“Recognition vs Devotion”
January 22, 2023
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
The Reading of the Word
This morning we continue in the Gospel of Mark as we come to Mark 3:7-12.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning:
7 Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea, and a great crowd followed, from Galilee and Judea 8 and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon. When the great crowd heard all that he was doing, they came to him. 9 And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him, 10 for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed around him to touch him. 11 And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” 12 And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Prayer of Illumination
Lord, your word is a lamp to our feet
and a light to our path.
And we, as your people, have committed ourselves
to keep your righteous commandments.
In the trials we face,
we ask you, Lord, to give us life according to your word.
As you have accepted our praises this morning,
so now teach us the way you would have us to go.
Your testimonies are our heritage forever,
for they are the joy of our hearts.
Incline our hearts to perform your statutes
forever, to the end.
This we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:105-108, 111-112]
Our text this morning is a window into how people often respond to Jesus, and what he most wants from us.
And that emerges through three things we see play out in this text.
We see first the shock of recognition. Second, we see the limits of recognition. And then third, a priority beyond recognition.
So there is a shock, a limit, and then a new priority. Let’s consider each of those in our text.
The Shock of Recognition
First, there is the shock of recognition.
And to appreciate this, we need to remember the context of this passage – specifically what came before it. At the end of our passage last week, in Mark 3:6, we read that in response to Jesus’s ministry: “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
Then, we read here in verse seven, “Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the sea.” While the Greek term translated there can simply mean to withdraw from a region “for retreat and solitude” [Edwards, 103], as one commentator points out, the same term is also used by Matthew to describe Mary and Joseph fleeing with Jesus from murderous King Herod. In light of a similar threat of murder here in verse six, it might be better for us to read verse seven as telling us that here also Jesus fled with his disciples to the sea. [Horne, 76]
In any case, Jesus’s work had met serious opposition. Now he and his disciples are fleeing to another region. And as they do, we might wonder whether Jesus’s ministry will really succeed at this point.
But then, before we really get a chance to wonder, we are told right away that it looks like his ministry is succeeding. “A great crowd followed” him, we read, and we’re told that it included people from “Galilee and Judeaand Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from around Tyre and Sidon.” [3:7b-8] And here we need to pause to make sure we understand the significance of this list. For one thing, it indicates a large geographic range. The regions listed include not only Galilee and Judea (which would include Jerusalem), but also regions east of the Jordan, as well as Tyre and Sidon which were fifty miles to the north of their location, and even Idumea which was 120 miles due south of their gathering location. In a time before modern transportation, these are shockingly large distances that people are traveling to come and to see Jesus. But it’s not just a matter of distance. As one commentator puts it: “Equally remarkable is the ethnic diversity of the crowd. Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem were principally Jewish territories; Idumea and Transjordan were mixed Jewish-Gentile regions; and Tyre and Sidon were largely if not entirely Gentile regions […]. The fame of Jesus is far reaching and all encompassing, which is all the more remarkable given the social cleavages of the day.” [Edwards, 103] People are coming to Jesus from a wide and varied region. [Bayer, 1898] Which tells us that they recognize that there is something extraordinary and desirable about Jesus.
What is it that has brought this on?
Well, it seems that what’s brought this recognition and response is Jesus’s healing ministry. That comes out in verses eight and ten. As one commentator puts it: “the main reason people came flocking to him from all sides was because he was able to heal them. In a world where medical skill was, by our standards, extremely primitive, someone who appeared to be able to heal almost anyone of almost anything caused a stampede.” [Wright, 33]
In that power to heal, the people seem to recognize something extraordinary in Jesus. They see their needs, and they recognize that Jesus can meet their needs. And they come to Jesus. At the very least, this seems to be a better response than what we saw last week in the Pharisees and the Herodians. They saw his healing power and plotted to kill him. The crowd hears of his healing power and they are flocking to him.
The crowd doesn’t articulate in this passage what they think about Jesus. But they obviously seem to recognize that something significant is happening in and through him.
