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Cover image: ‘In Remembrance of Me’, by Walter Rane
John 13-17 is an account of the first sacrament meeting.
The meeting begins as the Savior administers to the sacrament to his apostles, delivers an inspired discourse, and finally closes with prayer—his great Intercessory Prayer.
Before the ordinance of bread and wine, “troubled in spirit, [He] testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you that one of you shall betray me.” He is not willing that the traitor should partake of the sacrament. “He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot” (John 13:21-26).
The sop given to Judas was likely a handful of bitter herbs dipped in salt water, a part of the Passover ritual designed to remind the House of Israel of the bitterness of captivity (see Exodus 12:8; Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: It’s Ministry and Service, 194-5). Judas thus filled with bitterness immediately leaves the meeting to carry out his treacherous plan to betray the Lord.
The bitterness of sin cast out, the Lord can then proceed with the ordinances. He administers the bread and wine, then washes the feet of those who remain to emphasize the need for humility among his disciples.
After the ordinances, Jesus delivers a sacrament meeting talk. Of this talk, Elder James E. Talmage says, “For such information as we have concerning the last discourse delivered by Jesus to the apostles before His crucifixion, we are indebted to John alone among the Gospel-writers; and every reader is advised to study with care the three chapters [John 14-16] in which these sublime utterances are preserved for the enlightenment of mankind (Jesus the Christ, 1970 ed., 601).”
This discourse is given to the Eleven, who are about to be left without His presence. “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 13:33). He tells them clearly that He will be leaving them and gives them the instructions they need to carry on without Him. As such, the discourse is a guide for us as well, because the Savior is not here with us as He was with the apostles of old.
What do we learn from the greatest sacrament meeting talk ever given?
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). Love is to be the central theme of this last discourse. In fact, Jesus uses the word “love” thirty times during the meeting.
“If ye love me, keep my commandments,” He says. “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him. . . . If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings” (John 14:15-24).
“As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:9-10).
In these verses we learn that obedience to the commandments is evidence of our love for the Lord. We discover that faith in Christ is not just trust in His power to save us but also “keeping faith” with Him as we would with one we love. The real question Jesus is addressing: Do you love me?
If we keep the commandments, we do well; but we might ask ourselves, Why do we keep the commandments? To serve as an example to others? To gain the promised peace of mind? To stay safe from the predations of this world?
These are all good reasons for keeping the commandments, but the best reason of all is that we love the Lord. We keep faith with Him because we love Him and He loves us. If we love Him, we obey Him not because we fear him as a master but because He is our friend. “Henceforth I call you not servants,” He said, “but I have called you friends.” His love and friendship for us is infinite: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13, 15).
To deprive ourselves of this love is a kind of death in life. Our activities become futile and our purposes pointless. We are like dead branches cut from a tree. “I am the true vine,” says the Lord to the disciples, “and my father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit” (John 15:1-2).
One commentator has said, “Clearly the vine of life is here equivalent to the tree of life, and without Jesus there is no fruit of the vine or tree. If the disciples remained in Jesus, they would bear much fruit and have such a fullness of life that every desire and request would be fulfilled for them” (C. Wilfred Griggs, “The Tree of Life in John’s Gospel,” in The Tree of Life from Eden to Eternity, Maxwell Institute, 2011, 124-5).
To cut ourselves from the Tree of Life is to experience spiritual death (“cast forth and withered,” John 15:6); to hold fast to the tree is to become one with the Savior This is one of the meanings of Atonement. If we remain as a living branch, we can expect to be “purged.” The Greek word used here is kathairo, to be pruned or cleansed by the removal of undesirable elements. Every spring I go through my grape vine and prune out the dead wood and unproductive growth so that all the plant’s energy can go toward fruiting. Through the Atonement of Christ we undergo a similar process of purification so that we may “bear much fruit.” That process is called repentance: as we repent, our Father strips us of “dead wood and unproductive growth” to make us fruitful.
Why should we want to be “fruitful”?
To become fruitful is our reason for being on this earth. The very first commandment God gave to Adam and Eve was to “be fruitful” (Moses 2:28). Without the experience of mortality, we could never bear fruit. There are two ways to be fruitful: one way is to create a family (to “multiply and replenish the earth”). The other is to bring souls to Christ.
As Elder Joseph W. Sitati teaches, “An important part of being fruitful that is sometimes overlooked is that of bringing forth the kingdom of God upon the earth. . . . All of us can and should become fully engaged in the work of salvation. The Savior has given us the following responsibility with a promise: ‘I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you’” (“Be Fruitful, Multiply, and Subdue the Earth,” General Conference, April 2015; John 15:16).
We learn also that to “bear much fruit” is the work of those who are exalted in the kingdom of God. “Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit,” Jesus says, reminding us that the glory of God is “to bring to pass the immortality and the eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). This is our work now. Eternal life and exaltation are the rewards of those who “bear fruit,” the Lord promises, for “in my Father’s house are many mansions. . . . I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).
Furthermore, we learn that although mortality is an ordeal, the Lord can be with us in our strivings. We will be handled roughly, He warned: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. . . . They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 15:18; 16:2). He wants His followers to know the natural consequence of discipleship. “These things have I spoken unto you, that ye should not be offended (skandalisthete, “fall away,” John 16:1); in other words, don’t be surprised when the world treats you badly and don’t apostatize because of it. This is an important warning for us today. Even so, He promises peace in our afflictions: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
The closing prayer offered by the Savior (John 17:1-26) is one of the most significant passages in all scripture. It is known as the High Priestly Prayer, or the Intercessory Prayer. As prefigured in the temple, on the day of Atonement the high priest of Israel would offer prayer at the altar of incense before passing through the veil to perform the ritual of atonement for the sins of the people. Now Jesus is about to carry out that atonement in reality, not just symbolically, so he performs[BE1] his high-priestly duty by offering prayer before the great event.
The altar of incense was the symbol of the Savior’s intercession. Incense represented prayer, as the Psalmist prophesied of this moment: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you” (Psalm 141:2). As if kneeling before the veil, the Savior mediates for us by pleading with His Father to take his own death as sufficient sacrifice for our sins, and to enable us to become one with Him and the Father.
In keeping with the order of the temple, this sacred rite might have been conducted in the circle of the apostles, as one ancient source indicates: “Before he was seized by wicked men and by the wicked serpent of the Jewish authorities, he called us all together. . . . he commanded us to form a circle, taking hold of each other’s hand; and he himself taking up a position in the middle uttered the Amen” (from “The Acts of John,” trans. Hugh Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity, 1987, 45-6).
“These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that they Son also may glorify thee: as thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him” (John 17:1-2). We are reminded that the glory of God is in bringing to pass this very objective: to give eternal life to as many as possible. Eternal life is here defined for us: “that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). Thus defined, “life” takes on a meaning far beyond simply existing—it means returning to our beloved Father and Brother, never to be separated from them again.
After praying for the welfare of his apostles, Jesus intercedes for all those who believe in Him.
“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:20-21). From this plea, we learn that becoming one with our Father and our Savior comes through obedience to “their word,” that is, the word of the duly constituted apostles of the Lord. “In those few words,” said President Henry B. Eyring, “He made clear how the gospel of Jesus Christ can allow hearts to be made one. Those who would believe the truth He taught could accept the ordinances and the covenants offered by His authorized servants. Then, through obedience to those ordinances and covenants, their natures would be changed. The Savior’s Atonement in that way makes it possible for us to be sanctified. We can then live in unity, as we must to have peace in this life and to dwell with the Father and His Son in eternity” (“That We May Be One,” General Conference, April 1998).