John the Baptist holds a special place in the history and the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most of us know two significant things about him: first, that he baptized Jesus, and second, that he conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on the banks of the Susquehanna River near Harmony, Pennsylvania.
Although these are no doubt the two most important things about John, there is so much more that is interesting, and even thrilling, about his life, character, and mission. Isaiah spoke of John’s mission hundreds of years before the time, as also did Malachi. John’s activities were made known to Lehi and Nephi by vision centuries before his birth, and they spoke of it and said that he would prepare the way before and even baptize the Messiah. Jesus eulogized John, calling him “a burning and a shining light,” and said that among those born of woman, there was not a greater prophet.
What facts might we learn of this prophet, who was a forerunner in two gospel dispensations and who is so specifically singled out in the sacred scriptures of ancient and modern times? Who was he? What did he say? What did he do? What was he like? What were the reactions of those who heard him?
John was considered an important enough person that his mission was made known to prophets and seers hundreds of years before his earthly advent, his birth was preannounced by an angel, and miraculous circumstances accompanied the event. He was emphatically and singularly eulogized by the Son of God himself. In the following discussion some features of his life and ministry are illustrated as we have come to know him in the scriptures and in the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
The earliest allusion to John is found in Isaiah 40:3 (written approximately 700 B.C.): “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” [Isa. 40:3]
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each related this prophecy to the mission of John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1–3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4–6). However, in the Gospel of John, he himself is quoted as saying that he is the one of whom Isaiah spake:
“Then said they unto him, who art thou? …
“He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.” (John 1:22–23.)
In Mark 1:2 it is suggested that Malachi also spoke of John’s mission. The passage referred to is Malachi 3:1, which was written about 400 B.C.: “Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me. …” [Mal. 3:1]
An even stronger affirmation that Malachi spoke of John is found in the records of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus declares that John was indeed the one whom Malachi had predicted would come:
John is not mentioned by name in the Nephite scriptures, but his mission is discussed with considerable detail in at least three instances: 1 Nephi 10:7–10, 1 Nephi 11:27, and 2 Nephi 31:4, 8. [1 Ne. 10:7–10; 1 Ne. 11:27; 2 Ne. 31:4, 8]
A few months before John’s birth into mortality, the angel Gabriel1 announced to Zacharias that he (Zacharias) would have a son, that his name should be John, and that his son’s mission would be to prepare the way before the Messiah.
When the time arrived for the Messiah to come to earth in the flesh, it was therefore also time for John, the forerunner, to begin his earthly mission.
It was indeed a privilege to prepare the way before the very Son of God, to announce the presence of the Redeemer, and even to baptize him, but it was also a very difficult task. The covenant people of the Lord, the Jews among whom both Jesus and John would live, had fallen on hard times. The land of promise was not a free land; it was overrun and dominated by the Roman Empire, and a foreign king sat upon the throne of Judah—Herod, called the “Great” and Idumean, despised by Romans and Jews alike. There was no son of David ruling among the people of the Lord in the Lord’s own land.
Even the people themselves had wandered far from the precepts of the holy prophets. Jerusalem was bound by priestcraft, intrigue, self-righteousness, wickedness in high places, and rulers and priests who served themselves more than they served the people. It was not expected to be an easy task for John, a mere man, to come among such men and conditions and prepare the way for the Son of God. Little wonder he is called “a voice crying in the wilderness.”
In selecting the mortal lineage through which John would come, ancient law and procedure had to be fulfilled. He who should labor in Israel to announce and to identify the great High Priest who was the long-awaited Messiah must be (according to law) a descendant of Aaron and legally entitled to act in his priestly office in Israel. The Lord chose Zacharias, a priest of the family of Aaron, and Elisabeth, his wife, one of the “daughters of Aaron,” to be the mortal parents to provide the right lineage necessary to complete the inheritance—to bring about the proper combination of body and spirit.
Zacharias and Elisabeth were both old and “well stricken in years,” and they had had no children. While Zacharias “executed the priest’s office” in the temple, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said:
“… thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John, And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.” (Luke 1:13–14.)
The basic fact of the angel’s message is that Zacharias and Elisabeth were soon to become parents of a choice son. There is, however, an implication that they had yearned and prayed for children and now the Lord, having heard their prayer, was giving them a son befitting their faith and righteousness. To be childless in Israel was viewed as a great misfortune; and Elisabeth, when she knew she was with child, rejoiced, saying:
“Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” (Luke 1:25.)
