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Commentary on The First Letter of Saint Paul to the Thessalonians

1:1 Paul: The author of the letter (2:18) as well as the founding apostle of the Thessalonian Church (Acts 17:1-9). Silvanus: A Latin transcription of the name "Silas", a Christian prophet from Jerusalem (Acts 15:32) who accompanied Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 15:40). He was a co-founder with Paul of the church in Thessalonica. Timothy: A young man selected by Paul to minister with him and Silas on their missionary adventures (Acts 16:1-4). Without stating it explicitly, Acts implies that Timothy played a secondary role with Paul and Silas in evangelizing Thessalonica (Acts 17:1, 14). He was later sent to encourage the community and report back to Paul on their situation (1 Thess 3:1-6). See note on 1 Tim 1:2. in . . . the Father and the Lord: The Church family in Thessalonica is united "in" the divine family of the Trinity. The heavenly Father has made this possible by choosing believers for adoption (1:4), giving them the Holy Spirit (4:8), and promising to raise even their bodies from the dead (4:14) when his Son returns in glory (1:10; 4:15-17) (CCC 2014). Grace to you and peace: A standard Christian greeting used by Paul and other writers in the NT (1 Pet 1:2; 2 Jn 3; Rev 1:4). Back to text.

1:2 We give thanks: Nearly every Pauline epistle opens with expressions of gratitude (Rom 1:8; 1 Cor 1:4; etc.). Paul is particularly thankful for the Thessalonians, who have admirably committed themselves to living out the gospel (1 Thess 1:8; 3:6; 4:1, 10). Back to text.

1:3 remembering: Paul recalls the time he first spent with his readers. What stands out in his mind are the theological virtues that changed their lives: in faith they abandoned their idols and embraced the living God (1:9); in hope they endured suffering and expressed longing for the final salvation that Jesus will bring when he returns (1:10; 5:9); and in love they served one another in generous and sacrificial ways (4:9-10). These virtues will protect them like armor in the challenging days ahead (5:8). Paul often reflects on this triad of Christian virtues in his writings (Rom 5:1-5; 1 Cor 13:8-13; Gal 5:5-6; Col 1:4-5) (CCC 1812-29). See note on 1 Cor 13:13Back to text.

1:4 he has chosen you: Before the founding of the world, the Father chose believers for salvation (5:9) and divine sonship (Eph 1:4-5) (CCC 759). See note on Rom 8:29Back to text.

1:5 also in power: The power of God bursts forth through the gospel to save sinners who accept it with faith (Rom 1:16). It is also possible that Paul is referring to the powerful signs and miracles that accompanied his preaching and gave incentive for faith (2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5). Back to text.

1:6 affliction, with joy: Suffering for the gospel is a sign of blessedness and divine approval (Mt 5:10; 1 Pet 3:14). It makes the believer more like Christ (1 Pet 2:21) and his apostles (1 Thess 3:3-4). Back to text.

1:7 Macedonia . . . Achaia: Two Roman provinces that correspond to northern and southern Greece. Paul is writing from the Achaian city of Corinth in the south, while his readers are residents of the Macedonian city of Thessalonica in the north. Back to text.

1:9 turned to God from idols: Suggests most of the Thessalonians were Gentile converts, although some Jewish converts were made in the local synagogue (Acts 17:4). • Paul is voicing a traditional Jewish critique of idolatry. In the Scriptures, Yahweh is acknowledged and praised as the only living God in contrast to the lifeless idols of the pagans (Tob 14:6; Ps 135:13-18; Jer 10:6-10; Hab 2:18-20). Regarding belief in the one true God, the faith of Israel (Deut 6:4) remains the faith of the Church (1 Cor 8:6). This was the cutting edge of Paul's preaching among Gentile audiences immersed in polytheistic cultures (Acts 14:15; 17:22-31) (CCC 212). Back to text.

1:10 his Son from heaven: The first of several references in the letter to the return of Jesus (2:19; 3:13; 4:16; 5:23). See note on 1 Thess 4:13-18. the wrath to come: The final unleashing of God's power against evil on Judgment Day (Rom 2:8). The faithful in Christ will be spared the condemnation and everlasting destruction in store for the wicked (2 Thess 1:710) (CCC 681). Back to text.

