (Revelation 6:9-11)

There's also a sense in which we are united with Christ in our sufferings. We share in his sufferings; our sufferings are a part of his.

"We are ... heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory."  (Romans 8:17-18)

"I want to know Christ ... and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings."  (Philippians 3:10)

But more, Paul's sufferings in some way benefited the Colossian church -- even the whole church. Look at verse 24 again:

"Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."  (1:24)

The preposition "for," is used twice in verse 24 indicating "that an activity or event is in some entity's interest, for, in behalf of, for the sake of someone/something." 7 This idea is common in Paul's writings. For example:

"For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you."  (2 Corinthians 4:11-12)

"Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory."  (2 Timothy 2:10)

In what way do Paul's sufferings benefit the Church at Colossae -- and us today?

  1. Inspiration. Paul's example in suffering inspires us to endure as well.
  2. Accomplishment. Paul's willingness to endure whatever is necessary to get the job done enables him to touch more lives. He doesn't quit when the going gets tough.
  3. Corporate unity and completeness. Since both Paul and we are part of Christ's body, then Christ's sufferings affect us and our sufferings affect Christ. There will come a day when the last martyr is killed, the last suffering is done, and the afflictions of the Messiah will be complete.8 Then Christ will return in glory. This is a more mystical idea, harder to get our head around, but I believe Paul has this in mind in verse 24.

Q1. (Colossians 1:24) How could Paul's sufferings in prison complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions? Is Paul referring to Christ's sufferings on the cross? Or is he seeing suffering in some kind of cosmic sense? If so, in what sense are your sufferings for Christ of value to the church?



Paul's Commission (1:25)

Now let's consider Paul's orders:

"I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness."  (1:25)

Paul's calling is referred to here as a "commission" (NIV, NRSV), "dispensation" (KJV). The word is oikonomia, "responsibility of management, management of a household, direction, office." 9 His purpose is to declare the gospel fully -- the "full gospel." "Present ... in its fullness" (NIV), "make fully known" (NRSV), "fulfill" (KJV) is plēroō, "to fulfill," the root of the word we discussed in verse 24 above. Here it connotes to "bring (the preaching of) the gospel to completion." 10

The Mystery of Christ in You Gentiles (1:25-27)

Now Paul talks about the mystery contained in the gospel.

"25 I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness -- 26 the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."  (1:25-27)

"Mystery" in 1:26-27 and 2:2 is mystērion. Here Paul means by it, "the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God's) secret." 11

What is the mystery? What about the gospel had been kept hidden,12 only to be disclosed13 in the time of the Messiah? The answer is clear: That Christ, the Messiah, would indwell not only the chosen Jewish people, but also the Gentiles who made up the bulk of the church at Colossae and elsewhere. It is a mystery overflowing with blessing to its recipients; Paul refers to its "glorious riches." 14 We Christians take God's blessing for granted. But for Gentile believers in the first century, who were being enticed to adopt Judaism, to realize that the Messiah came for them, too, was truly marvelous.

Christ in You, the Hope of Glory (1:27b)

I would like to explore and meditate further on verse 27:

"To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."  (1:27)

In particular, I want to know, in what sense does Christ in us constitute our "hope of glory"? What does this mean?

"Glory" first appears in the Old Testament in the word kābd, a word meaning "weightiness, honor," associated with the brilliant light and overwhelming splendor of God's presence "like a consuming fire" (Exodus 24:17). When Moses speaks to God, his face glows afterward in the afterglow of God's glory (Exodus 34:33-35). Angels of God wear brilliant white clothing with an appearance like lightning (Matthew 28:3). God is described as,

"The blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see."  (1 Timothy 6:15-16)

The truly amazing mystery to me is that Christ in me is the hope of my own experience of and participation in God's glory, both now and in heaven. Consider these verses:

 "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."  (2 Corinthians 3:18)

"For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."  (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)

"Now if we are children, then we are heirs --heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:17)

"When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory."  (Colossians 3:4)

"These have come so that your faith -- of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire -- may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed."  (1 Peter 1:7)

"To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed."  (1 Peter 5:1)

"And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."  (1 Peter 5:10)

I think of the African American spiritual, "This train is bound for glory, this train...." You and I have a hope ahead of being immersed in the presence and glory of God. And that hope springs from Christ dwelling in you now: "Christ in you, the hope of glory!"

