John the Baptist is one of the great figures in sacred literature. Though his mortal ministry was brief and was limited to a small portion of the Holy Land, he is widely acclaimed in scripture and is spoken of in all four standard works. He was, in effect, the last prophet of the Old Testament, the first prophet of the New Testament, and a central participant in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Most Latter-day Saints know that John baptized Jesus Christ in the Jordan River and that, as a resurrected being, he ordained Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to the Aaronic Priesthood in 1829. Although these aspects of his ministry are significant, there is a great deal more to his life, character, and ministry.
John’s mission was important enough that it was made known to prophets and seers hundreds of years beforehand. (See Isa. 40:3–5; Mal. 3:1; 1 Ne. 10:7–10; 1 Ne. 11:27; 2 Ne. 31:4, 8.) Although these prophecies do not mention him by name, there can be no mistaking that John’s mission is the topic. His forthcoming birth was announced by the angel Gabriel and was attended by miraculous circumstances. (See Luke 1.) The Savior himself emphatically and singularly praised John as a “burning and a shining light” (John 5:35); a prophet without peer (see Matt. 11:7–15); and an example of righteousness whose testimony would condemn in the Day of Judgment all who refused to obey what he taught (see JST, Matt. 21:32–34; JST, John 5:34–36).
The Prophet Joseph Smith said that John the Baptist “had his authority from God, and the oracles of God were with him, and the kingdom of God for a season seemed to rest with John alone. … [He] was a priest after his father, and held the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood, and … was a legal administrator … ; for no man could have better authority to administer than John; and our Savior submitted to that authority Himself, by being baptized by John.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 272–73.)
At the baptism of Jesus, John saw the “Spirit descending from heaven like a dove” as a sign that Jesus was the Messiah. (John 1:32.) He also heard the voice of the Father proclaim Jesus as his beloved Son in whom he was well pleased. (See JST, Matt. 3:45–46; D&C 93:15–16.) This personal experience with the three members of the Godhead made John one of the most able of witnesses.
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that “the spirit of Elias was a going before to prepare the way for the greater, which was the case with John the Baptist. … The spirit of Elias is to prepare the way for a greater revelation of God, which is the Priesthood of Elias, or the Priesthood that Aaron was ordained unto. And when God sends a man into the world to prepare for a greater work, … it was called the doctrine of Elias, even from the early ages of the world.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 335–36.)
In order for John the Baptist to fulfill his divinely designated role as the Elias, forerunner, and witness of the Messiah, three important elements had to be in place:
1. He must have been appointed in his premortal life. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council of heaven before this world was.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 365.)
2. To be legally entitled to be a high priest in the Aaronic Priesthood, John had to be of the firstborn lineage among the sons of Aaron. (See D&C 68:16–18.) The Lord had said to Moses, “Thou shalt anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister unto me in the priest’s office.” (Ex. 30:30.) Concerning the sons of Aaron, the Lord had said, “Their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood throughout their generations.” (Ex. 40:15.)
Commenting on this procedure, the Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “The Levitical Priesthood is forever hereditary—fixed on the head of Aaron and his sons forever, and was in active operation down to Zacharias the father of John.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 319.)
The law of Moses was designed to prefigure and typify the Messiah and to bear witness of him. Heavy penalties were affixed to the performance of sacred rites and duties without the proper authority. (See Num. 16:1–40; 1 Chr. 13:7–10; 2 Chr. 26:16–21.) If it was necessary for a priest to be of Aaron’s lineage in order to labor with sacrificial symbols—which were prefigures of the Messiah—it was of even greater necessity that the forerunner of the Messiah in person be of the proper priestly lineage and authority. The Lord therefore chose as John’s parents a husband and wife of the proper lineage—Zacharias, a priest of the family of Aaron, and Elisabeth, one of the “daughters of Aaron.” (Luke 1:5.)
The law of Moses specified that a Levite or priest should begin his ministry at age thirty. (See Num. 4:3; 1 Chr. 23:3.) When John was about that age, the word of God came to him in the wilderness and authorized him to begin his work. (See Luke 3:1–3.)