2:2 shamefully treated at Philippi: Just before coming to Thessalonica, Paul and Silas were hauled before the city magistrates of Philippi, stripped of their clothes, beaten with rods, and thrown into prison (Acts 16:19-24). This might have disheartened or terrified them into silence, but God gave them the courage to keep moving and preaching despite aggressive opposition (Rom 1:16). Back to text.

2:3 error . . . uncleanness . . . guile: Perhaps Paul, in defending his motives, is countering slanderous charges circulated by his enemies. Despite such calumnies, his missionary team at all times lived and worked above reproach (2:10). Back to text.

2:6 apostles: Refers to Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy (1:1). In the NT, the term "apostle" is used in several different ways. It can refer to (1) Jesus, the One sent by the Father (Heb 3:1), (2) the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus (Lk 6:13), (3) a group of witnesses to the Resurrection (1 Cor 15:7), and (4) messengers sent on missions by churches (2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). Back to text.

2:7 like a nurse: Or, "like a nursing mother". The idea is that Paul and his companions developed a tender affection for the Thessalonians and made every effort to encourage them and serve their needs (2:8). Back to text.

2:9 labor and toil: As apostles, Paul and his coworkers are entitled to financial and material support from the communities under their care (Lk 10:7; 1 Cor 9:13-14). But during their brief stay with the Thessalonians, they waived this right to avoid loading the Church down with burdens and to show that their ministry was not driven by greed or self-interest. It is not specified how the missionaries supported themselves, but we know that Paul was a tentmaker by trade (Acts 18:3). night and day: Accentuates how tirelessly the apostles worked in order to provide for themselves and to continue their ministry at the same time. Paul, for one, was glad to spend himself in this way (2 Cor 12:15). Back to text.

2:11 like a father: With great fatherly care, Paul has overseen the moral and spiritual formation of his Thessalonian children begotten through the gospel. The comparisons used here and in 2:7 highlight both the maternal and paternal sides of Paul's ministry. See note on 1 Cor 4:15Back to text.

2:12 God, who calls you: The Father summons his children to a royal inheritance kept in heaven (1 Pet 1:14). The saints will be given the fullness of this heavenly kingdom, but those unworthy of the calling will be denied it (1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5). Back to text.

2:13 the word of God: The revealed gospel (1 Pet 1:25). This saving message was written down in the books of the NT and delivered orally in the form of apostolic preaching (2 Thess 2:15; CCC 104, 1349). • The ministry of the apostles parallels the ministry of the Hebrew Prophets, who received the word of the Lord and announced it to Israel by word of mouth and in writing (1 Kings 17:1-2; Jer 1:4; Ezek 1:3; Hos 1:1). Back to text.

2:14-16 Paul has some unusually harsh words for the perpetrators of Christian persecution. He traces this madness back to Jerusalem, whose long history of mistreating the Prophets (Mt 23:37) reached a new and diabolical level when its leaders murdered Jesus the Messiah (1 Thess 2:15; Acts 2:23). The Thessalonians got a taste of this when Jewish zealots, fiercely loyal to the aims and outlook of Judean Judaism, stirred up a horde of angry locals to raid the house church where Paul and his companions were staying (Acts 17:5-9). Similar forms of harassment continued even after the missionaries fled (1 Thess 3:3; 2 Thess 1:5). Notice that Paul is criticizing Jewish persecutors, not the Jewish people in general. Years later Paul still insisted that Jews have first claim to the gospel (Rom 1:16), and he expected that "all Israel" would be saved (Rom 11:26) (CCC 597). See essay: The Salvation of All Israel at Rom 11. Back to text.

2:14 in Judea: Attacks on the infant Church began with the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:58-8:1). Even Paul, by his own admission, was a persecutor of Christians before his conversion (Gal 1:22-23; 1 Cor 15:9). your own countrymen: Macedonian pagans, but also hostile opponents from the Thessalonian synagogue (Acts 17:5). the Jews: I.e., the Palestinian Jews responsible for terrorizing Judean churches. Back to text.