Q2. (Colossians 1:26-27) What is the mystery that Paul talks about? In what sense was, "Christ in you, the hope of glory," hidden prior to this? In what sense is "glory" used here? What does "the hope of glory" mean in this context?




Present Everyone Perfect in Christ (1:28-29)

Paul has shared his vision -- of the Gentiles experiencing the presence of Christ now and glory forever -- he also shares in our passage (both here and in 2:2) the purposes that drive his ministry. Here's the first purpose statement:

"28 We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. 29 To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me."  (1:28-29)

Paul's purpose is to bring the Christians under his influence to maturity in Christ. The word translated "perfect" (NIV, KJV), "mature" (NRSV) is teleios. The word can mean, "perfect, pertaining to meeting the highest standard," or "pertaining to being mature, full-grown, mature, adult" or  "pertaining to being fully developed in a moral sense."15 We don't achieve complete perfection in this life. James reminds us:

"We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check."  (James 3:2)

Nevertheless, we can come to a level of relative maturity in Christ. That is Paul's goal. When he presents16 his converts and disciples to God as the fruit of his labor, he wants to be proud of them.

Verse 28 not only states Paul's final purpose. It also lays out his methods of achieving maturity:

"We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ."  (1:28)

Paul mentions three methods:

  1. " Proclaim" (NIV, NRSV), "preach" (KJV) is katangellō, "to make known in public, with implication of broad dissemination, proclaim, announce." 17 This probably refers to his public ministry, heralding the Christ to those who hadn't heard the news.
  2. " Admonishing" (NIV), "warning" (KJV, NRSV) is noutheteō, "to counsel about avoidance or cessation of an improper course of conduct, admonish, warn, instruct." 18 This method of perfecting the saints is more private -- done either with a smaller group of believers or one-on-one.

I believe in a positive approach to Christianity. In some traditions, people don't believe they've been to church unless the preacher tells them off in no uncertain terms. Frankly, that's not healthy. If all our children hear is admonishment and correction, they find it hard to receive the love we need to convey. So my advice is, let positive teaching and preaching be our main tools, with admonishing and warning to be used only as necessary -- and sometimes they are certainly necessary, both at home and in the church.

  1. "Teaching" is didaskō, "to provide instruction in a formal or informal setting." 19 This is the everyday instruction that would go on with individuals, families, and in the meetings of the believers. Notice the qualifier, "with all wisdom." Paul's teaching -- and ours -- must be carefully suited to the needs and spiritual level of those we instruct.

Finally, verse 29 details the work involved in bringing the saints to maturity in Christ. The phrases "labor, struggling" (NIV) "toil and struggle" (NRSV), "labor, striving" (KJV) translate a pair of words:

  • Kopiaō means to "to exert oneself physically, mentally, or spiritually, work hard, toil, strive, struggle." 20
  • Agōnizomai, "to fight, struggle."21 We'll examine the root of this verb in the next verse.

If you've never been a pastor or teacher, then you may not realize how much work goes into the process of building disciples and developing people's spiritual lives. Paul labored at it constantly, as must we.

Struggling in Prayer (2:1)

But the struggles Paul was talking about weren't primarily conflicts with immature deacons or even false teachers. His struggle was focused on prayer:

"I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally."  (2:1)

The word translated "struggling" (NIV, NRSV), "conflict" (KJV) is agōn from which we get our English word "agony." This Greek word was first used of the place where people assembled to watch athletic competition in the games. Later, it was used by extension to refer to "a struggle against opposition, struggle, fight."22 Later in this letter Paul tells us about the founder of the church at Colossae, Epaphras:

"He is always wrestling (agōnizomai) in prayer for you...."  (4:12)

Our normal view of prayer for others is a casual mention before God. But for Paul and Epaphras it was agonizing, long-term intercession on their behalf. Intercessors are the unsung heroes of the growth of the Christian church.  

Q3. (Colossians 1:28-2:1) What is the purpose of Paul's labors according to verse 28? What does "perfect in Christ" mean? How does Paul accomplish this goal? In what way is he "struggling" for them?





Complete Understanding (2:2-3)

Earlier we saw Paul's first formulation of the purpose of his ministry: "so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ" (1:28). Here he spells that out further:

"2 My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."  (2:2-3)

This is a complex sentence. Let's take it apart so we can study it. Paul's purpose is:

That they might be encouraged and find unity in love:
  So that they might have complete understanding,
    So that they might know Christ fully.

