Once or twice in a thousand years, sometimes as often as every hundred years or so, always at irregular intervals, always when the divine purpose calls for such an event—a man of near divine stature comes to earth. Abraham was one; Moses another. Joseph Smith is the one for our day.
These mighty men—spiritual giants numbered with the noble and great in premortal life—always stand as beacons to the world. The work they do changes the course of history. And their lives are filled with drama and conflict. Such a man was John the Baptist.
What do we know about John the Baptist? There is enough sure knowledge to fill a book and enough speculative nonsense for a sequel. John lived and ministered and died—all in a dramatic and unusual way.
His birth was foretold by the ancient prophets; they announced him as a voice who would cry in the wilderness, preparing the way before the Lord. Gabriel himself, an angel who stands in the presence of God, came to Zacharias to tell him that his aged wife Elisabeth would soon bear a son, whose name should be John, and that he would introduce the Messiah to Israel. Zacharias was smitten both deaf and dumb until the birth and naming of his son because he questioned the word of Gabriel.
This John bore a testimony of Jesus like none other ever borne by any prophet. John bore it before his own birth and while he was yet in his mother’s womb, thus fulfilling Gabriel’s promise: “He shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15).
About 30 years later John was baptizing at Bethabara. Jesus came to him and John testified: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And we doubt not that after he had languished for nearly a year in the foul dungeons of Machaerus and was then slain at the command of an evil Herod named Antipas, his dying words bore a like witness.
We know that John was fearless in denouncing sin, even accusing King Herod of incest and adultery. We know that Jesus sent angels to comfort him in his prison and that the Lord said that among them that are born of woman there has not been a greater prophet than John.
But the central act of his life and the one thing above all others that he did was to baptize the Son of God. As a priest of the Levitical or Aaronic order, John was calling upon men to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. He chose Bethabara on the Jordan River as the site for his baptisms, and great hosts flocked to him to hear his doctrine and be baptized under his hands.
This preaching and these baptisms were preparing a people for the coming of the Lord. “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance,” he proclaimed, “but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.”
Then Jesus came, journeying from Galilee to the Jordan near Jerusalem. He asked for baptism. In awe, overwhelmed that the very Son of God himself should seek baptism at his hand, and yet knowing before that such would be the case, John said: “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” Jesus replied: “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.”
John acceded to his cousin’s wish. Solemnly, with dignity, in the power and authority of the priesthood of Aaron—by which authority the Levites had baptized through the centuries—he immersed the Lord Jesus in the murky waters of the Jordan.
Then came the miracle—the heavens were opened and John saw the Holy Ghost descending in peace and serenity, like a dove, to be and abide with the Lamb of God forever. This is one of possibly two occasions in all history, of which we have record, in which the personage of the Holy Ghost was seen by mortal man. And yet there was more to come. A voice spoke, a voice from heaven, the voice of the Father of us all. It said in words of glorious majesty: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (See Matt. 3:11–17.)
This in brief is the Biblical story of John, and to every story in the scriptures there is a moral, a teaching, a doctrine—something that will guide and help those of us who read the scriptures and ponder their deep and marvelous meanings. What we are to learn from the baptism of Jesus was expressed by Nephi in these words: “And now, if the Lamb of God, he being holy”—and truly Christ was without sin—“should have need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness, O then, how much more need have we, being unholy”—and who among us has not sinned—“to be baptized, yea, even by water!”
Christ was not baptized for the remission of sins because he had none. But, as Nephi recounts, he was baptized for the following reasons: (1) As a token of humility before the Father; (2) As a covenant that he would keep the commandments; (3) As a prelude to receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost; (4) To gain entrance to and be saved in the kingdom of God, for no one, not even the Son of God, can so obtain without baptism; and (5) As a pattern and an example for all men, and so that he could say: “Follow thou me” and also, “He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.” (See 2 Ne. 31:5–12.)
And finally, for us in these last days, perhaps the most wondrous thing in the life of John is that he came, in resurrected glory, to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, on the 15th day of May in 1829. To them he said: “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” (D&C 13:1).
The Lord be praised for the life and ministry of a man called John.