2:16 fill up the measure: Paul imagines a cup that is full of iniquity and is about to brim over. Jesus used the same image against the Pharisees when he prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem within the first Christian generation (Mt 23:32). wrath has come upon them: Perhaps in the form of divine abandonment of the people to sin (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28), which is an ominous prelude to the final manifestation of divine wrath in A.D. 70 with the downfall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the dispersion of unbelieving Israel (Lk 21:23). A nearly identical statement appears in Jewish tradition that describes the violent conquest of the city of Shechem (Testament of Levi 6, 11). For Paul, the wrath poured out on Jewish persecutors prefigures the "wrath to come" upon sinners at the final return of Jesus (1 Thess 1:10; 2 Thess 1:7-9). Back to text.

Word Study

At Last (1 Thess 2:16)

Eis telos (Gk.): a phrase that can mean "finally", "until the end", or "to the utmost". It is used six times in the NT, usually in the Gospels. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that the believer who keeps the faith and endures "to the end" will be saved (Mt 10:22; 24:13; Mk 13:13). In Luke, Jesus describes an oppressed widow who will "finally" or "eventually" wear out an unrighteous judge by her continual pleas for justice (Lk 18:5). In John, Jesus assures the disciples he has loved them "to the fullest extent" (Jn 13:1). Paul's intention in using the expression in 1 Thess 2:16 is a matter of interpretation. (1) It could mean "to the utmost degree" and describe how the full retribution of heaven is coming upon unbelieving Jews in Judea. (2) It could also mean "finally" and express how the wrath they have coming to them has at long last arrived. (3) Finally, it could mean "to the end" and describe how divine wrath will press upon unbelieving Jews for the rest of history. Deciding among these options is difficult, though one of the first two possibilities makes the most sense of the passage within its context.

2:17 deprived: The Greek can mean "orphaned", a reference to Paul's hurried departure from Thessalonica (Acts 17:10). Back to text.

2:18 Satan hindered us: The nature of the obstruction is left unspecified. It may be linked with the Jewish and pagan opposition Paul faced in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5). Now, the same evil that forced him to flee also prevents him from returning. Back to text.

2:19 crown of boasting: The expression Paul uses is found in the Greek OT at Prov 16:31 and Ezek 16:12. Here it signifies the pride that Paul will take in his readers when the day of rewards has come. his coming: Several times the word "coming" (Gk. parousia) is used in the Thessalonian letters for the anticipated return of Christ in glory (3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8). For some of its background and meaning, see word study: Coming at Mt 24:3. Back to text.

2:20 our glory and joy: Paul had similar sentiments for the Philippian Church (Phil 4:1). Back to text.

3:1 at Athens: According to Acts 17:10-15, Paul and his missionary team escaped Thessalonica by night, traveled overland to Beroea, and then Paul went on by himself to Athens. Apparently Silas and Timothy rejoined him in Athens shortly thereafter. Back to text.

3:2 we sent Timothy: Restless and anxious for the welfare of the Thessalonians, Paul and Silas sent Timothy on a mission to encourage and reassure the recently abandoned community. He returned after Paul had left Athens for Corinth (Acts 18:5). He brought a glowing report of how fast the believers were growing in virtue and how deeply they longed to see Paul again (1 Thess 3:6). This heartening news was a comfort to the suffering apostle (3:7). Back to text.

3:3 these afflictions: Tribulation and distress are the inevitable lot of the true apostle (1 Cor 4:9-13). In this way, Jesus reproduces his own experience of suffering in the lives of his ordained shepherds (2 Cor 4:8-12). The Thessalonians are also sharing in these afflictions (1 Thess 2:14). Back to text.

3:10 what is lacking: Gaps remain in the catechetical instruction of the Thessalonians. Paul hopes to fill these gaps by returning to complete the process of Christian formation in person (3:11). Back to text.

3:12 abound in love: I.e., in the divine love that Christ pours into our hearts through the Spirit (Rom 5:5). It reaches out to one another in the family of faith as well as to all persons in the family of man, friends and enemies alike (Mt 5:43-48). Because the Lord is the Giver of this gift, only he can make it increase and overflow (CCC 1825). Back to text.