It's like peeling an onion. Paul's ultimate goal is that the Colossian believers might know Christ in his fullness and understand enough to appreciate who Christ really is. For that to happen, Paul seeks two elements: encouragement and a stress on love for one another.

  1. " Encouraged" (NIV, NRSV), "comforted" (KJV) is parakaleō, which here has the connotation, "to instill someone with courage or cheer, comfort, encourage, cheer up." 23
  2. " United" (NIV, NRSV) or "knit together" (KJV)24 in love.

Why are these two elements so important to an in-depth understanding of Christ? We often think about understanding in conceptual, cognitive terms. But Paul is talking about more than a mental grasp of Christ. He is aware that for people to understand Christ at a deeper, spiritual level, they need to have hope (thus encouragement) as well as an experience of a loving Christian community ("knit together in love"). Thus it is extremely difficult for social hermits and lone-ranger Christians to really grasp Christ. He can only be understood in the presence of love. With these can come complete25 understanding.26

The goal is that the Colossians -- and you and I today -- know Christ fully. To the Jews, the "mystery" of Christ has been hidden from view. Paul's desire is full heart knowledge of Christ. "Know" (NIV), "knowledge" (NRSV), "acknowledgement" (KJV) is epignōsis, "knowledge, recognition," 27 or as Thayer puts it, "precise and correct knowledge," emphasizing the idea of the preposition epi- in the compound word.28

When Paul reaches a mention of Christ in this letter, he can't resist an opportunity to display Christ's uniqueness and supremacy (to counteract the false teachers in Colossae):

"... The mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."  (2:2b-3)

How is Christ a treasure-box or treasure-house29 in which are hidden30 God's profound wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnōsis)? Some of the mystery religions of Paul's day emphasized secret knowledge (gnōsis), a trend that led in the following century to the full-blown Gnostic movement. Paul is saying that wisdom and knowledge are not some special privilege passed secretly to the elite. They are found in Christ himself and Christ alone. And to know him intimately and fully -- the privilege of all Christian believers -- is to possess the full treasure-house of God's wisdom and knowledge.

Q4. (Colossians 2:2-3) In what sense are "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" hidden in Christ? What does that mean?




Let No One Deceive You (2:4-5)

"4 I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5 For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is."  (2:4-5)

"I tell you this," says Paul. He is referring, of course, to the sufficiency and completeness of Christ, who is for the Colossian believers their "hope of glory" (1:27). They don't need what is being offered by the mystical Jewish teachers and all their "fine-sounding arguments." 31 These false teachers are seeking to deceive32 them, pure and simple.

After warning them of the deceit, he encourages them. I am with you in spirit, Paul says. And I delight to see how well you are doing in Christ. Keep it up.33

And so Paul closes this portion of his letter. He begins with assurance of his delight in their faith and love. Then he points to Christ's supremacy over any other religion or philosophy. In this lesson's passage he has assured them of Paul's own ministry that is supporting them through prayer. Now, just before he tackles some of the false teachers' errors head on, he offers them words of encouragement.

Dear friends, don't discount the value of your labor in the Lord. The years you have served Christ, perhaps spent in teaching Sunday school children, has helped establish their hearts in Christ. You, along with the Apostle Paul, have partnered with others to present them perfect in Christ. It is not wasted effort!

Christ Is Supreme! Discipleship Lessons from Colossians and Philemon, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
A book of the compiled lessons is available in both e-book and paperback formats.

And the sufferings you have experienced in ministry have made you a sharer in the sufferings of Christ himself! Your ministry in prayer, too, will bear fruit. Continue on, dear friends, in your faithful ministry for Christ. One of my favorite verses encourages me when I am discouraged:

"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain."  (1 Corinthians 15:58)


Father, I thank you for your dear people who serve you faithfully. Encourage them, help them, and send forth more laborers into your harvest as some of the harvesters take their long-awaited rest. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory."  (Colossians 1:27, NIV)

" We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ."  (Colossians 1:28, NIV)

"... Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge."  (Colossians 2:2b-3, NIV)


1. Diakonos, BDAG 230, 1.

2. Pathēma, BDAG 247, 1.

3. "Fill up" (NIV, KJV), "completing" (NRSV) is antanaplēroō, "take one's turn in filling up something," then, "fill up on one's part, supplement" (BDAG 87). This is a double compound word from anti-, "in turn"+ ana‑, "to, up to (the brim)"+ plēroō, "to fill."

4. Moo points out that anti- could suggest other ideas as well. Moo prefers the simple sense, "to fill up in order to complete" (Moo, Colossians, pp. 150-151).

