Just as there are various denominations today among those who claim to be Christians, so there were various sects among Jews in Jesus' day. Studying what the Bible says about these groups may help us learn lessons useful in our service to God.
The Pharisees were a prominent sect. They correctly believed in spirits and in the resurrection of the dead, whereas Sadducees did not (Acts 23:8).
However, they also possessed many characteristics that Christians should avoid. Their errors, combined with their zeal and influence, often led them into conflict with Jesus and His disciples.
Some teachers have repeatedly claimed that the Pharisees emphasized strict obedience to God's law. But Jesus often rebuked the Pharisees. So, if we teach that people must obey the Bible, folks often rebuke us a being "a bunch of Pharisees" like the people Jesus rebuked.
Jesus often did rebuke the Pharisees. But not everything they believed was wrong: remember, they were right about the resurrection! So, we should be careful to condemn the Pharisees only for the things for which Jesus condemned them. Even if history proves that Pharisees believed some idea, that fact alone would not automatically prove that belief was wrong.
We want to study exactly what Jesus really said about the Pharisees. Were they wrong because they emphasized strict obedience to God's word? Then we want to examine ourselves and consider whether or not we are like the Pharisees.
Consider these characteristics of the Pharisees:
Acts 26:5 - The Pharisees were known as the strictest sect among the Jews. But ask yourself: Is Paul here criticizing or condemning that? If anything, he is speaking favorably here (cf. Philippians 3:4,5; Acts 23:6-10; Matthew 23:2,3).
Matthew 7:21-27 - To enter the kingdom of heaven we must do God's will. One who hears Jesus' words and does not do them is like one who builds a house on sand.
John 14:15 - If you love me, keep my commands.
Hebrews 5:9 - Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.
2 Thessalonians 1:8,9 - Those who do not obey the gospel will be punished with everlasting destruction.
People today often oppose teaching that emphasizes strict obedience to God's word, but do these passages sound like Jesus would condemn someone for teaching the need for obedience? What passage anywhere condemns the Pharisees for teaching strict observance to God's word?
[John 14:21-24; 1 John 5:3; 2:3-6; James 2:14-26; 1 Peter 1:22,23; Romans 2:6-10; 6:17,18]
Revelation 3:19 - Jesus reproved and chastened those whom He loved. He required them to repent.
James 5:19,20 - Turning a sinner from his error saves a soul from death.
2 Timothy 4:2-4 - Because people will turn away from truth and want preaching that satisfies their own desires, we must preach the word and rebuke error.
People today often object when others rebuke them for disobeying God's word, but does this sound like Jesus objected to telling people they were wrong to disobey God? Jesus' own teaching contains numerous examples in which He told people they were wrong, including the Pharisees!
Amazingly, some people heartily approve the fact that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and told them they need to change, then they immediately tell us we are un-Christlike if we rebuke others and tell them to change! If Jesus did not believe in telling folks they were wrong, why did He rebuke the Pharisees? And if telling people they are wrong is such a bad thing to do, why do people approve of the fact that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees?
[Galatians 6:1,2; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; Ephesians 5:11; Acts 6:9; 7:51-54; John 7:7]
Matthew 15:1-9 - Jesus criticized the Pharisees for freeing people from the Divine obligation to care for their elderly parents. Jesus was stricter than the Pharisees!
Matthew 19:3-9 - Some Pharisees thought people could divorce for just any reason. Jesus said His teaching would return to God's original law and would allow divorce only for the cause of fornication. Jesus was stricter than the Pharisees!
Luke 7:30 - Jesus had been baptized by John, but the Pharisees refused. In so doing, they rejected the counsel of God. Jesus was stricter than the Pharisees about baptism!
Many people today teach salvation by "faith only." When we teach that baptism is necessary to salvation, they often accuse us of being "Pharisees" because we emphasize strict obedience. But in fact, the Pharisees were the first-century teachers who said that baptism was not necessary. This was another point on which Jesus disagreed with them.
People today need to realize that, when we teach baptism is necessary, we are agreeing with Jesus. People who deny the necessity of baptism are the ones who are like the Pharisees!