And their response is not uncommon even today. People in general are struck by Jesus. There are, of course, exceptions, but even among those who would not call themselves Christians, people rarely simply dismiss or disparage Jesus. They may try to change him to better fit their preferences, but they often resist mocking or maligning him. Some religions, like Islam, find a place of honor for him, even if they alter the claims he made about himself. Many secular people will speak reverently about Jesus, even as they downplay the claims he made about himself.
Many people respond to Jesus with some form of recognition that something significant is going on in and through him … even if they struggle or resist articulation of what that is.
Which really is a remarkable thing. It’s remarkable that in first century Palestine, thousands of people seemed to recognize that there was something significant about Jesus. And it’s even more remarkable that today millions of people beyond the walls of the church, also seem to recognize that there is something significant about Jesus, even if they struggle to say what.
And so with all of that, the first thing we see in our text is the shock of recognition – the striking fact that people so often recognize Jesus as being of special significance.
That’s the first thing we see here.
The Limits of Recognition
But then, the second thing we see here are the limits of recognition. And our first sign of this issue comes from the demons.
It’s possible to read this passage through verse ten, and simply assume that the recognition Jesus is getting from the crowds is a great thing – that Jesus is finally getting the recognition he deserves, that this sort of thing was exactly the goal of Jesus’s public ministry. It can seem that everything is rightly falling into place.
But then we get to verse eleven. And there we read “And whenever the unclean spirits saw him [that is, whenever the unclean spirits saw Jesus], they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’ And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.”
Now, when we read that, we need to stop and consider who the unclean spirits are, how they responded to Jesus, and what it means for those who merely recognize Jesus.
So first: Who are they? The unclean spirits are dark spiritual forces. They are supernatural spiritual beings in rebellion against God and fighting against God’s purposes in the world. They are demons – devils.
The Bible is not shy about the reality of evil, conscious, spiritual beings in the world. Just as there are forces for spiritual good in the world, so there are forces of spiritual evil. Many modern people, though they may embrace the idea of unseen spiritual forces for good in the world, would find the idea of unseen spiritual forces for evil in the world to be laughable or childish. But anyone who has honestly grappled with the pain, and the suffering, and the evil in this world would take the idea of such beings much more seriously. The Bible is not so naively optimistic as to deny the reality of devils in our world. And while such beings may ordinarily hide their presence from us, when Jesus arrived in the world, he called them out and exposed them.
Which brings us to the second question: How did these unclean spirits respond to Jesus? And what we read here is that while they were being overpowered by him, part of their response was to recognize who Jesus was, and to proclaim it out loud. We read that when they see him, they cry out “You are the Son of God.” Which is shocking because so far, no human being has made such a proclamation about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. But the demons do – the demons recognize him as the Son of God. [Wright, 33; see also Edwards, 104]
That should get our attention. But it should also cause us to reflect on the value of mere recognition.
The demons are simultaneously presented here as the first to recognize who Jesus truly is, and also as Jesus’s arch enemies. [Edwards, 107]
Which means that you can recognize there is something important about Jesus … you can even confess that he is the Son of God … all while your heart is far from him … even while your heart remains utterly opposed to him. That’s what’s going on with these demons. And if that is possible for spiritual beings like them, then surely it is also possible for human beings like us.
Which means we need to think more critically about how we evaluate the crowd. We saw that the crowd recognizes Jesus … but have we seen any evidence that there’s more to it than that? Have we seen much to indicate that the crowd’s faith is qualitatively different from the demons’ faith?
That question might seem harsh … but it has biblical precedent. Jesus’s own brother calls on us to consider that question when it comes to our own faith.
James, the brother of Jesus, writing to people who say they are Christians, but whose Christianity only seems to include a recognition of who Jesus is, says this to them: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” [James 2:19]
James tells us that the kind of recognition that demons give to God should push us to reflect on our own faith, and the fact that merely recognizing God as God is not enough. After all, even the demons give God that kind of recognition.
