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AUTHORITY AND SUBMISSION:

AN EXEGESIS OF EPHESIANS 5:21-33

Clyde W. Overman III


NTS 6800 Ephesians
November 2, 2015

Ephesians 5:21-33 is highly controversial today, namely because wives are instructed to
submit to the authority of their husbands (5:22-24). Some, therefore, prefer to sidestep these
instructions by confining them to the culture in which they were written.1 But this view
overlooks that wives are called to submit to an authority patterned after Christs authority over
the church; an authority rooted in sacrificial love. Such love of husbands toward wives was
countercultural for the time. Moreover, the theological grounds for 5:21-33 are deeply
Christological. The above points indicate that the commands in 5:21-33 were never intended
solely for the culture in which they were written. Instead, by grounding the marriage instructions
in Christ, 5:21-33 serve as timeless instructions to Christian wives and husbands.
Historical Analysis
The purpose of Ephesians is an ongoing concern of scholarship, for which there is no
consensus. Unlike Pauls other letters, the situation that prompted Ephesians is difficult to
reconstruct.2 Rather than answering a question or combatting an obvious problem or heresy,
Ephesians adopts a more general tenor. 3 Due to its general tone, some dismiss Ephesians as a

Clinton E Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary Series: New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 2010), 370. Some scholars suggest that the household codes were given to demonstrate that the social
structures of Christianity were of no threat to Rome, and were thus confined to that era.
2

It is not my purpose to discuss authorship here. Suffice it to say, Pauline authorship is affirmed in this

Arnold, Ephesians, 41.

work.

letter, preferring to understand it as some form of wisdom literature, theological tract, sermon,
baptismal homily, or early Christian hymn. 4 Others point to the theme of unity as evidence of
conflict between Jewish and Gentile factions in the church, to which Paul wrote for the purpose
of urging the two to live in unity. 5 Still others see the purpose of Ephesians connected to some
spiritual crises, perhaps as a result of persecution, which explains the dual themes of spiritual
warfare and Christs supreme authority.6 The above represent just a few of the many theories
posited for the purpose of Ephesians, none of which satisfy a majority of scholars.
However, a number of scholars agree that Ephesians was written to build identity
formation 7 in the life of the Gentile-turned-Christians in Ephesus. On this view, the Gentiles to
whom Ephesians was written (2:11; 3:1; 6) are enjoined to live out their new identity in Christ.
Though they were once outsiders in relation to Gods people, and separated from Christ (2:1112), they enjoy a new identity in Christ (2:13, ESV). Therefore, they are no longer aliens and
strangers separated from the children of God (2:12). J. Paul Sampley states: The readers
solidarity with Christ has removed their separation from the children of God, from Israel and
from the covenants, and has replaced their outsider status with a strong new identification. 8 In
fact, their new identification in Christ is so strong that Paul commands his Gentile audience to

4 Peter T. O'Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1999), 51.
5

Ibid., 52-53.

Ibid.,54-55.

J. Paul Sampley, Ephesians, in The Deutero-Pauline Letters, edited by Gerhard Krodel, 1-23
(Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 23.
7

8 Ibid. See also Klyne Snodgrass, Ephesians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1996), 23, and OBrien, 56-65, both of whom agree with, and build off of, the work of Sampley.

no longer walk as the Gentiles do (4:17). These former pagan Gentiles, who are now in
Christ, are to walk in a manner worthy of Him (4:1). The purpose of Ephesians, then, is to
ground, shape, and challenge 9 its readers to live out their faith in light of their identity in Christ.
The believers identity in Christ has profound impact upon 5:21 -33. Here, Christian
wives are told to submit to the authority of their husbands in the same way that the church
submits to the authority of Christ (5:22-24), and husbands are commanded to love their wives as
Christ loved the church (5:25). Moreover, the role of the Christian husband is grounded in the
reality of Christs love (5:25), His saving work (5:25-27), and His ongoing care for the church
(5:28-29). Finally, the passage reaches its climax when Paul states that Christian marriage
reflects the oneness that Christians have in Christ (5:30-32). In sum, the grounds for which
Pauls Gentile audience were to fulfil their respective roles in marriage is embedded in the
person and works of Christ, in whom they enjoyed a new identity.

Lexical Analysis
This verb for love denotes a strong affection for, to cherish, a warm regard for, or to
love another person. 10 In the New Testament is used almost exclusively to describe the
love that one person has for another.11 That is its most common use in Paul, who regarded love
among the foremost principles of Cristian living. 12 With that said, it is no surprise that

Snodgrass, Ephesians, 23.