People often use this passage to say that Jesus condemned the Pharisees for strict observance of God's law. But contrary to popular belief, Jesus was not rebuking the Pharisees here for being too strict. On the contrary, Jesus was seriously rebuking them for not being strict enough!
The Pharisees tithed little spices but neglected weightier matters. "These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone." This means they "ought to" have been tithing the spices. Jesus was not rebuking the Pharisees for tithing spices.
The problem was what they left undone. They had neglected even more important commands. So here - on the very passage where people think Jesus was rebuking strict obedience to the law - the fact is that Jesus was stricter than the Pharisees! He was rebuking them for leaving Divine commands undone!
There are other passages where people think Jesus was more lenient than the Pharisees. But this was because the Pharisees were keeping human traditions, or because their motives were evil, not because the Pharisees were strictly obeying God. (We will note some of these later.)
So when people rebuke us for being like the Pharisees because we teach people to obey God's word, we need to point out that there is not one word from Jesus or any New Testament writer that condemns anyone for believing in strict obedience to God's revealed will.
In fact, when it comes to teaching people to obey the real meaning of God's law, Jesus was stricter than that Pharisees. What He did sometimes condemn them for was being too loose and not following God's word. So, when people today try to excuse people who disobey God's law, they are the ones who are like the Pharisees. And if we seek to be like Jesus, then we need respond in love and show them their error!
They condemned people who did not wash their hands before eating, while releasing people from their God-given obligation to provide for elderly parents. These rules were based on "the tradition of the elders" (v2). They made God's command of no effect by their traditions (v6), teaching as doctrine the commands of men (v9).
So again, Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for strictly following God's law. What He condemned them for was binding man-made laws different from God's law. They both bound what God had not bound and released men from what God had bound, all on the basis of man-made rules.
Jesus gave examples of technical rules Pharisees made to release people from keeping their commitments. If one swore by the temple or the altar, he could be released from an oath. But if he swore by the gold of the temple or the gift on the altar, he was bound.
Jesus taught, if anything, the temple and the altar were greater than the gold and the gift. But in fact, Jesus' disciples do not need oaths to confirm our word. Christians should be known for always keeping their word (Matthew 5:37; James 5:12).
So, rather than being overly strict in observing God's law, the Pharisees were releasing people from obligations that God held them too. What they zealously bound were their human traditions and human changes in God's law. Jesus rebuked them because their human laws freed people from Divine requirements!
The Pharisees often claimed that Jesus broke the law by healing on the Sabbath. Some people, even in the church, believe that this is an example in which the Pharisees were wrong to insist on strict observance of God's law, whereas Jesus released people from obeying God's law. But consider:
The truth is that the Sabbath law permitted healing and works of mercy. It never had forbidden them. The reason stories like this confuse people is that they assume the Sabbath law forbade all kinds of work. But again, what the Pharisees were binding was, not God's law, but their own human traditions. Note:
* Jesus obeyed the law without sin (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:21ff; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Sin is transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). If Jesus had violated the Sabbath law, he could not have been sinless.
* Jesus explained that it was proper to pull a sheep out of a pit, even on a Sabbath day. This could be considered work, but everyone agreed it could be done. Nobody thought this was a sin. Why? Because God never intended for the Sabbath law to forbid works of mercy to help people in their need. Even the Jews knew this in other areas, yet they condemned Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath.
So everybody knew the Sabbath law did not forbid all kinds of work. For some of us, even getting out of bed in the morning is a lot of work! The Pharisees had endless rules about what kind of work violated the Sabbath law and what work did not violate it.
When the Pharisees condemned Jesus and His disciples regarding the Sabbath law, Jesus said they were condemning the "guiltless" (Matthew 12:7). So, Jesus did not violate the Sabbath. Again, the rules He violated were only human traditions bound by the Pharisees, but not by God.
The Jews wanted to kill Jesus because He healed on the Sabbath. But Jesus responded that both He and His Father had been "working." Think about this in context. In what sense had Jesus and His Father been working? Obviously, Jesus was talking about working on the Sabbath. He was claiming that He wasn't the only one who worked on the Sabbath. His Father in heaven worked on the Sabbath too!
* The Sabbath began because God rested instead of working on the seventh day of creation. But Jesus Himself was the Creator, so He was the One who rested on the seventh day (John 1:1-3). He ought to know what happened! That's what He meant when He said He was "Lord of the Sabbath" (Matthew 12:8). If anyone could properly interpret the Sabbath law, it should have been Him.