It’s possible to recognize Jesus … it’s possible to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God … and to still remain estranged from and even hostile to him. That’s what happens with the demons here, and James tells us that the same is possible for the people in this crowd … and even for us.
What might that look like?
Well, as we reflect on the demons, and the crowd, three possible forms of this kind of mere recognition seem to emerge.
The first form is found in one possible explanation of the demons’ words, and Jesus’s response. As at least one commentator theorizes, the confession of the demons – of the unclean spirits – may have itself been malicious.
Remember again the context of these events. Jesus has just fled from one region to another because the boldness of his claims and his actions had led powerful men among the Pharisees and the Herodians to begin to plot together to murder him. By fleeing that region, Jesus was attempting, for the time being, to de-escalate things. But if people then began to publicly broadcast even bolder claims about Jesus – if people began to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God – that might have been a good way to paint Jesus as a revolutionary and escalate things once again, drawing his opponents to him in this new land, and further fueling their attempts to kill him. [Wright, 34] When the demons caused the people they were oppressing to cry out that Jesus is the Son of God, such escalation may have been part of their intended effect.
After all, while we know that when applied to Jesus the title “Son of God” is first a theological term – indicating that Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity – for the Jews who knew their Old Testament, or for anyone living in the Roman Empire in the first century – the title “Son of God” was first a political title. In the Bible, God refers to the king of Israel, descended from David, as his – as God’s – son. [2 Samuel 7:14] And so to refer to someone as God’s son was to refer to him as the rightful king of Israel. [Leithart, A Son to Me, 218-219] In the Roman world, the description “son of god” was a title that was applied to Caesar. [Evans, lxxxii-lxxiii]
And so, to shout out such a claim at a crowd that was likely to misunderstand it, could have been a way to portray Jesus as a revolutionary, which would draw Jewish and Roman authorities against him all the more.
And so, in an odd way, it may be that even as the demons find they are unable to overpower Jesus themselves, they are attempting to instigate human rulers to come after him instead. If that is the case, then Jesus silences them in part in order to attempt to thwart such intentions.
So one possibility is that the recognition the demons give to Jesus is malicious recognition: recognition that acknowledges who Jesus is, while still raging and fighting against him.
And the Bible tells us that we, in our hearts, can do this too. We may not always admit it with our words … we might not even admit it to ourselves clearly in our minds … but the Bible is clear that in our hearts we can both know that God is God, and still rage against him and resist him. As the Apostle Paul tells us, in our malicious rebellion against God, we can suppress the truths we know about God in our hearts [Romans 1-2] … but all the same, we need, on some level, to know those truths in order to suppress them.
Psalm 2 describes this reality of recognition combined with open rebellion when it says:
Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”
The people of the earth, the psalm says, recognize God as God … they recognize Jesus as God’s Anointed … even as they rage against him. Their recognition is malicious.
The same demons and human beings who are acknowledging Jesus as the One who made them and who sustains them, are also simultaneously seeking to overthrow him. This is, of course, absurd. Which is why the very next line of Psalm 2 tells us that God, in response to all this, laughs. It is laughable. Because it makes no sense. And yet such a mix of recognition and rebellion towards God and Christ goes on in millions of human hearts every day.
Does it go on in yours? If you’re here this morning that probably indicates that you know that there is something significant about Jesus. But even as you suspect – even as you know that he is the Son of God … is the very next response in your heart to rage against him? Is the very next response in your soul to seek to overthrow him?
That’s one possibility for what the demons are doing, and one example of a deeply flawed and absurd form of recognition we may give to Jesus.
But another possibility is that the demons are not responding with malicious recognition, so much as with indifferent recognition.
And what I mean by that is that they are recognizing who Jesus is, and what power he has, while also maintaining that that will not affect their own lives, or actions, or ultimate loyalties.
In this view, the demons cannot help but recognize who Jesus is. But that recognition – that knowledge – will not change the allegiances of their hearts. They remain set against him. The affections of their hearts are indifferent to what they recognize to be true about Jesus.