3. John’s mission was to be the living embodiment of the law of Moses—which was part of the “preparatory gospel” functioning under the Aaronic Priesthood. (See D&C 84:26–27.) John was to do as a man what the law of Moses was to do as a statute—to prepare the way for the Lord by teaching the first principles of the gospel and performing baptisms as called for in the law of Moses. John was the finest example of the powers and purposes of the priesthood of Aaron and the law of Moses. He was the right person to be the final representative of the law of Moses in its capacity as a schoolmaster to bring men to Christ. He bridged two dispensations by being the last legal representative of the law of Moses and, at the same time, being the one preappointed to introduce and prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
Latter-day revelation shows that John’s preaching and knowledge of the gospel were far more extensive than the King James Version of the Bible credits him. The Joseph Smith Translation states that John “came into the world for a witness, … to bear record of the gospel through the Son, unto all.” (JST, John 1:7.) He taught personal righteousness, emphasizing repentance, confession, baptism, prayer, fasting, and receiving the Holy Ghost. He discussed brotherly kindness, generosity, honesty, moral virtue, and justice. John likewise spoke of the gathering of Israel, the conversion and adoption of the gentiles into Israel, the second coming of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, the keys of the kingdom, the fulness of time, and the Day of Judgment. (See JST, Luke 3:3–11.)
As John grew to maturity, the Holy Ghost prepared the young man’s mind for his ministry. John received the Holy Ghost while he was in his mother’s womb (see D&C 84:27; Luke 1:15), and no one can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelation (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 328). John was “baptized while yet in his childhood,” was set apart for his mission by an angel when he was only eight days old (see D&C 84:28), and later received the full keys of the Aaronic Priesthood, including the keys of the ministering of angels. (See D&C 13.) It follows that he would have received the visitation of angels during these preparatory years.
Elder James E. Talmage wrote that John “had been a student under the tutelage of divine teachers; and there in the wilderness of Judea the word of the Lord reached him; as in similar environment it had reached Moses and Elijah of old.” (Jesus the Christ, 3d ed., Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1916, p. 122.)
The training of this great Elias required the finest spiritual education possible and included study of the scriptures, lessons in Israel’s history, the workings and revelations of the Holy Ghost, and the ministry of angels. When John came forth preaching at the age of thirty, he was ready. He knew what his mission was and what he was to do, and he had the authority to go about it.
Anciently, forerunners would run before the chariot of the king, clear rocks or other obstacles from the path, and loudly proclaim the coming of the ruler. (See 1 Sam. 8:11; 1 Kgs. 1:5; Isa. 62:10.) John the Baptist was both a forerunner and a proclaimer of Jesus.
This was neither a simple task nor an honorary title. There was difficult and dangerous work to be done. The Book of Mormon indicates that priestcrafts and iniquities in Jerusalem at the time of the Savior made that generation the “more wicked part of the world.” (2 Ne. 10:3.) Into this maelstrom John—a mere mortal, yet armed with the Aaronic Priesthood, a divine commission, personal righteousness, the truth of God, and a huge amount of courage—launched his ministry. What he was called to do placed his very life in jeopardy.
John single-handedly challenged the network of apostasy that existed among the leaders of his people. His divine appointment was “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.” (D&C 84:28.)
The accounts of John’s ministry in Matthew, Mark, and Luke deal with the preaching of John before he baptized Jesus—hence the emphasis that the Messiah will come. (See Matt. 3, Mark 1, Luke 3.) The Gospel of John deals with the preaching of John after he baptized Jesus—hence the emphasis that the Messiah has come. (See John 1.) Jesus’ forty-day experience in the wilderness can be placed between these two phases of John the Baptist’s testimony of Christ.
Multitudes recognized John’s power. He was so successful that there “went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, And were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Matt. 3:5–6.) Many, including publicans and soldiers, sought his counsel. (See Luke 3:10–14.) Within six months or so he had so roused the Jewish nation that “the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not.” (Luke 3:15.) John was careful to inform them that he was not the Christ, but his precursor. (See Luke 3:16; John 1:25–28.)
John met all the requirements of a forerunner and a herald. He preached repentance, spoke against the evils and wrongdoing of the people (including the adulterous and incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas, called the Tetrarch in the New Testament, and Herodias), proclaimed the imminent coming of the Messiah, and identified Him personally and publicly when He arrived. John fulfilled his ministry with dignity and thoroughness. And while not everyone obeyed him, those who heard him knew that he was a preacher of righteousness and a proclaimer of the Messiah. After his death people were heard to say, “John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man [Jesus] were true.” (John 10:41.)