* But Genesis 2:3 says only that God ceased the work of creation. In did not mean that God ceased to do all kinds of work. In fact, God has always continued to work on the Sabbath. He gives every good gift (James 1:17; Cf. Acts 17:25,28; 14:17; Matthew 5:45). He upholds all things by the word of His power (Colossians 1:17; Nehemiah 9:6; Hebrews 1:3). If God were to cease working even for a day, the world would cease to exist! The continued existence of the Universe proves that God has worked every Sabbath from creation on.
* Specifically, when Jesus did a miracle on the Sabbath, from what source did the power come to do the miracle? From God. Miracles are "works" of God. So the very fact that Jesus did miracles on the Sabbath of itself proved that God believed in doing some works on the Sabbath. If God did not believe in working on the Sabbath, then no miracle could ever have happened on that day! So to condemn Jesus for doing a miracle on the Sabbath was really to condemn God, since God must be the source of the power.
* Further, the purpose of miracles was to confirm the word of the one through whom the miracle was done (see John 5:36; 20:30,31; Mark 16:20; Acts 2:22; 14:3; 2 Corinthians 12:11,12; Hebrews 2:3,4; 1 Kings 18:36-39). If Jesus taught that miracles could be done on the Sabbath and then He did miracles, that meant God was confirming what Jesus taught, including His teaching that healing did not violate the Sabbath law!
So, Jesus' point here was that the Sabbath law forbade only certain kinds of work. It never did forbid all kinds of work. The works He did were permitted by the law. And what the Pharisees should have done when they saw His miracles, instead of condemning Him for violating the law, they should have recognized that the very fact that He could do miracles actually confirmed that He was teaching the truth.
So once again, in opposing Jesus' miracles, the Pharisees were not standing for strict observance of God's law, but rather were defending their own human traditions.
Like the Pharisees, many people today participate in religious practices because of human tradition and command rather than Divine command.,
* Some churches openly bind religious requirements on the basis of "tradition." They have elaborate rituals and technical rules, like the Pharisees, but they do not base them on Scripture. Instead, they justify them on the grounds of tradition.
* Other denominations follow other forms of human laws: decrees of councils, pronouncements of human church officers, or official creeds written by leaders. They appeal to these as their authority for doctrine and practice. These human authorities, like the Pharisees' commands, sometimes bind what God has not bound and sometimes release people from things God has bound.
* Others may not have official creed books, yet in practice they determine what they believe by "the way we've always done it." They will argue that way when their practices are questioned. Even members of Jesus' church have been known to do this.
* Still other people hold their faith on the basis of family tradition. "My parents (or other family members) believe this (or attended this denomination, etc.). I was brought this way." Some refuse to change because they think it would be disloyal to their family. All such views constitute following human tradition.
So people are mistaken when they rebuke others as "Pharisees" because they teach the need for strict obedience to God's law. In fact, the people who make this claim are usually themselves members of groups that follow man-made creeds, decrees of councils, tradition, etc. And one of those human rules is that people can be saved without seeking to seriously obey God's commands. In other words, the doctrine that obedience to God's law is not necessary to salvation is itself a man-made rule. So people who teach that doctrine are following a human religious rule, just like Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for doing!
So once again, Jesus never rebuked the Pharisees or anyone else for teaching that people need to carefully and respectfully obey Divine law. What He did rebuke people for was binding human traditions or following human commands that differ from God's law. Surely, we too need to take care to make sure we are not guilty.
Why do you believe and practice as you do? Are you following teachings that you simply learned from your parents or loved ones, things you have just practiced for years, or laws made by some church that differ from God's word? Or can you find your religious teachings and practices in God's word?
Luke 18:9-14 - The Pharisee trusted in himself that he was righteous, boasting to God about all his good works, claiming to be far superior to the tax collector.
Again, some people think the Pharisee was wrong because he said the tax collector was wrong. So, whenever anybody tells other people they are wrong, some people accuse them of being self-righteous like the Pharisees. Yet we have studied many Scriptures in which Jesus Himself told others when they were wrong, and He commands us to do the same. In fact, He was rebuking the Pharisees in this very passage!