Zacharias apparently doubted that he and Elisabeth could have a child in their old age, even though the angel Gabriel had promised, and he was struck dumb from that moment, as a sign that the words of the angel were true.
There is indication also that Zacharias may have become deaf in addition to being unable to speak. This assumption grows out of a situation that occurred eight days after the child was born. Some wanted to call the child Zacharias, after the name of his father, but Elisabeth objected.
“And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called.
“And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marvelled all.
“And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God.” (Luke 1:62–64.)
The birth of John was probably well known in Jerusalem. Zacharias was a prominent man in religious circles around Jerusalem, an officiating priest in the temple. The people knew of his vision of the angel and his subsequent affliction. Likewise, when Elisabeth gave birth to a son, “her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.” (Luke 1:58.)
Furthermore, when the child was named and the dumb affliction was removed from Zacharias, many persons knew about it. These things became frequent items of conversation throughout the area:
“And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judaea.
“And all they that heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, What manner of child shall this be! And the hand of the Lord was with him.” (Luke 1:65–66.)
John was born six months earlier than Jesus. Elisabeth, John’s mother, was also “cousin” or near kinswoman to Mary. When Herod the king learned of the birth of Jesus, he was troubled and ordered the death of “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.” (Matt. 2:16.)
To escape this slaughter, Joseph was warned in a dream to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt until Herod was dead. But how did John escape? He was approximately the same age as Jesus and lived in the approximate area of Bethlehem. His popularity and the common knowledge that was had of his mission would surely have placed him under the the suspicion of Herod and made him subject to the king’s envy. The scriptures do not discuss John’s relationship to Herod’s edict, but the Prophet Joseph Smith enlightened us considerably about it:
“We will commence with John the Baptist. When Herod’s edict went forth to destroy young children, John was about six months older than Jesus, and came under this hellish edict, and Zachariah caused his mother to take him into the mountains, where he was raised on locusts and wild honey. When his father refused to disclose his hiding place, and being the officiating high priest at the Temple that year, was slain by Herod’s order, between the porch and the altar, as Jesus said.”2
This very interesting explanation by the Prophet Joseph throws light on an otherwise mysterious passage in Matthew 23:35, wherein Jesus said: “That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barrachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.” [Matt. 23:35]
Bible commentators have been at a loss to identify the “Zacharias” referred to, but from the viewpoint of the Prophet the passage has considerable historical meaning. Certainly the information given by him on this matter had a heartwarming effect on our appreciation of old Zacharias, who forfeited his own life to protect the life of his son, John. This heroic and faithful act dominates our mental image of him and supersedes the rather negative image that is engendered by his disbelief of the angel’s words. Zacharias will always be greater to us when we remember him as father and protector even to the point of death.
The foregoing matter also raises a question as to the source of John’s priesthood authority. Zacharias was a priest after the order of Aaron and held true priesthood, as explained by the Prophet Joseph Smith in several statements.3 It is plausible that he should ordain John. However, a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants gives some information about this matter:
“For he [John] was baptized while he was yet in his childhood, and was ordained by the angel of God at the time he was eight days old unto this power, to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews, and to make straight the way of the Lord before the face of his people, to prepare them for the coming of the Lord, in whose hand is given all power.” (D&C 84:28.)
The identity of the angel mentioned in the foregoing statement is not revealed. Although John’s father, Zacharias, had the Aaronic Priesthood, he may not have held the proper keys of authority to ordain his son to this particular calling. The ordination referred to took place when John was eight days old, which was apparently the same day that he was circumcised and named. (See Luke 1:59–63.) Zacharias gave his son a blessing by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost (see Luke 1:67–79), and this was probably on the same day that he was ordained and circumcised, but apparently Zacharias did not have the proper authority to ordain him.
President Joseph Fielding Smith has explained the matter of John’s ordination as follows:
“The reason Zacharias could not ordain John is because of the fact that John received certain keys of authority which his father Zacharias did not possess. Therefore this special authority had to be conferred by this heavenly messenger, who was duly authorized and sent to confer it. John’s ordination was not merely the bestowal of the Aaronic Priesthood, which his father held, but also the conferring of certain essential powers peculiar to the time among which was the authority to overthrow the kingdom of the Jews and ‘to make straight the way of the Lord.’ Moreover, it was to prepare the Jews and other Israelites for the coming of the Son of God. This great authority required a special ordination beyond the delegated power that had been given to Zacharias or any other priest who went before him, so the angel of the Lord was sent to John in his childhood to confer it.”4
Even though an angel should ordain John to the priesthood, it is unlikely that an angel would have actually baptized him in water.5 Since Zacharias was very probably not alive on the earth at the time when the baptism of John took place (it apparently was much later than when John was eight days old), it is possible that this ordinance was performed by someone mortal who held the priesthood and is as yet unidentified to us.