3:13 holiness: Moral and spiritual sanctity. See note on 1 Thess 4:3. the coming: The third mention of Christ's return so far in the letter (1:10; 2:19). See note on 1 Thess 2:19. all his saints: Or, "all his holy ones". This could refer to the blessed angels or the victorious saints or both. Most likely, Paul is saying that Christ will descend from heaven with an army of holy angels. This is the picture drawn by Jesus (Mk 8:38), by the OT (Zech 14:5), and by Paul himself in his follow-up letter (2 Thess 1:7). Back to text.

4:1-5:22 The second half of the letter turns from memories of the past to moral exhortations for the days ahead. Paul is pleased with the moral progress being made in Thessalonica and urges them to grow still more (4:1; 5:11). Back to text.

4:3 sanctification: Holiness of life is willed by God. Growth in holiness, or progressive sanctification, is a process that begins with God's work in Baptism (1 Cor 6:11) and continues when believers abound in love (1 Thess 3:12-13) and exert the moral effort needed to overcome sinful and selfish habits (Rom 6:19). Paul here demands the sanctification of the body through chastity, though the ultimate goal is a complete sanctification of the person (1 Thess 5:23). Holiness is not optional for believers but is a condition for salvation (Heb 12:14) (CCC 2348-50, 2813). • Vatican II issued a universal call to holiness for clergy and laity alike that is expressed through the perfection of love (Lumen Gentium 39). abstain from immorality: Specifically, from the various forms of sexual immorality widely accepted in pagan environments such as Thessalonica. The Greek expression used here is also found in the apostolic decree issued by the Jerusalem Council in A.D. 49 (Acts 15:20, 29). Paul, Silas, and Timothy (1 Thess 1:1) went about delivering this decree on the second missionary tour in Acts (Acts 16:4). See note on Acts 15:20Back to text.

4:4 his own body: Literally, "his own vessel". Both ancient and modern interpreters are divided over the precise meaning of the term "vessel", which could refer to one's body (2 Cor 4:7) or one's wife (1 Pet 3:7). If the former, Paul is advocating chastity and self-control in contrast to the lust of the pagans (Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom); if the latter, Paul is advocating the honorable pursuit of marriage, not as an outlet for lust, but as a pure and holy partnership in the Lord (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas). Either way, Paul is urging readers to master the passions associated with human sexuality. Back to text.

4:5 do not know God: Pagans live in darkness and ignorance until the gospel enlightens their way (Ps 78:6; Jer 10:25; Gal 4:8). Back to text.

4:6 wrong his brother: The context suggests Paul is thinking of adultery, a form of bodily "uncleanness" (4:7). Not only are the involved partners defiled by this impurity, but they wrong their spouses and bring shame on their families as well (CCC 2380-81). Back to text.

4:8 his Holy Spirit: Unchastity is an outrage against God, whose presence dwells in our bodies and makes them temples of holiness (1 Cor 6:18-20; CCC 2351-56). Back to text.

4:9 love of the brethren: Fraternal love for brothers and sisters in the faith is the mark of a true disciple of Christ (Jn 13:35). The Thessalonians are learning this lesson well as their charity is spreading throughout the province of Macedonia (1 Thess 4:10). See note on 1 Thess 3:12Back to text.

4:11 mind your own affairs: A humble and quiet life is all the more necessary in Thessalonica, where disciples are living under clouds of suspicion and distrust (Acts 17:5-9). work with your hands: Paul frowns upon idleness (5:14). Believers must be dependable and hard-working people who labor for the Lord and not just their employers (Col 3:23). This not only leads to personal sanctification, but it will earn the respect of coworkers and neighbors as well (CCC 2427). Back to text.

4:13-18 Paul comforts the bereaved with the hope of resurrection. Apparently some were concerned that the faithful departed would be left behind when Jesus returns to bring the saints to heaven. Paul insists otherwise: the righteous dead will be raised in glory and gathered to Christ even before the generation of believers still living on the earth in the last days. Back to text.