10

Walter Bauer, W.F. Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, revised
by F.W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 5.
11 Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1992), 1:9.
12

Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters
(Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1993), 575.

figures prominently in the context of submission and authority between marriage partners. The
verb appears five times in 5:21-33, and all five describe the love of a husband for his wife. 13 In
each case, Paul commands the husband to a high standard of love; the type of love demonstrated
by Christs sacrificial love for His church.
; This word group is used both negatively and positively in Scripture. When used
negatively they refer to the state of being afraid and or frightened of something or someone. 14
Positively, these words describe fear as the proper attitude of reverence and honor toward
another, often in relation to God. 15 In 5:21, Paul commands Christian wives to submit to the
authority of their husbands (see below) out of reverence () for Christ. He also concludes
in 5:33 by commanding the wife to see that she respects () her husband. Since husbands
are commanded to exercise authority in the mold of Christs sacrificial love (5:25), the positive
nuance is preferred here. Christian wives, then, are to submit to the authority of their husbands
out of reverence or respect of the husbands position of authority (5:33), in the same way that
they submit to Christ out of reverence to Him and His authority (5:21).
This word is used twice in 5:23, both times translated as head. Indeed, often
refers to the physical part of the body; the part which houses the brain. 16 But it can also refer to
someone in authority, 17 such as a ruler or military commander. The authoritative distinction is

13

The verb appears twice in 5:25; twice in 5:28; and once in 5:33.

14

Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1060-61.

15

Hawthorne, Dictionary of Paul, 291.

16

Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 541-42.

17

Ibid., 542.

employed by a number of ancient writers such as Homer, Plutarch, Josephus, and Philo, and in
several texts from the Septuagint (Judg. 10:18; 11:11; 2 Sam. 22:4). 18 The word is also used in
Ephesians 1:22, where it refers to Christs authority over the cosmos (As here, it is also paired
with in 1:22. See below). With the above in mind, should be interpreted with
the authoritative distinction in 5:23, where Paul writes that the husband is the head of the wife
in the same way that Christ is the head of the church (5:23).19
This is a compound word comprised of the preposition , meaning under, with
the verb , which means to arrange. 20 Literally, then, it means to arrange under, and
implies the obedience rightly expected of one under the authority of another in a recognized
structure of authority. 21 The word is used four times between 5:21-24 (supplied in verse 22),
translated variously as submitting or submit. In 5:24, Paul commands wives to submit to
their husbands in the same way that the church submits to Christ. Importantly, in 1:22 Paul
juxtaposed and in the context of Christ as the one in authority over the
cosmos, and the same meaning between the two words is likely intended in 5:21-24.22 In
Christian marriage, the husband has authority over the wife and the wife is to obediently submit
to her husbands authority.

18

David Michael Park. "The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Examination of hupotasso and kephale
in Ephesians 5:21-33." The Evangelical Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1987): 119-21.
19 Frank Thielman, Ephesians, Baker Exegetical Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Baker Academic, 2010), 376-77. Thielman discusses an alternative view that suggests head as the source of the
wifes growth or fulfilment, but on the basis of context he concludes that head here denotes authority.
20

Park, The Structure of Authority, 117-18.

21

Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon, 1042.

Thielman, Ephesians, 377. Thielman observes, This same paring of the noun with the verb
in 5:21-23 indicates that here too carries an authoritative sense.
22

Structural Analysis
21

22

submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.


Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord
23 For the husband is the head of the wife
even as Christ is the head of the church, his body,
and is himself its Savior.

24Now

as the church submits to Christ,


so also wives should submit in everything
to their husbands.
25Husbands, love your wives,
as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
26that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word
27 so that he might present the church to himself
in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing
that she might be holy and without blemish.
28In the same way husbands should love their wives
as their own bodies
He who loves his wife loves himself
29 For no one ever hated his own flesh
but nourishes it just as Christ does the church,
30because we are members of his body.
31Therefore,

a man shall leave his father and mother


and hold fast to his wife
and the two shall become on flesh
32This mystery is profound, and I am saying
that it refers to Christ and the church.