And many human beings can fall into this pattern as well. Maybe you believe in God. Maybe you say that you believe in Jesus. But it doesn’t actually have much impact on your life. It doesn’t shape your decisions or the trajectory of your life. You listen to sermons sometimes, perhaps – at the least you’re listening to this one – maybe you hope for a little inspiration, but you don’t intend to let it change anything of real significance in your life. You confess, perhaps, that Jesus is the Son of God. But most of the time your heart and your life are indifferent to the magnitude and the implications of that confession. You give to Jesus a sort of indifferent recognition.
But James again helps us see how absurd that really is.
To help us see this more clearly, pastor and commentator Jeff Meyers gives a sort of paraphrase of James 2:19 and what, he says, we should be taking away from it as James’s point. He writes: “‘You have faith that God is one, you do well – even the demons have that kind of faith. And what is more, the demons do something that you don’t do, you foolish man – they shudder. They understand that their works will earn them eternal destruction, and they’re terrified. But you, apparently, just willy-nilly, make a confession about the oneness of God’s being, a propositional, theological statement, but it doesn’t make an impact on your life at all. At least the demons shudder, but you don’t seem to be moved, changed at all by your profession of faith.” [Meyers, 178]
Do you see that kind of indifference in your own heart? And do you see how foolish it is?
Finally, a third flawed response we see here, is what seems to be going on with many in the crowd. There we see a self-serving and transactional way of recognizing Jesus.
As we said, the crowd seems to recognize that something significant is going on with Jesus. But as they crowd him, and as they seek healing from him, and as they do this to such an extent that we’re told in verse nine that they are threatening to crush him, it becomes apparent that many are not there to hear from Jesus, or to know Jesus, but to get something from Jesus. They will show up, if he will give them healing. They are less interested in a relationship than in a transaction. They are less interested in what he might call them to do or to be than in what they can get from him.
And many relate to God this way still today. They come to him not knowing him, not to hear from him, not to grow in their relationship with him, but to get something from him. They don’t want him, ultimately…they want what they think he can give them. God, for them, is a means to an end. Their approach to him is both transactional and self-serving.
The question is: Do you see that pattern in your own life – in how you relate to God?
Jesus cares about, and is attentive to the needs of the crowd. He does, in fact, heal them. But it also begins to become apparent that the crowd’s response to Jesus is not the response of faith. [Edwards, 104]
Their response is not what Jesus is ultimately looking for. Jesus wants more than such mere recognition. [Meyers, 178]
Which brings us to our third point.
The Priority of Devoted Discipleship
Third and finally we see Jesus indicate a priority beyond mere recognition. We see him point us to the priority of devoted discipleship.
And we see this if we stop and reflect on verse nine. There we read that Jesus “told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they crush him.”
The crowd, it turns out, is not only an opportunity, but a potential impediment to Jesus’s ministry. [Edwards, 103] They are an obstacle to what Jesus is doing. And when someone faces an obstacle or a hurdle, their priorities often become exposed. Because if you can’t do everything you want to do, you will need to focus on what is most important among the things that you want to do. That’s essentially what’s happening to Jesus here. And what we see is that what’s most important to Jesus in what he’s seeking to do with the crowd, is preaching to them, in order to make them devoted disciples.
This priority is inherent in the preparation of the boat. While Jesus uses boats in the Gospels for transportation, at other times he uses boats in order to preach to large crowds – to keep them from mobbing him in a way that would hinder his ability to preach. We see that in the very next chapter of Mark’s gospel. There we read that when Jesus began to teach the people by the sea, and a very large crowd gathered around him, Jesus got into a boat and sat in the boat while it floated on the water, a bit from the shore, while the whole crowd stood on the beach, listening from the land. [Mark 4:1]
And so, in verse nine we learn that if the crowd begins to overwhelm them, and Jesus can do only one thing, the thing he will choose to do is to preach to the people – to teach them how to be his disciples – how to follow him in devotion.