5. "Afflictions" is thlipsis. Originally it referred to physical "pressing, pressure." Here it is used metaphorically, "trouble that inflicts distress, oppression, affliction, tribulation" (BDAG 457, 1).

6. "Lacking" (NIV, NRSV), "behind" (KJV) is hysterēma, "the lack of what is needed or desirable," frequently in contrast to abundance, "need, want, deficiency" (BDAG 104, 1).

7. Hyper, BDAG 103, 1aε.

8. Jewish literature speaks of the "messianic woes," tribulations to be endured by God's people in the days just preceding Messiah's coming (Moo, Colossians, p. 151).

9. Oikonomia, BDAG 697, 1b. Paul applies the idea of administration to the office of an apostle here and in 1 Corinthians 9:17 and Ephesians 3:2.

10. Plēroō, BDAG 828, 3.

11. Mystērion, BDB 662, 1b. This word refers to a "secret, secret rite, secret teaching, mystery," and was a religious technical term (used predominately in the plural, "mysteries"). In the Greco-Roman world it referred mostly to the mystery religions, with their secret teachings, religious and political in nature, concealed within many strange customs and ceremonies.

12. "Kept hidden" (NIV), "hid" (KJV) is apokryptō, "to keep from being known, keep secret" (BDAG 114, 2).

13. "Disclosed" (NIV), "revealed" (NRSV, KJV) is phaneroō, "to cause to become known, disclose, show, make known" (BDAG 104, 2aβ).

14. "Riches" is ploutos, "riches, wealth," then more generally, "plentiful supply of something, a wealth, abundance" (BDAG 832, 2).


15. Teleios, BDAG 996, 1-4. The word was also used as a technical term of the Greek mystery religions, to refer to one initiated into mystic rites.

16. "Present" is paristēmi/paristanō, "to cause to be present in any way." BDAG sees the usage in verses 22 and 28 as almost equivalent to "make, render." However, I think the idea is closer to its use as legal technical term, "bring before (a judge)" (BDAG 778, 1c, e).

17. Katangellō, BDAG 515, 1b.

18. Noutheteō, BDAG 679.

19. Didaskō, BDAG 223, 2b.

20. Kopiaō, BDAG 558, 2.

21. Agōnizomai, BDAG 17, 2b.

22. Agōn, BDAG 17, 2.

23. Parakaleō, BDAG 765, 4.

24. Symbibazō means figuratively, "unite, knit together" (BDAG 956, 1b). This is a compound verb, formed from sun, "with"+ bibazō, "mount a female, copulate with her" (Thayer).

25. "Complete" (NIV), "assured" (NRSV), "assurance" (KJV) is plērophoria, "state of complete certainty, full assurance, certainty" (BDAG 827).

26. "Understanding" is synesis, "the faculty of comprehension, intelligence, acuteness, shrewdness," in the religio-ethical realm, "understanding" (BDAG 970, 1b).

27. Epignōsis, BDAG 369.

28. Epignōsis is a compound word formed from epi- "accumulation, increase, addition"+ gnōsis, "knowledge. Rudolf Bultmann notes that in some passages, "the compound epgnōsis can take on almost a technical sense for conversion to Christianity" (Gnōsis, ktl., TDNT 1:689--719)."

29. "Treasures" is thēsauros, (from which we get the English word "thesaurus"), "a place where something is kept for safekeeping, repository," then, "that which is stored up, treasure" (BDAG 456, 2bγ).

30. "Hidden" (NIV, NRSV), "hid" (KJV) is apokryphos, adjective, "hidden" (BDAG 114).

31. "Fine-sounding arguments" (NIV), "plausible arguments" (NRSV), "enticing words" (KJV) is pithanologia, "persuasive speech, art of persuasion," here, "by specious arguments" (BDAG 812).

32. "Deceive" (NIV, NRSV), "beguile" (KJV) is paralogizomai, "deceive, delude," from para-, "violation, neglect, aberration"+ logizomai, "reckon, calculate." (BDAG 768).

33. Paul uses two words to describe the Colossians' state. First, "orderly" (NIV), "morale" (NRSV), "order" (KJV), is taxis, "a state of good order, order, proper procedure" (BDAG 989, 2). Then "firm/firmness" (NIV, NRSV), "steadfastness" (KJV), stereōma, "state or condition of firm commitment, firmness, steadfastness." (BDAG 943, 2).

Copyright © 2022, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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