So if Jesus was not saying the Pharisees where self-righteous simply for saying other people were wrong, why was He condemning the Pharisees? What is self-righteousness?
The Pharisee boasted about his good deeds. He exalted himself instead of humbling himself before God (v14). He did not confess his sins and plead for mercy (as did the tax collector), but thought God should accept him because he did so many good things. At no point did he acknowledge his sins or seek God's forgiveness. Apparently, he thought he deserved salvation because he was so much better than others.
This does not mean it is wrong to teach and practice strict obedience to God's law. We have seen we must do this to be saved. But no matter how good a life we live, we have all sinned; and no matter how good our future life may be, we could never be saved without God's grace to forgive the sins we have committed.
The Pharisee pointed out the tax collector's errors, not because he sincerely desired to help the tax collector, but to brag about how much better he was! This was typical of the Pharisees.
Matthew 9:10-13 - The Pharisees objected when Jesus associated with sinners and publicans. They thought they were too good to be around sinners. They did not recognize that they were just as deserving of punishment as other sinners.
Jesus answered by teaching the importance of mercy: He came to call sinners to repentance. Here is a fundamental difference between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees treated others as sinners to make themselves look better than others, then they refused to associate with them. But Jesus associated with people in sin so He could teach them in mercy how they should change to save their souls.
Luke 15:2 - The Pharisees again criticized Jesus for receiving sinners and eating with them. Jesus responded with three stories showing how much God wants sinners to be saved.
The story of the Prodigal Son shows that sinners need to repent, and God's people should rejoice when they do. But the older brother in the story was like the Pharisees (15:25-32). Instead of rejoicing when his sinful brother repented, he was angry and resentful.
This shows that the Pharisees were actually the greater sinners. The prodigal son and the tax collector both were willing to repent and ask for mercy, so both were forgiven. The Pharisees, like the older brother, did not think they needed forgiveness but should be accepted because they were so good. They did not recognize their sins, did not repent, and so were not forgiven.
What lessons should we learn today?
We must strive to be right. God will not even forgive us until, like the prodigal, we determine to turn away from wrong and do right. But this still requires us to admit our need for forgiveness. We are saved, not because we have done no wrong, but because God has mercifully offered forgiveness for our wrongs.
Ephesians 2:8,9 - This passage is misused to teach that obedience is not necessary to salvation. But the proper application is to people like the Pharisees who boasted about how good they were and thought God should accept them because they are so much better than others.
But what about us? If we don't guard our attitudes, we may become like the Pharisees, patting ourselves on the back as though we deserve to be saved because we are better than other folks. Good deeds are essential for God to give us eternal life. But good deeds themselves can never make up for our sins. We all need forgiveness. That means we must humble ourselves to recognize our sins and plead for mercy (like the tax collector did). When God forgives us, we must realize we did not earn salvation but will receive it only because of the goodness and mercy of God.
Some folks, like the Pharisees, think they are right but do nothing to help the lost be saved. They "despise others," criticizing their sins, laughing at their errors, mocking and ridiculing, but making little effort to help them be saved.
If they do tell others their errors, they do it to win an argument, to prove they are right and others are wrong. Rather than trying to exalt others by leading them to the truth, they are trying to exalt themselves by showing that they are better than others. That is what the Pharisees were like. Is there some of this among God's people?
Remember that Jesus told people they were wrong because He cared for their souls and sought their salvation. What about us? Do we care enough about the lost to take the time and effort to help them be saved? Do we speak to them out of sincere concern for their souls?
I disagree with people who say the Pharisees were wrong because they emphasized strict obedience and told others to repent. But the fact remains that we must guard our attitudes or we will become wrong like the Pharisees were in our attitudes toward others.
[Matthew 23:5-12,29-36; 3:7-10; John 9:35-41; 7:32,45-52]
Luke 12:1 - "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy." Hypocrisy is pretending to be better than we are, trying to lead people to think we are good, when really we are not. Notice several ways in which this characterized the Pharisees:
Matthew 23:23,24 - The problem for which Jesus really rebuked the Pharisees here was emphasizing a relatively unimportant outer act (tithing minor garden spices), while ignoring fundamental inner attitudes of righteousness. The problem was not the outer obedience; it was the improper attitudes.