33However,

let each one of you love his wife


as himself
and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
The above analysis demonstrates how 5:21 is a hinge between the previous section and

the instructions to members of the Christian home (see contextual analysis), specifically
instructions to husbands and wives. It also demonstrates how instructions to wives and husbands
are each grounded in their identity in Christ. Wives submit to their husbands in the same way
that they (and the church) submit to Christ (5:22-24). Likewise, the instructions to husbands are
grounded in Christs sacrificial love for the church; which was a purposeful love for the good of
the church (sanctifying it and saving it) so as to present it to Himself holy and pure. The analysis

of 5:31-32 demonstrate how these two verses serve as a typology (see meaning analysis below),
or a paradigm for Christian marriage. Since a husband and wife are one flesh, when the husband
loves his wife as Paul instructs, he will love her in the same way that Christ loves His bodythe
church. Finally, 5:33 is meant to reflect Pauls concluding remarks to both husbands and wives.
Contextual Analysis
Ephesians 5:21-33 is the beginning of a set of instructions to various members of the
Christian household (5:21-6:9). The section rests within the second half of the letter, beginning
in 4:1, which focuses on conduct that is fitting for those who have experienced every spiritual
blessing in Christ (1:3-14), specifically the blessings of eternal salvation (2:1-10), reconciliation
with God (2:11-22), and the manifest power of Jesus Christ (3:1-21). Paul begins in 4:1 by
urging the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.
The exhortation to walk worthy of Christ is then restated in various ways throughout the
remainder of the letter (cf. 4:17; 5:2; 8, 15). Ephesians 5:21-33, along with the entirety of the
household codes (5:21-6:9), is closely linked with the exhortation in 5:15: Look carefully then
how you walk. 23 Following this command, Paul then urged the Ephesians to understand the will
of the Lord (5:17) and to be filled with the Spirit (5:18).
The command to be filled with the Spirit (5:18) is followed by five participles which
describe the results in those whom the Spirit fills. The last of the five participles is submitting
in 5:21, where Paul writes, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Thus, 5:21 is
intimately connected with 5:18. But 5:21 is also connected to the household codes (5:21- 6:9) in
that it primes the Ephesians for the more specific ways in which Christians are to practice

23

Arnold, Ephesians, 363.

submission. Peter OBrien explains: It is as though the apostle is saying: Submit to one
another, and what I mean is, wives submit to your husbands, children to your parents, and slaves
to your masters. 24 In this way, 5:21 should be seen as the beginning of the household codes
(5:21-6:9), and more specifically as the beginning of Pauls instructions to husbands and wives
(5:21-33), rather than the conclusion to the previous section.
Pauls instructions in 5:21-33 is the most thorough discussion on the marriage
relationship in the New Testament, and is therefore considered the most significant passage
among believers for developing a Christian view of marriage. 25 The passage is strikingly more
in-depth compared to its counterpart in Colossians. There Paul instructs wives with nine words
(Col. 3:18), but in Ephesians he addresses wives in 47 words. With respect to husbands, the 10
words used in Colossians 3:19 inflate to 143 in Ephesians. 26 In addition, several themes from
5:21-33 are found elsewhere in the New Testament, including the authority of husbands over
wives (1 Cor. 11:3), and the submission of wives to husbands (Col. 3:18; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:1).

Two Old Testament texts are also drawn upon in 5:21-33. The first is from Ezekiel 16:814, which describes the Jewish custom of a bridal bath in which the bride was washed and
adorned with bridal array prior to the wedding ceremony. The Ezekiel passage uses the bridal
bath imagery in the context of God entering into a covenant union with Israel. 27 Further, God is
washing his people in preparation for their covenant life together. Paul alludes to Ezekiel 16 in

24

OBrien, The Letter, 403.

25

Arnold, Ephesians, 363.

26

Ibid.

27

Hawthorne, Dictionary of Paul, 596-597.

Ephesians 5:26-27, which pictures Christ washing the church and presenting her to Himself in
splendor and without blemish. 28 The other Old Testament text is from Genesis 2:24, which
Paul quotes nearly verbatim in 5:31 to stress the oneness (the two shall become one flesh) and
unity of both the marriage covenant and the relationship between Christ and His people.

Culturally speaking, it is true that the instructions for wives to submit to the authority of
their husbands is, in one sense, reflective of the cultural norms of first-century Roman society. 29
However, Pauls command for husbands to love their wives sacrificially as Christ loved the
church (5:25) is a radical departure from the societal norms of that era, a time in which husbands
were considered the supreme ruler and master of their homes. Additionally, in that culture wives
were expected to give of themselves, freeing the husband to pursue prestige at work or in
society.30 But here Paul inverted the cultural norms of his day. The Christian husband is to
sacrifice himselfeven his social standing and upward mobilityfor the benefit of his wife.31
So although the Christian husband is in a role of authority over his wife, his authority is
patterned after Christs sacrificial love and leadership of the church, rather than in the mold of
first-century Roman husbands. The distinction is important, as it indicates that Paul intended
5:21-33 to transcend culture and time.

