Jesus revealed the “new commandment” in John 13:34–35, while speaking to His disciples on the night He was betrayed by Judas. He had watched His traitorous disciple leave the dinner table to complete the evil deed. After Judas was gone, Jesus spoke to the remaining eleven: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus had taught the disciples many things during the three years they had been together, but this new commandment was the final one before He was crucified. What would it take to impact the world as He had done? It wouldn’t be their speaking abilities, their miracle-working powers, or their courage. Jesus said the world would be drawn to His message when it saw His followers continuing to love each other.
In giving the new commandment, Jesus laid the foundation for the formation of a group of people unique in human history. Jesus created a group identified by one thing: love. Other groups may identify themselves by skin color, by uniform, by shared interests, by adherence to a code of behavior, by alma mater, etc. But the church is unique. For the first and only time in history, Jesus created a group whose identifying factor is love. Followers of Christ are recognized by their love for each other.
The new commandment to love one another is one we all need. The disciples had not started out loving each other. They were a mismatched crew of unlikely world-changers: some friends, some relatives, some strangers. They were as rough around the edges, sinful, and selfish as anyone else. But, in the three years that they followed this new Rabbi, they had experienced the love of God as no one ever had before. They came to the realization that this was God come to earth. The love and patience with which He taught them began to change them. He modeled love for them. He demonstrated the compassion and tenderness that God has for mankind—but this was a God that looked nothing like how the Pharisees described Him.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeatedly prefaced a teaching by saying, “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21–38). And He taught about love in a way His hearers had never heard before: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:43–45).
When Jesus presented His followers with the new commandment the night before He was crucified, it fit with everything else He had said and done. Though they didn’t understand it at the time, Jesus was telling them that He would not be with them much longer. The love He had poured into them they must now pour into each other if His message was to impact the world after He was gone.
They had not been easy to love at first. In fact, there was nothing at all lovable about some of them, such as Matthew the tax collector (Matthew 9:9). But for three years Jesus had shown them that love is not dependent upon the worthiness of the one being loved. God’s love embraces flaws, weaknesses, and outright unworthiness. Jesus demonstrated this unconditional love by washing His disciples’ feet, even those of the one who would betray Him. After performing that most menial of tasks, Jesus said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14–15). He exemplified the love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7. Living with this kind of love was the new commandment Jesus gave to everyone who wants to be His disciple (Luke 9:23).