Matthew 23:25-28 - They were deeply concerned about outward appearances before men, but did not care what they were really like on the inside. They were like people cleaning the outside of a cup but leaving the inside filthy, or like a tomb beautiful on the outside, but inside full of corruption and decay.
Matthew 15:8 - They professed great religious devotion in their speech, but it did not affect their hearts. They were not really devoted to God's work. One of the major characteristics of a hypocrite is they profess great devotion while harboring evil hearts.
Books and movies about the time of the Reformation portray the incredible hatred and evil treatment practiced in the name of religion. Both Catholics and Protestants often justified murder, assassination, violence, and the most bitter hatred in the name of religion. Both sides professed great concern about religion, but both often demonstrated horrible attitudes.
Jesus has always insisted on proper attitudes as well as right conduct. In fact the Scriptures often point out that truly godly conduct can come only from a godly heart, because improper attitudes will sooner or later show in our conduct. (1 Corinthians 13:1ff; Proverbs 4:23; Romans 6:17,18).
Obviously many religious people today emphasize outward conduct without inner purity.
* For many, their worship consists of great displays of pomp and grandeur, yet privately they may think nothing of fornication, filthy language, drinking, gambling, and indecent entertainment. In fact, many churches use such activities as fund raisers! What about members of the Lord's church? Could it be that some of us likewise regularly attend church meetings but go home to live as we please?
* Do we talk about love and unity in our services, then go home to lose our tempers and scream hateful things intended to hurt our spouse or children?
* Do we insist that our worship assemblies be conducted according to the Scriptures in every detail, then just go through the motions when we come? Do we daydream or visit and joke with our neighbor, think about our sports or recreation, or make little effort even to stay awake?
* Do we insist that the church must not support any unscriptural practices from the treasury, while we personally make little or no effort to help the sick, shut-in, or the poor, or to teach the gospel to the lost?
* Do we rebuke our brethren anytime they do something we think is out of line, no matter how picky, but our manner leaves the impression we are mainly interested in winning an argument, making others look silly, and proving how much Bible we know?
Just as Jesus taught the Pharisees, we do need to be concerned about being outwardly right. But let us remember that service to God must come from proper attitudes, and we are just as displeasing to God when our hearts our wrong as when our words or deeds are wrong.
Matthew 23:5-7 - The Pharisees did acts of religious service to impress people and receive their praises. They wanted special seats and titles as religious honors. Whether or not they were pleasing God really did not matter much to them; what really mattered was that other people thought they were pleasing God. [Luke 14:7-11]
John 12:42,43 - Many knew Jesus was from God, but refused to confess Him because they would be cast out of the synagogues. They loved the praises of men more than the praises of God. Sometimes they were willing to disobey God if this would please other people.
Matthew 6:1-6 [cf. v7-18] - Even when they did good things, they did them so they could receive honor and praises from people. If they gave a charitable gift or prayed to God, they did it with fanfare, so as many people as possible would know what they did.
Matthew 27:18 - In the end they killed Jesus because of envy. They were embarrassed because He kept telling them before the people that they were wrong [John 7:7]. He was receiving a major following, which meant they were losing followers.
Bible accounts repeatedly state or imply that their conduct was determined by what people thought of them.
What about religious people today? Are they often motivated by a desire to impress other people like the Pharisees were?
What about denominations?
* Many leaders wear flowing garments and receive titles of honor ("Reverend" and "Father") just like the Pharisees. They give special seats or other honors to special guests, such as politicians or famous athletes.
* Often when people make a special contribution, they want everyone to know about it. They want their names placed on a plaque or a room in the building named after them.
* Churches want eloquent speakers and beautiful, fancy buildings to please the people. They offer elaborate services with choirs, instrumental music, special singing groups, and elaborate stage productions.
* To attract crowds, they provide recreation and entertainment, fun and games, food and frolic. Yet, little time or emphasis is placed on studying God's will.
* Many of them will compromise the truth, refusing to preach things they know are in God's word because they will lose members and money. Often they will not change even when their error is revealed.