Doctrine and Covenants 84:27 seems to support this possibility with the statement that the Aaronic Priesthood “continued with the house of Aaron among the children of Israel until John.” (Italics added.) [D&C 84:27] At any rate, John was both ordained and baptized, he grew physically and spiritually, “and was in the deserts till the time of his shewing unto Israel. …” (Luke 1:80.)
We know very little of John’s youth and early manhood. The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would “drink neither wine nor strong drink.” (Luke 1:15.) Matthew says that John’s clothing was of camel’s hair with “a leathern girdle about his loins,” and that his food “was locusts and wild honey.” (Matt. 3:4.)
Jesus, in speaking to the multitude concerning John, commented on the contrast between John’s clothing and the “soft raiment” of “those who are gorgeously apparelled and live delicately … in kings courts.” (Luke 7:25.) He also referred to John’s diet, saying that “John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine.” (Luke 7:33.)
These words of Jesus may offer a clue to John’s austerity in food and clothing. Israel was oppressed by tyranny and priestcraft. Perhaps John’s observance of this caused a desire to be as unlike the proud Pharisee, the elaborate Sadducee, and those of kings’ courts as possible and might have influenced his choice of food and clothing.
As a preacher John was superb. Multitudes attracted by both his message and his manner came to hear him. He had the Holy Ghost from his mother’s womb, and it prepared his mind for great spiritual capacity and comprehension. He understood the gospel and the meaning of the scriptures. An analysis of his teaching reveals that his range in subject matter was wide and profound and included at least the following:
2. Identification of Jesus as the Messiah and as a person among men on the earth. (John 1:29–37.)
3. The advent of the kingdom of God among men. (Matt. 3:2.)
4. Repentance and confession of sin. (Matt. 3:2.)
5. Baptism in water for the remission of sins. (Luke 3:3.)
7. Preaching the gospel to the gentiles and adopting them into the house of Israel. (Matt. 3:7–9.)
8. Charity and brotherly kindness and regard for the poor. (Luke 3:10–11.)
10. Honesty. (Luke 3:12–14.)
14. The gathering of Israel. (JST, Luke 3:5–8.)
16. Ascension of the Messiah into heaven. (JST, Luke 3:7.)
17. The keys of the kingdom to be delivered to the Father. (JST, Luke 3:8.)
18. The second coming of the Lord. (JST, Luke 3:9.)
20. “And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.” (Luke 3:18.)
Not only did John have the Holy Ghost as an aid to understanding the ancient written scriptures, but also, “the word of God came unto him … in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2), and he had direct revelation pertaining to baptizing the Messiah.
John’s activities caused considerable excitement, and the people were in expectation. The Pharisees sent priests and Levites to ask him, “Who art thou?” and whether he was Elijah or the prophet of whom Moses spoke; that is, whether he was the Christ. (John 1:9–25.)
John explained that he was none of those who had been mentioned, but was “a voice crying in the wilderness” to prepare the way for the Lamb of God, and that he had indeed baptized the Lamb of God. Then follows John’s very explicit statement about the direct revelation he had received concerning baptism of the Messiah. John explains that he hadn’t actually known or recognized Jesus beforehand, but that “he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
“And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:33–34.)
John’s preparation was complete and sure. He understood his mission, what he was to do, and how he was to do it.
John was extremely effective in his preaching, and he baptized many. The scriptures indicate that multitudes, even all of Judea, flocked to him, and he had many disciples. John, the son of Zebedee (later to be known as John the Beloved), and also Andrew, the brother of Peter, became disciples of John the Baptist, and it was through him that these two future apostles first learned of and became acquainted with Jesus.
For a short time John and his disciples worked hand in hand with Jesus and his disciples:
“After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
“And John also was baptizing in AEnon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.
“For John was not yet cast into prison.” (John 3:22–24.)
