JOHN THE BAPTIST: A BURNING AND A SHINING LIGHT
Robert J. Matthews
Prepared for the CES Symposium on The New Testament, Brigham Young University
[an Ensign article on this subject can be found here https://www.lds.org/ensign/1972/09/john-the-baptist-a-burning-and-a-shining-light?lang=eng ]
"Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist" (Luke 1:28).
"John . . . 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 5:33, 35). With these words the Lord Jesus Christ praised the work of his friend, John the Baptist.
This lecture focuses on qualities that made John great. His privileges exceeded those of any other prophet. His was the one-time-only honor of preparing the way before the Lord himself, of baptizing the Son of God, of announcing to the Jewish nation that their Messiah was at that very moment among them, and of identifying the Lord in person to the people. He was also the tutor of several future Apostles.
John filled every responsibility of his mission. He alerted and aroused the nation to an awareness of their Messiah and introduced the New Testament dispensation. His short life bridged two dispensations; he was (1) the living embodiment and representative of the Aaronic Priesthood and law of Moses and (2) the first prophet of the dispensation of the meridian of time.
John's public ministry occupied less than a year and was followed by months of imprisonment and probable torture in the dreariness of a dungeon cell. His violent death in his early thirties was due to a weak and lustful king being manipulated by an infuriated, scheming queen and a charming dancing girl. In 1829, as a resurrected being and still holding the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood, this same John ordained Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, thus helping to establish the dispensation of the fulness of times. The full significance of John's restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood in this dispensation has yet to be unfolded.
A CHILD OF PROMISE
John's work is spoken of by Isaiah (see Isaiah 40:3-5; compare Matthew 3:1-3); Malachi (see Malachi 3:1; compare Luke 7:27); Lehi (see 1 Nephi 10:7-10), and Nephi (see 1 Nephi 11:27; 2 Nephi 31:4, 8). Although these prophecies do not mention him by name, there can be no mistaking that John and his mission is the topic.
John had unusual privileges. He alone was selected to baptize Jesus, see the Holy Ghost descend, and hear the voice of the Father (see Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 275-76). Because John was entrusted with such a great mission, Satan was on hand to destroy him if possible. John was born to trouble. No average man could have succeeded in fulfilling his assignment. His life was almost immediately threatened when King Herod issued the edict to destroy the babies in and around Bethlehem (see Matthew 2; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 261). Thirty years later, Herod's son was successful in slaying John.
WHY JOHN WAS OF THE LINEAGE OF AARON
The Prophet Joseph Smith explained: "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" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 335).
For John to fulfill his divinely designated role as the Elias— forerunner and witness of the Messiah—some careful selections had to be made. First, the mortal lineage through which John's foreordained spirit would come to earth was governed by ancient law and procedure in order for him to be legally entitled to the priesthood of Aaron. Only direct descendants of Aaron could be priests in the Aaronic priesthood (see Exodus 40:15). The Prophet Joseph Smith explained, "The Levitical Priesthood is forever hereditary—fixed on the head of Aaron and his sons forever" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 319). Second, to hold the keys of the Aaronic Priesthood John had to be of the firstborn lineage among the sons of Aaron (see D&.C 68:16-18). Third, to be the one designated to use that priesthood to prepare the way for and to baptize the Messiah required a premortal appointment. Fourth, John was to be the living embodiment of the law of Moses—which was the "preparatory gospel" functioning under the Aaronic Priesthood (see D&.C 84:26-27). John was to do as a man, literally, what the law of Moses was to do as a statute, which was to prepare the way for the presence of the Lord by teaching the first principles of the gospel and performing baptisms as called for in the law of Moses.
Under the law of Moses, heavy penalties were affixed if sacred rites, sacrifices, and duties were performed without the proper authority (see Numbers 16:1-40; 1 Chronicles 13:7-10; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Since it was necessary for a man to be a priest of the lineage of Aaron in order to offer the sacrificial symbols of the Messiah, how much greater the necessity that John, the actual forerunner of the Messiah in person, be of the proper priestly lineage and authority!
The Lord therefore chose Zacharias, a priest of the family of Aaron, and Elisabeth, his wife, of the "daughters of Aaron" (Luke 1:5), to be the mortal parents who would provide the right lineage to complete the inheritance—to bring about the proper combination of body and spirit.
John's birth into this world was accompanied by signs and wonders. When Zacharias was visited by the angel Gabriel nearly a year before John's birth, he was struck dumb and maybe also deaf (see Luke 1:62-63). The people in the temple and Zacharias' family and friends knew he had seen an angel, and they knew he had become dumb, and then after the birth of John they knew Zacharias could speak. These miracles caused the people to say in their hearts, "What manner of child shall this be!" (Luke 1:66).