28

Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 42 (Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 1990),
375. Lincoln affirms that Ezek. 16 stands behind this passage.
29

Hawthorne, Dictionary of Paul, 596. The author states that Paul reflected the cultural customs of his

30

Thielman, Ephesians, 382.

31

Ibid.

time

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Meaning Analysis

Completing the marks of Spirit-filled believers (5:18), and beginning the household codes
(5:21-6:9), Paul writes in 5:21, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Here,
Paul is commanding Christians to submit to the appropriate authorities, which in this context will
mean wives submitting to their husbands, children to their parents, and slaves to their masters
(5:22-6:9).32 In the Christian home, those under the authority of others are to submit themselves
out of reverence (,) for Christ (5:21b). That is, Christians submit to those in authority
over them out of awe and respect for Christ. Paul then commands wives to submit to their
husbands, as to the Lord (5:22).33 For a Christian wife, submission to her husband is an act of
obedience demonstrating reverence for Christ.
The wife submits to her husband for yet another reason. She submits because he is the
head of the wife (5:23a). As mentioned above, in this context head () denotes authority.
In Christian marriage, the husband has authority over his wife in the same way that Christ is the
head of the church, his body (5:23b). As such, the husbands authority over his wife is
patterned after Christs authority over the church, which is His body. His authority is unique, it is
selfless, and purposed for good, for Christ is himself its Savior (5:23c).34 Similarly, a Christian
husband exercises authority over his wife for her benefit. Thus 5:22-23 describe a wife who

32 OBrien, The Letter, 400-405. OBrien discusses in full the issue of submission vs.mutual
submission in 5:21 and then argues against mutual submission.
33

Thielman, Ephesians, 375. 5:22 is elliptical, thus the verb is supplied from 5:21. Thielman notes the
importance of the omission in that it confirms the connection to 5:21 by demonstrating how Christian wives fulfill
the command to submit. They do so by submitting to their husbands.
34 Ibid., 378-79. There is no reason to assume that Paul envisions husbands as the savior of their wives.
Christs authority and saving power are used for the benefit of the church (1:22-23). Thus, Paul is introducing here
the expectations of how husbands will use their authorityit must be for the benefit of their wives.

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submits to her husband, a man who imitates the selfless and beneficial service that Christ renders
to His church.35
Therefore, Paul concludes, Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should
submit in everything to their husbands (5:24). That is not to say that wives must submit to their
husbands in all things, as in those things that are wrong, unjust, or sinful. Instead, it is best to
view 5:24 as a general exhortation for wives to submit to the leadership of their husba nds,
leadership that is conformed to Christ-likeness. 36 After all, husbands are commanded to love
their wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (5:25). The present
imperative (love), indicates that a husbands love for his wife is to be ongoing and
should therefore characterize his actions and attitudes toward her.37 Moreover, a husbands love
for his wife is to be sacrificial, motivated by Christs sacrificial love.

In 5:26-27, practical instructions for marriage are set aside as Paul discusses the purpose
for which Christ sacrificed Himself for the church. Christ sacrificed Himself that he might
sanctify her (5:26a). That is, he died to make His church holy and set apart from the world. 38
This He achieved, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word (5:26c), a phrase
that serves as a metaphor for the cleansing power of the gospel. 39 The church has been sanctified

35

Thielman, Ephesians, 379.

36 Ibid., 380. Thielman notes that (everything), is used elsewhere by Paul when it was clear that a
literal understanding of all things was never intended.
37

Arnold, Ephesians, 383.

38 Thielman, Ephesians, 382-83. Sanctify is from the verb , the only use of this verb in the NT, but
its adjectival form, , is used often in the New Testament as a descriptor for Christians.
39 OBrien, The Letter, 422-423 OBrien notes that (word) is never used in reference to baptism.
Moreover, often refers to the preached word of the gospel.

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by Christ through the power of the gospel, so that he might present the church to himself in
splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing (5:27a). Here, the church is described as a
young bride, freshly bathed, who is now adorned in fine apparel ready to be presented to the
groom.40 Her beauty, however, runs deeper than skin. She is morally pure, for she is holy and
without blemish (5:27b).41 The implication here is that since believers are the magnificent bride
of Christ, having been made righteous (positional righteousness) through the gospel, they should
now strive to live in holiness and righteousness, as is fitting with their identity in Christ.
Instructions for husbands resumes as Paul commands husbands to love their wives as
their own bodies (5:28a). As Christ loves and cares for His body (the church), a Christian
husband is likewise to love and care for his wife just as he cares for his own body. The command
is central to Christian marriage, which understands a husband and a wife to be one flesh (Gen.
2:24), or one body, which Paul will soon indicate directly (5:31). But for now, Paul uses an
everyday illustration to make his point: For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and
cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (5:29-30). The
common human experience demonstrates that no one hates their own body, or, as Paul says,
flesh. 42 The point is, Christian husbands are to nourish and cherish their wives in the same way
they nourish and cherish their own bodies. After all, Christ cares for his body (the church) in the
same way.