John baptized with water only, but he was careful to explain that Jesus, being greater than he, could baptize not only with water but also with the Holy Ghost. The Prophet Joseph Smith pointed out that Jesus came among John’s disciples and gave them the Holy Ghost:
“John’s mission was limited to preaching and baptizing; but what he did was legal; and when Jesus Christ came to any of John’s disciples, He baptized them with fire and the Holy Ghost.”6
The angel Gabriel told Zacharias that John would go forth in “the spirit and power of Elias … to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17.) Joseph Smith explained that the office of Elias is “to prepare the way for a greater revelation of God.”7
Although John made many disciples, Jesus made and baptized even more, and John was always careful to explain that he himself was not the Messiah, but only came to bear witness of the Messiah. Even so, some of his followers became concerned when they saw the multitudes follow Jesus, and they came to John and said:
“Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.”
The greatness of John’s soul and his unselfish loyalty to the Master are perhaps nowhere better described than in his reply:
“A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
“Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him.
“He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:26–30.)
Soon after the foregoing events, and with but a short mission of perhaps no more than eighteen months, John’s activities were curtailed by his imprisonment at the command of King Herod, son of Herod the Great.
There are somewhat conflicting reports as to the cause of this imprisonment. Mark reports that the imprisonment was because John had infuriated Herod’s wife, Herodias, in having testified that it was not lawful for Herod to have married her, since she was already married to Herod’s brother Philip. (See Mark 6:17–19.) However, Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that Herod imprisoned John because he was becoming so popular and commanded such a following that Herod feared his political power. Although Josephus confirms the matter of Herod’s unlawful marriage, he does not associate it as a factor in John’s imprisonment.8
Whatever the reasons, the sources agree that John was imprisoned at the command of Herod.9
The Bible does not say where the prison was located, but Josephus asserts that it was in Herod’s castle at Macherus near the eastern border of the Dead Sea.10
How long the imprisonment lasted is not stated, but John was placed in prison sometime during the first year of Jesus’ ministry and probably remained there about a year.
John was not in complete solitary confinement, for his disciples had at least some freedom to come and go, but it must have been extremely difficult for this active man of the desert to be confined to prison. The Inspired Version adds a matter of great interest relative to John’s imprisonment, and in so doing, it likewise attests to Jesus’ great compassion and his high regard for John. Matthew 4:11 of the Inspired Version says that “Jesus knew that John was cast into prison” so he “sent angels and they came and ministered unto him,” that is, unto John. [Matt. 4:11]
While John was in prison, Jesus, speaking to the multitude, uttered one of his greatest tributes to John. Among other things he said that John was “much more than a prophet,” and further, that “among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but,” he added, “he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (See Luke 7:24–28.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained the meaning of these words of Jesus as follows:
“The question arose from the saying of Jesus—‘Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ How is it that John was considered one of the greatest prophets? His miracles could not have constituted his greatness.
“First. He was entrusted with a divine mission of preparing the way before the face of the Lord. Whoever had such a trust committed to him before or since? No man.
“Secondly. He was entrusted with the important mission, and it was required at his hands, to baptize the Son of Man. Whoever had the honor of doing that? Whoever had so great a privilege and glory? Whoever led the Son of God into the waters of baptism, and the privilege of beholding the Holy Ghost descend in the form of a dove, or rather in the sign of the dove, in witness of that administration? …
“Thirdly. John, at that time, was the only legal administrator in the affairs of the kingdom there was then on the earth, and holding the keys of power. The Jews had to obey his instructions or be damned, by their own law; and Christ Himself fulfilled all righteousness in becoming obedient to the law which he had given to Moses on the mount, and thereby magnified it and made it honorable, instead of destroying it. The son of Zacharias wrested the keys, the kingdom, the power, the glory from the Jews, by the holy anointing and decree of heaven, and these three reasons constitute him the greatest prophet born of a woman.
“Second question:—How was the least in the kingdom of heaven greater than he?
“In reply I asked—Whom did Jesus have reference to as being the least? Jesus was looked upon as having the least claim in God’s kingdom, and [seemingly] was least entitled to their credulity as a prophet; as though He had said—‘He that is considered the least among you is greater than John—that is I myself.’”11
This was not to be the only time that Jesus praised John. To the Jewish leaders he said: “Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth. … He was a burning and a shining light, and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.” (John 5:34, 36.)
This passage is enlarged in the Inspired Version with the additional statement of Jesus that John “received not his testimony of man, but of God, and ye yourselves say that he is a prophet, therefore ye ought to receive his testimony. …” (JST, John 5:35.)
The Inspired Version also alters another passage, making it favorable to John, by taking a very general statement which says: “And blessed is he whomsoever shall not be offended in me” (Matt. 11:6), and particularizing it to read: “And blessed is John, and whosoever shall not be offended in me.”