John was the designated 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 preappointed one to specifically prepare a people for the coming of the Lord.
The law of Moses specified that a priest should begin his ministry at age thirty (see Numbers 4:3; 1 Chronicles 23:3). Therefore, when John was about that age the word of God came to him in the wilderness, authorizing him to begin his work (see Luke 3:1-3; John 1:29-34). Through the years the Holy Ghost had prepared John's mind for his ministry. He had the Holy Ghost from the time of his mother's womb (see Luke 1:15; D&.C 84:27), and no one can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelation (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 328). John was "baptized while he was yet in his childhood" (D&.C 84:28) and received a setting apart to his mission from an angel when only eight days old. He later would receive the full powers of the Aaronic Priesthood, which include the keys of the ministering of angels (see D&C 13). Having such keys, it follows that John would receive the visitation of angels during these preparatory years.
When John went forth to preach, he was ready. He knew precisely what his mission was and what he must do, and he had the authority to go about it.
|Baptism by J Kirk Richards|
RESPONSIBILITY OF A FORERUNNER
The term forerunner is descriptive. Anciently, forerunners would run before the king's chariot, clear the path of rocks or other obstacles, and loudly proclaim the coming of the ruler. As the divinely appointed herald, John was both a preparer of the path and a proclaimer of the majesty of Jesus.
Being the forerunner was not simply an honorary title. Difficult and dangerous work needed to be done. Priestcrafts and iniquities at Jerusalem made that generation the worst in the world (see 2 Nephi 10:3-5). Into this maelstrom John, a mere mortal—armed with the Aaronic Priesthood, a divine commission, personal righteousness, the truth of God, and a huge amount of courage—was launched on his ministry to prepare the way for the Son of God.
JOHN'S THREE-FOLD MESSAGE
John's ministry consisted of three parts: (1) to testify that the Messiah would soon come, (2) to testify that he had indeed come, and (3) to identify Jesus as the Messiah and to persuade the people to follow him. The books of Matthew (see chapter 3), Mark (see chapter 1), and Luke (see chapter 3) contain John's vigorous preaching to prepare the way, saying that the Messiah would soon come. These records present John's teaching before he baptized Jesus. The book of John, however, contains the Baptist's testimony after he had baptized Jesus, had seen the dove, and heard the voice of the Father. Thus, in John (see chapter 1) he proclaims that the Messiah has already come, and he identifies Jesus as that Messiah.
Having first aroused the nation and, second, having publicly proclaimed and identified the Messiah among the people, John then began the third phase of his ministry: to persuade his converts to follow Jesus. John was very popular with the people, yet his humility and loyalty to Jesus were dramatically illustrated when some of his disciples brought the news that Jesus was even more popular than he Oonn) na^ been and that many of his converts were following Jesus (see John 3:25-26). John's response was to the point; "Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. . . .
"He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:28-30).
Among those who learned about Jesus from John the Baptist were several future Apostles (see John 1:35—41; Acts 1:21-26).
Having magnificently completed the fundamental purposes of his earthly appointment, John's public ministry would diminish, while Jesus' would rise and enlarge. John would soon be cast into prison, be executed, go into the world of spirits, be resurrected, and await the fulness of times, when he would again participate in the Restoration of the gospel upon the earth.
ARREST AND MARTYRDOM
Herod Antipas recognized John as a holy man, but when John criticized Herod's clandestine marriage to his niece Herodias, Herod was offended and imprisoned him at Machaerus, near the northeast shore of the Dead Sea (see William Whiston, trans., The Works ofjosephus , 540). Herodias' hatred even exceeded Herod's anger and she plotted to have John killed. This she accomplished by appealing to Herod's sensuous lusts, aroused by a provocative dancing girl named Salome, who was her own daughter by former husband, Philip (see Josephus, 541; see also Mark 6:14-29). After nearly a year in the dungeon and probable torture (see Matthew 17:12-13), John was beheaded. His disciples buried him (see Mark 6:29), and he rose from the grave after Jesus' resurrection (see D&.C 133:55)
RESTORATION OF AARONIC PRIESTHOOD
As a necessary part of the restoration of all things in the fulness of times, John the Baptist came to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on 15 May 1829 near Harmony, Pennsylvania, and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood. This holy priesthood will continue in the Church as a permanent function, not only as at present, but also among future literal descendants of Aaron (see D&C 13; 58:17-19; 68:14-21; 84:18)
Bible Dictionary, s.v. "John the Baptist." Ludlow, Daniel H., ed. Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. 1992. 2:755-57.
Matthews, Robert J. Behold the Messiah. 1994. 41-67.