4:13 asleep: A metaphor for death. In Scripture, the expression hints that death is only a temporary state that will end when the righteous are awakened at the resurrection (Is 26:19; Dan 12:2). The gospel tells us that death is not extinction or the end of all things, but a step closer to eternal life (CCC 1010, 1016). For the state of the soul after bodily death, see note on 2 Cor 5:8. may not grieve: It is human to mourn the death of a loved one; it is Christian to keep our sadness from sliding down to despair. Every sorrow in life can be softened by the joyful hope that the dead will live again when Jesus returns (CCC 1001). Back to text.

4:14 Jesus died and rose again: The guarantee of our own bodily resurrection (Rom 8:11; CCC 989). See note on Lk 24:39. • Christ is the pattern of our resurrection because he assumed flesh and rose again embodied in flesh. He is also the cause of our resurrection, for what was done by Christ's humanity was done, not only by the power of his human nature, but also in virtue of his divinity. It was not merely his body that rose, but a body united to the Word of life (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4, 2). Back to text.

4:15 we who are alive: In contrast to "those who are asleep" (4:13). The distinction is between living and deceased Christians and the order in which they will ascend to meet Christ at his coming. Some infer from Paul's use of "we" that the apostle believed Christ would come again soon, perhaps within his own lifetime. If Paul cherished such a hope, the text does not assert this explicitly. Paul professes to know nothing precise about the timing of the Lord's return beyond its suddenness (5:1-2). Other passages indicate that Paul envisioned death as a real possibility for himself (Phil 3:10-11; 2 Tim 4:6) and numbered himself among those who would be raised from the dead (1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14). See note on 1 Cor 15:51Back to text.

4:16-17 Paul depicts the coming of Jesus with apocalyptic imagery that was widely used in Jewish literature from this period. • Several dramatic scenes in the Bible also use this imagery and prepare the way for this final event of history. (1) During the Exodus, the Lord descended upon Sinai with a fiery cloud and a blaring trumpet, and all Israel went forth to meet him (Ex 19:16-20). (2) During the Conquest, Israel joined forces with the angels of the Lord to bring down the walls of Jericho with a blast of seven trumpets and a loud cry from the people (Josh 5:13-14; 6:15-20). (3) In the visions of Daniel, a court sits in judgment as it watches the Messiah riding the clouds into heaven and receiving from God an eternal kingdom that he shares with the saints (Dan 7:10-14, 18, 27). Back to text.

4:16 the Lord himself: Christ will descend to earth "in the same way" that he ascended into heaven, i.e., enveloped in a glorious cloud (Acts 1:11). cry of command: The voice of the Son of man that calls forth the dead from their tombs and summons them to the judgment (Jn 5:28-29). archangel's call: Possibly the voice of Michael, the guardian of the people of God (Dan 12:1) and the leader of the angelic army (Jude 9; Rev 12:7). the trumpet: The final blast that inaugurates the resurrection and glorification of the saints. For its biblical background, see note on 1 Cor 15:52. the dead in Christ: The faithful departed, though temporarily deprived of their bodies, live on in spiritual union with the Lord as they await the resurrection (2 Cor 5:8). Back to text.

4:17 caught up: Or, "raptured". Believers living on the earth when Christ returns will be drawn up to join the saints of the ages as they ascend into glory. Paul seems to assert, not that the final generation will die and then be raised, but that their bodies will be instantly glorified and made immortal. This is how Paul was understood by the Greek Fathers of the Church, and this agrees with the prophetic outlook of 1 Cor 15:51-53. Back to text.

5:1-11 Continuing his reflections on the Second Coming, Paul adds a warning that believers must be watchful and ready. Christ will return unexpectedly, so unless we live in the light and arm ourselves with divine virtues (5:8), we will be taken by surprise and delivered to sudden destruction (5:3). His words discourage attempts to speculate about the precise timing of Christ's return (CCC 672-73, 2849). Back to text.

5:1 the times and the seasons: An expression used elsewhere in Acts 1:7 in the NT and Dan 2:21 in the OT. In both contexts, it refers to predetermined dates when God establishes kingdoms. Back to text.