Jesus sometimes referred to John as an example of righteousness and extolled his good works before the Jewish rulers. For instance, after Jesus had driven the money changers from the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him and said: “By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23.)
Jesus bargained with them by means of a question about John’s authority to baptize: “And Jesus answered and said unto them, I also will ask you one thing, which if ye tell me, I in like wise will tell you by what authority I do these things.
“The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven, or of men? And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; he will say unto us, Why did ye not then believe him?
“But if we shall say, of men; we fear the people; for all hold John as a prophet.
“And they answered Jesus, and said, We cannot tell. And he said unto them, Neither tell I you by what authority I do these things.” (Matt. 21:24–27.)
Since the chief priests refused to acknowledge John’s divine calling, Jesus was not obligated, according to the terms of the agreement, to tell them of his own authority. However, he did not leave any doubt in their minds concerning John’s authority, for he went on to say: “For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.” (Matt. 21:32. Italics added.)
The foregoing items attest to the high regard that Jesus had for John and also for his complete approval of John’s work. Few men can expect to be more eloquently complimented.
Finally, as recorded in Mark 6:21–29, at the instigation of Herodias and her daughter Salome, Herod caused that John be slain. An executioner was sent, John was beheaded, and his head was brought into the presence of Herod, Herodias, and Salome as proof of the deed. When John’s disciples heard what had taken place, they took up his body and laid it in a tomb, and informed Jesus.
Thus ended the mortal ministry of one of God’s noblest men. His earthly mission was completed; he had kept himself unspotted from the world and had testified against the evils of his day. He had made straight the highway of his God, announced the presence of the Messiah, baptized the very Son of God and suffered a martyr’s violent death.
Soon, in perhaps about a year and a half, the Messiah himself would be slain and his body placed in a tomb. But the Messiah would have power over the grave, would break the bands of death, and would come forth out of the tomb with his resurrected, glorified body, no more to be maimed or bruised. And the Messiah’s resurrection would bring to pass the resurrection of all men, including John.
As recorded in a divine communication to Joseph Smith (D&C 133:55), John came forth from the tomb at a time immediately following Jesus’ own resurrection, and John is referred to as being “with Christ in his resurrection.”
John was a forerunner in the early events of building the dispensation of the fulness of times, in addition to the building of the dispensation in which he lived as a mortal. He was a link between the two dispensations. Eighteen hundred years after his earthly life was over, this same John, still holding the priesthood and keys of his ministry, descended from the skies as an angel of God in the glory of his resurrected body, and on Friday, May 15, 1829, he laid his hands on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to confer on them the priesthood of Aaron.
In addition to bearing a spoken testimony of Jesus, John the Baptist also prepared a written record, which is referred to in D&C 93:6–18. We are informed that “the fulness of John’s record” is still to be revealed. Elder Orson Pratt discussed the records of John yet to come forth, and President John Taylor, in his book Mediation and Atonement, made reference to John the Baptist’s record.
The matter of John the Baptist’s written record has experienced some confusion because there are two men named John and both prepared written documents. However, it appears plausible to conclude that John the Baptist prepared a written record of his ministry from which John the Apostle later quoted in composing the Gospel of John.
When we recall that John the Apostle was first a disciple of John the Baptist, it seems certain that he could know of the Baptist’s written record and might reasonably quote from it. This viewpoint is strengthened by the lengthy and detailed discussion about John the Baptist in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which appears to be in reality an excerpt from the Baptist’s own written account. This passage begins with these words: “And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?” and continues with the Baptist’s own explanation about his baptism of Jesus. (See John 1:19–34.)
It is worth noting that the Gospel of John contains a greater number of personal and intimate items about the early ministry of John the Baptist and more of the actual words of his preaching than do the accounts given by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Also, the Gospel of John puts John’s words in first person. This is at least a reflection of the apostle John’s personal acquaintance with the Baptist and his familiarity with the Baptist’s travels, preachings, and writings.
In this discussion, we have sketched only a portion of the many significant events in the colorful ministry of John, the son of Zacharias. There is much more that is interesting that could be read and enjoyed about this extraordinary man who contributed significantly to two gospel dispensations. His outstanding traits appear to be his singleness of purpose, his total dedication to his special calling, and his complete loyalty to the Son of God. These traits, coupled with his divine priesthood authority, fearless disposition, and personal righteousness, make him one of the greatest characters of the scriptures. He is one of God’s great men.