40

Thielman, Ephesians, 385-86.

41

F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International
Commentary On the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 390. (holy and
without blemish) is also used in 1:4, where Paul states that God chose His people before the foundation of the world,
so that His people would be holy and blameless.
Lincoln, Ephesians, 379. Here the text shifts from using (body) in 5:28 to (flesh) in 5:29, in
preparation for the citation of Gen. 2:24 in 5:31.
42

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Paul then quotes directly from Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man shall leave his father and
mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh (5:31). Given the previous
discussion concerning how husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies, 5:31 almost
certainly refers to the one flesh union between husband and wife, further clarifying why
husbands are to love their wives. But there is also a much deeper meaning behind the reference
to Genesis 2:24, which Paul states this way: This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it
refers to Christ and the church (5:32). The union of man and woman, which God instituted at
creation, contained a deeper meaninga mysterythat was hidden until Christ instituted the
church.43 In other words, the relationship between Christ and His church serve as the paradigm
for the Christian husband and wife. 44

With the mystery revealed, Paul returns to marriage instructions. He writes to husbands:
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself (5:33a). The command restates that
which was previously stated (5:28) and reinforces the grounds: when husbands love their wives
as they love themselves, they are emulating Christs love for his church, which is his body. 45
Paul then concludes with final instructions for wives. A wife is to see that she respects ()
her husband (5:33b). In recognizing Gods design for family, the wife will give proper respect
to her husband as fitting for one in authority.

Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Mystery of Christ and the Church: Head and Body, One Flesh, Trinity
Journal (1991), 79-94. For a thorough treatment of the interpretation of this verse, along with the meaning of
mystery, see Kostenbergers work, in which he discusses the meaning of mystery and three main interpretations
of this verse: sacramental, typological, and analogical. He then argues in favor of the analogical approach.
43

44 OBrien, The Letter, 432-35. The view expressed here is in-line with the typological interpretation. The
view is adopted for the following reasons: Gen. 2:24 refers to both the marriage covenant (5:28-29) and the union of
Christ and His church (5:30; 32); it is consistent with Pauls use of mystery throughout.
45

Arnold, Ephesians, 397.

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Application

In 5:21-33, Paul called husbands and wives to look to their identity in Christ to
understand their respective roles in the marriage relationship. For a wife, this entails submitting
to her husbands authority in the same way she submits to the authority of Christ. That does not
mean that wives are doormats for abusive husbands, or that women have no rights and no say in
marriage. The submission enjoined here calls the Christian wife to recognize that God has given
her husband a special role as the leader of the home. The wife accomplishes submission by
aligning herself under the authority of her husband and allowing her husband to lead without
subverting his authority. This they do out of respect for the husbands authority and in reverence
to Christ. A husband, for his part, is commanded to use his authority for the good of his wife.
Therefore, husbands must not use these verses as a pretext to exercise totalitarian authority.
Rather, they must look to the example of Christs love for His church; a love that is both
sacrificial and beneficial for His body. As with Christ and the church, the husbands leadership
must be marked by unwavering service and sacrifice for the benefit of his wife. The instructions
in 5:21-33, then, are timeless for Christians because they are rooted in the person and works of
Jesus Christ and are fitting for all who claim their identity in Christ.

Finally, it must also be pointed out that the commands herein bear greatly on the Great
Commission, particularly in our modern world. As wives and husbands fulfill their respective
roles in marriage before a watching world, they will bear witness to the surpassing greatness and
sacrificial love of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Christian men and women must seriously consider the
weight of this passage and how it not only impacts their lives, but also the impact that
faithfulness to its message will have on a lost and dying world that desperately needs to see a

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living witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, particularly within the confines of a one-flesh union
between one man and one woman. When a Christian husband and wife each fulfill their
respective roles as outlined in Ephesians 5:21-33, the resulting marriage will reflect the beauty of
the gospel and the churchs response to the gospel: submission to the authority of a selfless and
sacrificial Savior.

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Sampley, J. Paul. Ephesians, in The Deutero-Pauline Letters, edited by Gerhard Krodel, 1-23
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