Yet amazingly these are often the same people that accuse other people of being like the Pharisees, because they emphasize carefully obeying God's word. In fact, in all these ways they themselves are really the ones who are like the Pharisees.
What about members of the Lord's church?
Do we sometimes see all these same tendencies among us?
* Aren't there some members who want beautiful buildings, entertainment, and recreation, to please the people?
* Do we prefer leaders who are eloquent or have people-pleasing personalities over those who courageously and in love speak the truth?
* Aren't there members who would like to have the message of the gospel toned down so it will not be so offensive to visitors?
* Aren't we sometimes too conscious of what other people think of us as we lead in the public assemblies, so others will praise us for our abilities in singing, leading prayer, or speaking?
* Do we sometimes wish people knew when we gave an extra large contribution or when we taught someone the gospel, so we try to bring it into the conversation and get a pat on the back?
* Aren't there people who even get baptized and become part of the church mainly to please family members, friends, boyfriend, or girlfriend?
We definitely should emphasize careful obedience to God's word. But let's remember that, if we aren't careful, we can be like the Pharisees in other ways.
Matthew 23:3,4 - The Pharisees were hypocrites because they required other people to practice what they themselves would not do. They laid heavy burdens on others, but would not carry them themselves. "They say, and do not do."
Romans 2:1,21-23 - This was a common problem among the Jews. They condemned other people, yet they themselves practiced essentially the same things that they condemned in others.
Does this problem exist among God's people? Do we practice things even though they obviously contradict what we teach other people?
* Do we teach kids not to cheat in school, but we cheat on income taxes?
* Do we punish them for using bad words, but then they hear us use similar words?
* Do we teach them they should practice good sportsmanship, but then they see us lose our tempers and say hateful things when our team loses? When our 12-year-old grandson's team won a game on a rule technicality, the whole group of parents of the other team became so angry and used such abusive language that the umpires had to eject them from the stands! What does such conduct teach the children?
* Do we teach people they should obey the law of the land, but we knowingly exceed the speed limits?
* Do we sing "More about Jesus let me learn" and teach our children in our Bible classes that they need to study their Bibles, but the only time we study is when we are in church meetings or when we are preparing to teach a Bible class?
* Do we teach our children never to become addicted to drugs, but we are addicted to nicotine or alcohol?
* Do we complain about how unruly other people's children are, while our own disobey us without getting punished?
* Do we pray "bring us back at the next appointed time," then make light, frivolous excuses to stay home when we could come?
* Do we sing "I want to be a worker for the Lord," and then try to avoid helping with church work that obviously needs to be done?
* Do we sing "Purer in heart, O God, help me to be," and "More holiness give me," then we try to get just as close to sin as we can? In order to go along with fashion, do we wear clothing that is as skimpy as we can without someone absolutely being able to prove we have sinned? Do we really want more holiness or would we really prefer more worldliness?
* When we pray "May we spread the borders of the kingdom" and sing "I love to tell the story," how long has it been since we have spoken to a lost soul about Jesus?
* Do we sing "I surrender all," but then we try to give just as little as we can for church work?
The truth is that there are lots of ways to be like the Pharisees. We need to emphasize the importance of obeying God, and we need to speak in love to let other people know when they need to change. But let us also remember all the ways the Pharisees were wrong, and let us make application to our own lives of lessons we can learn.
[Mat. 21:33-46; 3:7-10; 16:1-12; 22:15-22; John 8:1-11]
As Christians, we should not be intimidated simply because people say we are like the Pharisees. The Pharisees were not wrong in everything they did. And they were not always wrong in the ways people today say they were wrong.
But at the same time there are real lessons we should learn from the Pharisees.
* We must learn that obedience to God is essential to salvation, and we should not excuse ourselves or other people for their disobedience.
* We must learn the danger of human laws and traditions in religion.
* We must learn to act out of sincere devotion to God, not out of self-righteous pride.
* We must learn to not be hypocrites but to practice what we preach, maintain proper attitudes as well as outward appearances, and always act from a sincere desire to please God.
* And ultimately we must learn that we can be saved only if we humbly seek God's grace and mercy to forgive our sins by the blood of Jesus.
What about us? Are there changes we need to make? Have we received forgiveness of our sins? Are we living faithful, obedient lives?
Copyright 2012, David E. Pratte
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