After all, if physical healing and the temporal relief of suffering were Jesus’s top priorities, then Jesus wouldn’t have planned to get on a boat to preach, but he would have instructed the disciples to organize the people so that he could heal them one by one. The preparation of the boat reveals that his chief priority is to call the people to devoted discipleship. [Bayer, 1898]
The top priority Jesus of Jesus, then, is a heart devoted to him in discipleship. And we should hear that as both a call and an encouragement.
First, it is a call. It is a call to go beyond mere recognition. It is a call against any malicious, or indifferent, or self-serving ways we may approach the Lord, and a call instead to devote ourselves to him as his disciples.
If you acknowledge the Lord, but you rage against him in your heart, like the demons do, then this text is a call to put your rebellion away. Recognize how foolish it is – not only for its futility, but for its evil. For how can you rage against the one who gave you life, and being, and every good thing you have ever enjoyed? Instead, come to him. Seek his mercy. Listen to his word. And gladly give yourself to him as a disciple.
If you approach the Lord with indifference, know that the Lord has been patient with you, but eventually that time will come to an end. Will you continue to hold him at arm’s length? Or will you give yourself to him? A day of judgment has been appointed – even the demons know it, and that is why they shudder. But you need not shudder if you would shake off your indifference, and offer yourself to Christ as a disciple.
And if you approach the Lord with self-serving bartering and transactions, then repent of your folly. The Lord’s favors cannot be bought. Frankly, you don’t have that much to offer him. He doesn’t need your strength or your skill. You can’t barter with him. And even if you could, what you most need is not the stuff he can give you … what you most need is him – God himself. Do not be like the crowd – pressing him for what you most want – confident that he somehow owes it to you. Rather, listen to his words to you. Recognize who he is. And then devote yourself to him. For he is your God. He is your Maker. And if you would be his disciple, then he would also be your Savior.
In all these ways, what we see here is a call to what is most important: faith, devotion, and discipleship towards Christ.
But also, built into that call is, I think, an encouragement – an encouragement to those who don’t feel like they are valuable enough to be part of Jesus’s kingdom, or part of what he is doing.
Because our text is a reminder that Jesus is far more interested in a heart that is devoted to him than he’s interested in what skills or strength we can give him.
And to better grasp this reality, stop for a minute, and think again about Jesus’s response to the demons.
Jesus clearly is able to command the demons. Think how powerful those demons were. Far more powerful than anyone in the crowd. Far more powerful than you or me. And Jesus has them at his disposal. And they cannot help but recognize him as the Son of God. Think of how Jesus might use them! Think of how Jesus might harness all that power! And yet … Jesus silences them.
When it comes to inclusion in his kingdom … and when it comes to usefulness in his kingdom … Jesus is more interested in a heart that’s devoted to him than he is in whatever skills or abilities we may think we possess in ourselves.
And this is even more clear in the fact that after Jesus discards these demons, in the very next verses actually, Jesus calls his twelve apostles – twelve men whom he will especially use in the establishment of his kingdom. And what type of men will he call? He will call an unexpected collection. Many of them will be fishermen without any advanced formal training. He will call a group of men without much skill or inherent strength to recommend them. He will call a group of men who will repeatedly look weak and confused, throughout Mark’s gospel.
They don’t have great strength or great skill, like the demons do. But they do have hearts devoted to Jesus. They have made themselves disciples of Jesus. Granted, even their devotion will show itself to be highly imperfect and flawed before Mark’s gospel is over. But their meager faith and devotion is enough for Jesus to call them, even as he casts the powerful demons aside as useless to him.
When it comes to inclusion, and usefulness in his kingdom, Jesus is more interested in a heart devoted to him, than he is interested in whatever skills or powers or abilities we think we have to offer him.