John’s influence extended to individuals who would later become the Apostles and special witnesses of the Lord. One of John’s disciples, Andrew, followed John’s teachings to find Jesus; then he brought his brother Peter to meet Jesus. (See John 1:40–42.) It appears that John the Beloved was also a disciple of John the Baptist and was the “other disciple” mentioned in company with Andrew. (See John 1:35–40.) Peter’s instructions to the Church concerning the selection of a new member of the Twelve in place of Judas suggest that many, if not all, of the Twelve had been tutored by John before becoming disciples of Jesus. (See Acts 1:21–22.)
After preparing the way for Jesus and proclaiming him as the Messiah, John then persuaded his converts to leave him and follow Jesus. John’s humility and loyalty to Jesus were dramatically illustrated when some of his disciples brought the news that Jesus was more popular than John had been and that many of John’s converts were now following Jesus. John’s response was clear and to the point:
“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.” (See John 3:28–30.)
John had now completed the fundamental tasks of his earthly appointment. His public ministry would diminish, while Jesus’ would rise and enlarge.
Jesus left no doubt about his great admiration and love for John. While John was confined in Herod’s dungeon, Jesus sent angels to minister to him. (See JST, Matt. 4:11.) When two of John’s disciples came from the prison to see Jesus, the Lord gave them a reassuring message and bade them return to John. Jesus then spoke to the multitude about John’s unshakable character and unique status:
“What went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.
“This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
“For I say unto you, 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.” (Luke 7:26–28.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained the meaning of Jesus’ words:
“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 had 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. … 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.’” (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 275–76.)
John preached and baptized for about six months before he baptized Jesus. He then continued about six to nine months afterward until he was imprisoned by Herod Antipas. During the imprisonment John was probably tortured, scourged (see Matt. 17:12–13), and bound with chains, for such was the ancient custom. (See Cunningham Geikie, The Life and Words of Christ, rev. ed., 2 vols., New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1894, 1:399; 2:515.) After nine to twelve months in the dungeon, John was beheaded at the order of Herod, who in his lust for Salome, a dancing girl, had fallen prey to a murderous scheme of Herodias to destroy John. (See Mark 6:17–29.)
The scriptural record does not mention Salome by name, nor does it say where the prison was located. But the Jewish historian Josephus identifies her and says the prison was in Herod’s castle at Machaerus, near the northeastern border of the Dead Sea. (See The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” trans. William Whiston, London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1875, XVIII: 5:1–2, 4.)
Thus John died as a martyr, as have many of the Lord’s servants. Nearly eighteen hundred years later he appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as a resurrected being, laid his hands on their heads, and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood. He had to be a resurrected being to do that, because spirits cannot lay hands on mortals. (See D&C 129; see also Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 191.) Sometime between his death in his thirty-second year and his appearance to the Prophet Joseph Smith on 15 May 1829, John was resurrected, perhaps soon after the resurrection of Jesus himself. (See D&C 133:55.)
Joseph Smith tells of his ordination by John the Baptist:
“While we were … praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
“Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness. …
“[He] said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John.” (JS—H 1:68–72.)
Every time a young man blesses or distributes the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or performs a baptism for the remission of sins, he can literally trace his priesthood authority back to the day John the Baptist ordained the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
To usher in the dispensation of the fulness of times (a dispensation incorporating the blessings, doctrine, and authority of all former dispensations and embodying the restoration of all things), it was necessary that the Aaronic Priesthood be restored. Because John the Baptist restored the Aaronic Priesthood, the literal sons of Levi—descendants of the ancient Levites and of Aaron—shall yet render priesthood service in this dispensation as the Restoration progresses and as the Lord directs through his First Presidency. (See D&C 13; D&C 68:14–21; D&C 107:69–76; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 171–72.)
On Temple Square in Salt Lake City stands a bronze and granite monument with larger-than-life-size figures of John the Baptist ordaining Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. A similar monument stands near the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. These monuments stand as a witness of the important spiritual event that occurred on 15 May 1829 when John the Baptist, preparatory to the Messiah’s second coming, restored the priesthood authority of Aaron. The statues represent a link between former dispensations and the fulness of times and attest to the honored place of John the Baptist in the history and doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.