5:2 day of the Lord: The appointed day when Christ the Lord will come again as Savior (Heb 9:28) and Judge (Mt 25:31-46). Paul does not know when this day will arrive; he knows only some of the signs that will lead up to it (2 Thess 2:1-12). Liturgically, this final and fateful day is anticipated every Lord's day, when believers gather for eucharistic worship (Rev 1:10) and receive either blessings or curses at Christ's table (Jn 6:54; 1 Cor 11:27-32). Historically, it is prefigured by the return of Jesus to judge Israel and Jerusalem in A.D. 70. like a thief: I.e., suddenly and unexpectedly (Mt 24:43-44; Rev 3:3). Back to text.

5:3 peace and security: The slogan of the foolish and unprepared (Jer 6:14). destruction: Not annihilation or extinction, but eternal separation from God (2 Thess 1:9). labor pains: The wicked will be seized with sudden contractions of pain that will intensify and never subside (Hos 13:12-13). Back to text.

5:5 sons of light: A Semitic way of saying "sons of goodness, righteousness, and truth" (Eph 5:8-9). The struggle between light and darkness as forces of good and evil is a prominent theme in Jewish tradition (Dead Sea Scrolls) and the NT (Jn 1:4-9; Acts 26:18; Rom 13:12-13; 1 Jn 1:5-7) (CCC 1216). Back to text.

5:8 breastplate . . . helmet: The virtues of faith, hope, and love are the defensive gear of the believer, protecting the head and heart during the battles of life. These conflicts are engaged not only with the passions and enticements of the world, but also with demonic spirits that seek our demise (Eph 6:13-17). Paul often reminds readers of their spiritual armory in Christ (Rom 13:12; 2 Cor 6:7; 10:3-4). See note on 1 Thess 1:3Back to text.

5:10 who died for us: Even in a letter dominated by the hope of Christ's return, Paul never loses sight of Christ's redemptive death. Back to text.

5:12 over you in the Lord: A hierarchical ministry of leadership was already in place in Thessalonica. This is not surprising, since it was Paul's policy to ordain presbyters (priests) to shepherd the flock in his missionary churches (Acts 14:23; Tit 1:5). The spiritual oversight of these pastors entitles them to the respect and submission of the laity (CCC 1269). • Love priests as children love their fathers. Through them you have received an eternal generation, you have obtained the kingdom, and the gates of heaven are swung open to you. If you love Christ and the kingdom of heaven, then acknowledge through whom you obtained it (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians 10). Back to text.

5:14 admonish the idle: Paul has no sympathy for freeloaders who expect to eat but are unwilling to work. This is an embarrassing problem in Thessalonica and needs to be addressed firmly by the congregation (2Thess 3:6-13). See note on 1 Thess 4:11Back to text.

5:15 evil for evil: The gospel forbids personal retaliation (Mt 5:38-42; Rom 12:17-19). Back to text.

5:17 pray constantly: I.e., pray regularly, but we should also allow the spirit of prayer and praise to envelop our work and daily activities (Eph 6:18). Whatever we do can be done for the greater glory of God (Col 3:17) (CCC 1174, 2743). Back to text.

5:19 Do not quench the Spirit: I.e., by resisting the movement of the Spirit and the exercise of his gifts (1 Cor 12:4-11). Paul's only proviso is that they test prophesies and alleged revelations to make sure they line up with the truths of the gospel (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 14:29) (CCC 696, 799-801). • When a person is moved by the Spirit to do something generous, and someone else impedes him, the one who impedes quenches the Spirit. Also, when someone commits mortal sin, the Spirit ceases to abide in him. A third way to quench the Spirit is to conceal our gifts instead of using them for the benefit of others (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5, 2). Back to text.

5:23 spirit and soul and body: Paul is emphasizing the wholeness of the person without intending to make precise distinctions between his component parts. A certain distinction can be made, however, if we understand the body as the material frame, the soul as its immaterial principle of life, and the spirit as the human capacity for prayer and worship (Rom 1:9; 1 Cor 14:15; CCC 367). Back to text.

5:26 a holy kiss: An outward sign of fraternal affection (Rom 16:16; 1 Pet 5:14). Back to text.

5:27 I adjure you: Paul is putting his readers under oath to ensure that his written instructions are made known to every member of the Church. The eucharistic liturgy was the most suitable context for a public reading of the letter (1 Tim 4:13). Back to text.

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