And that should be incredibly encouraging news. Because it means that when it comes to whether or not Jesus wants you in his kingdom, you don’t need to worry about what you have to offer him – what you can do for him. All you have to do is to be willing to follow him, as a disciple, by faith. And he will not only accept you. He will use you.
Jesus’s kingdom is not a meritocracy. It’s not a place where our ultimate value lies in our utility or our accomplishments.
That too should encourage us. But it’s often hard for us to really believe and embrace it. Because we’ve been shaped so strongly by our culture to think of ourselves differently.
As author David Brooks puts it, our culture teaches each one of us “to view yourself not as a soul to be uplifted but as a set of skills to be maximized.” [Brooks, 22]
And this pattern can show up in a range of places. We can see it most clearly and most often in the workplace. But others have pointed out how it shapes many of our other relationships as well. It can increasingly be a factor in friendships, as people in our culture seek out those who have the most to offer them, and withdraw from those they see as a drag on their own personal pursuits and social advancement. Even marriage is more and more viewed this way. As Ross Douthat wrote just this past week, within a meritocratic world, marriage is increasingly used by people “as a mechanism of social advancement,” where a marriage between people who are “mutually credentialed and ambitious” can help them in “meritocratic upward mobility and competition.” Put more simply: In more and more areas of life, people deal with us primarily based on our usefulness to them.
David Brooks, among others, has discussed the effects this can have on us. It can lead us to more and more neglect the reality of the depth of our souls … and it can lead us to focus instead solely on our utility to others, and their utility to us.
This way of thinking – “The meritocracy” Brooks writes, “is the most self-confident moral system in the world today. It’s so engrossing and seems so natural that we’re not even aware of how it encourages a certain economic vocabulary about non-economic things. Words change their meaning.” he writes. “‘Character’ is no longer a moral quality oriented around love, service, and care, but a set of workplace traits organized around grit, productivity, and self-discipline. The meritocracy defines ‘community’ as a mass of talented individuals competing with one another. It organizes society into an endless set of outer and inner rings, with high achievers at the […] center and everybody else arrayed across the wider rings toward the edge. While it pretends not to, it subliminally sends the message that those who are smarter and more accomplished are actually worth more than those who are not.” [Brooks, 23]
This is how our world so often thinks. This is how our culture so often works.
But it’s not how Jesus thinks. And it’s not how his kingdom works.
Jesus does not call us to himself for our utility. Our value to him does not lie in what he can get from us – in the skills or abilities we may bring to the table. Rather, Jesus calls us to himself so that he may love us, and then we may love him. He wants not what we can give him – but he wants us. He seeks a heart devoted to him. And with his help, any of us can do that.
Jesus did not come to establish a new, more spiritually-oriented meritocracy. He came to seek disciples. He came to gather those who will devote themselves to him by faith, however imperfectly. He came to gather fishermen and tax collectors, not to gather strong and powerful spiritual assets.
And so even if, as far as you can see, you have nothing other than your heart to offer the Lord … then actually, you have the very thing he most wants from you.
So give that to him – moment to moment, day to day. And he will likewise give himself to you. And in him we will find immeasurably more than we could ever ask for or imagine. For he truly is the Son of God.
This sermon draws on material from:
Bayer, Hans. Introduction and notes to Mark in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Brooks, David. The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. New York, NY: Random House, 2019.
Douthat, Ross. “Is ‘Fleishman’ a harbinger of meritocratic collapse?” The New York Times. January 20, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/20/opinion/fleishman-meritocracy.html
Edwards, James R. The Gospel According to Mark. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.
Evans, Craig A. Mark 8:27-16:20. World Biblical Commentary. Vol. 34B. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
Horne, Mark. The Victory According to Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.
Keller, Timothy. Jesus the King. New York, NY: Penguin, 2011.
Leithart, Peter J. A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.
Leithart, Peter J. The Four: A Survey of the Gospels. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2010.
Meyers, Jeffrey J. Wisdom for Dissidents: The Epistle of James Through New Eyes. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2022.
Wright, N.T. Mark for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
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