It was Thursday, the fifth day of Passion Week, the week of Jesus’ suffering and pain, the week of his atoning sacrifice—the awful prelude to his glorious resurrection. Under his instructions Peter and John went into Jerusalem and, upon seeing a certain man, arranged with him to use a large upper room that they then made ready for the Lord and the Twelve to celebrate the Passover.
That evening when they were assembled, there began to be a strife among them, as there had been on earlier occasions, as to “which of them should be accounted the greatest.” (Luke 22:24.) In part, the Lord said to the brethren, “he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve.” (Luke 22:26.) When that kind of dispute had arisen previously, Jesus used the example of a little child to instruct his struggling disciples. On one of those occasions when he set a little child in the midst of them he said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3–4.)
But on this Passover night, he gave a more dramatic example as a magnificent preface to the even greater and incomparable example he was to give later that evening in his agony in Gethsemane, when “his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44), and his suffering and humiliation throughout the night and the next day terminated in his crucifixion and death. John said, “He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.
“After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” (John 13:4–5.)
“After he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
“Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
“If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
“For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you.” (John 13:12–15.)
That was a majestic and divine example to answer the disciples’ queries about greatness.
It was only a short while afterward that the Lord said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.” (John 13:21.) Soon he “dipped the sop” and gave it to Judas Iscariot and said to him, “That thou doest, do quickly.” (John 13:27.) Judas, “then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.” (John 13:30.)
Anticipating the imminent events, the Lord then declared to the 11 apostles, “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him” (John 13:31), and “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. … Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.” (John 13:33.)
Essentially this was the setting in which the Lord then declared to his apostles, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
“By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34–35.)
For one acquainted with Jesus’ teachings it is natural to ask, “Why did he call this a new commandment when he had been teaching love from the beginning of his ministry?” The basis of all of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount is love. In that sermon he also taught that one must not only love his neighbor, but charged, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44.)
He demonstrated love and mercy by cleansing the leper and healing the palsied man, the centurian’s servant, and the woman with an issue of blood, as well as a host of others. He caused the dumb to speak, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear. He cast out evil spirits and raised the widow’s son, the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus from the dead, restoring them, among others, to mortality.
He cared for the poor, taught mankind to give alms, fed the multitudes, forgave sins, and taught mankind to forgive. Furthermore, he had summarized all of the commandments in the first and second commandments, to love the Lord with all of one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself. (Mark 12:30–31.)
This new declaration Jesus made to his disciples did not suddenly eliminate the other commandments. Rather, the Lord tried to get his disciples to understand that really keeping the first two commandments would inherently embody keeping all of the others. Who could love the Lord with all of his heart, with all of his soul, with all of his mind, and with all of his strength, and simultaneously violate the Lord’s other teachings?
When the apostle John wrote his first epistle he said: “Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning.” (1 Jn. 2:7.)
Later he explained: “For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 Jn. 3:11.)
Using the words of the Lord, John said: “Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. …
“He that loveth his brother abideth in the light.” (1 Jn. 2:8, 10.)
In these verses John the Beloved gives a significant clue concerning the meaning of Jesus’ statement in his discussion of the commandment to love as being both “old” and “new.” At least as early as the time of Moses it was a matter of scriptural record that “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:5) and “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Lev. 19:18.)
Certainly the commandment to love was “old.” But, as John suggested, when Jesus came into the world he was “the true light,” and the “new commandment” was “true in him” and “now shineth.” (1 Jn. 2:8, 10.) The Lord was “the true light,” the personal embodiment or personification of that commandment.
Jesus Christ was and is the divine example of love. With his coming, the commandment to love was given again and thus became “new.” John’s alluding to the commandment to love as being both “new” and “old” in his day is analogous in our dispensation to both the gospel and some of its parts being identified as both “new” and “everlasting.” (D&C 22:1; D&C 132:4.)
But the scripture suggests additional meaning in the Lord’s statement of “a new commandment,” for when he said “I give unto you, That ye love one another,” he gave his disciples a new criterion. Earlier he had taught “love thy neighbour as thyself,” but now he said, “love one another; as I have loved you.” No longer was it adequate for man to use his own mortal self as the criterion for loving, but he was to use the divine criterion, namely the Lord himself.
In a similar vein he instructed the 12 Nephite disciples when he asked them the question, “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be?” and then answered his own query by declaring, “Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” (3 Ne. 27:27.) He is the Divine Criterion after whom we should pattern our lives.
A great Book of Mormon prophet gave us additional insight into the “new commandment” and Jesus as our example of love when he said, “But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.” (Moro. 7:47–48.)
In these teachings of Mormon through his son Moroni we learn that charity is the pure love of Christ, and that the pure love that Christ possesses is the kind of love he wants mankind to have.
The scriptures give us yet another insight into the Lord’s meaning when he said, “A new commandment I give unto you,” for he also said to his apostles, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35.)
In the prior teachings of love the Lord had charged his disciples to love all mankind. That was a broad or general commandment: love everyone, love thy neighbor as thyself. But in the setting where he gave the “new commandment” there had been strife among the Twelve over the question of greatness. Although the others didn’t know it at the time, one of their number, Judas Iscariot, would that night openly betray the Lord and them, and within a few hours the Lord was going to give his life as the supreme example of love. Amidst these circumstances, then, we see the Lord giving a commandment to love which was not just broad and general, as had been the earlier commandment, but was detailed and very specific. That is, he told his disciples that they should love each other even as he loved them. Furthermore, if they would love one another, all men would know that they were his disciples; to love mankind in general is not sufficient; disciples must love each other specifically.
In summary, the scriptures give us at least these three basic insights into the Lord’s “new commandment.” First, the commandment to love is both “new” and “old” as the restored gospel reveals both a “new” and an “everlasting” covenant. Second, the “new commandment” provides mankind with a higher criterion for love, for in it the Lord charged his disciples to love one another “as I have loved you.” And third, the Lord announced that the hallmark of his disciples would be that they would have love for one another. It is not enough for one to “love all mankind,” a convenient abstraction behind which even the pseudo humanitarian might shield himself, but a disciple of the Lord will also specifically love other disciples.
It was a challenge to the original Twelve—one of which they seem to have been acutely aware. And the ramifications for us as disciples, having his love as a standard, are no less humbling.