Monday, April 20, 2015

Everything you Ever Wanted to Know--or Googled--about John the Baptist

I was asked to speak back in February at the baptism of two girls whose family is returning to Church. We've had them and the missionaries over to our home for many of their discussions, and it was exciting to help them make that step towards a brighter future. This post has been sitting in my drafts since then, I rediscovered it there today.

Baptisms always give me saudades for the mission, and I've reflected often on memories from that season of my life. It brought to my remembrance something I heard one of my companions teach about John the Baptist many times.

Was he the only person at that time with the authority to baptize? Was that part of the reason Jesus went to seek him out specifically? I realized today I didn't know if it was true or not.

So I Googled it... and realized that I wasn't the only one who has questions about John the Baptist.


I think a lot of these are really good questions. So I'm going to answer them, according the principles taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I'm going to rearrange them a bit to give them continuity and to avoid repeating myself. All Biblical references come from the King James Version.

Was John the Baptist ever baptized? Who baptized John the Baptist? Did Jesus baptize John the Baptist?

We have no record in the New Testament that John the Baptist was ever baptized. The only mention we have on the subject is from John himself, as recorded in Matthew 3: 13-14. When he sees Jesus we know that he instantly recognizes him as the Son of God. When Jesus requests to be baptized, John says "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?"

There are two potential meanings behind John's statement. One possibility is he was never baptized, and is somehow in possession of authority for an ordinance he has never received. This is a plausible scenario, given that John the Baptist was the only person left on earth in possession of legitimate divine authority to baptize. While in Latter-day Saint scripture we can point to the baptism of Joseph Smith and a Book of Mormon prophet, who were able to baptize themselves--we don't know that John the Baptist ever did this. (See Mosiah 18: 12-15 and Joseph Smith--History 1: 70-71)

Another possibility is John the Baptist is questioning the merit of his baptism, perhaps at the hand of his father Zacharias, now that the Son of God is standing before him. Whether he desires to be re-baptized under Christ's authority, or simply questioning how he can cleanse a sinless man when he himself is a sinner, his question and Christ's response to him do not give us any real indication as to whether John the Baptist was baptized or not. 

Why did John the Baptist baptize people?

John the Baptist was preparing people spiritually to receive Jesus Christ, as prophesied in the Book of Isaiah. John was to be "a voice in the wilderness," calling people to repent of their sins and to prepare for the kingdom to come. (Isaiah 40: 3)

Jesus Christ is the kingdom of God, and there is no better way to prepare to meet Christ than to be washed of our sins through baptism. (Matthew 3: 2, Mark 1: 2-4, Luke 3: 3-6, John 1: 23-27)



Where is John the Baptist's baptismal site?

The most specific description we have of where John the Baptist performed baptism is given in John 1: 28, "These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing." 

Who was the first person to be baptized?

Because we know baptism is essential to achieving salvation (see John 3: 5), it stands to reason that baptism is one of the oldest ordinances in the world. As Latter-day Saints, we believe Adam and Eve were baptized--the record of which was given to us by the Prophet Joseph Smith. In the Pearl of Great Price, we have Joseph Smith's translation of Genesis, in which he replaces many details which were lost or taken from the Bible. The baptism of Adam and Eve is found in Moses 6: 52-53, 64-65.

Was John the Baptist the first to baptize people?

No. While we can't point to earlier instances of baptism in the Bible, we can infer that the Jews of the day were familiar with the practice. When Christ is teaching the Pharisees and Sadducees, we don't see them questioning him about baptism as a practice. What we do have in three of the Gospels are accounts of them asking Christ from whence he gets his authority to do "these things." By "these things" we can also infer they mean baptism, because that is how Jesus responds to them. Seeing as their main concern is by what authority he baptizes, and not the validity of baptism as a practice, we observe their issue is more one of envy than ignorance. (See Matthew 21: 23-27, Mark 11: 28-31, Luke 20: 1-8)

I will point out that because the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi and his family leave Jerusalem for the Americas around 600 B.C., some of the earliest documented instances of baptism (apart from Adam and Eve) are in the Book of Mormon. 

Lehi sees Jesus Christ being baptized in Bethabara, and recognizes it as a baptism. His vision is recorded in 1 Nephi 10: 9, which dates between 600-592 B.C. His son, Nephi, also sees the baptism of Christ around the same time, detailed in the next chapter (See 1 Nephi 11: 27)

Nephi later on refers to his people as "come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism," as stated in 1 Nephi 20: 1, between 588-570 B.C. Near the end of his ministry, he writes a doctrinal discourse on the baptism of Christ between 559-545 B.C. (See 2 Nephi 31)

But the earliest record we have of a person baptizing before the time of Christ is the prophet Alma at the Waters of Mormon in Mosiah 18: 12-15, dated 147-145 B.C.

How many people did John the Baptist baptize?

There is no record of the number of people who were baptized by John the Baptist. 

How did John the Baptist baptize people? What was John the Baptist's baptism like?

All four Gospels make mention of the baptism of Christ. Matthew and Mark labor the point that Jesus was in the water, and describe how he physically came up out of the water. They do this to emphasize the fact that Jesus was baptized by immersion, being completely submerged in the water. (See Matthew 3: 16-17, Mark 1: 9-11, Luke 3: 21-22)

The gospel of John (written by John the Revelator) labors another significant point about John the Baptist's authority. In John 1: 29-34, John the Baptist's testimony about the baptism of Christ has been recorded. In verse 33 specifically, he talks about how he was sent by the Lord to baptize with water, and that he would recognize the Son of God by the Spirit descending upon him. 

John the Baptist Conferring the Aaronic Priesthood 
(The Restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood)
Del Parson
John the Baptist possessed authority--the power and permission of God--to baptize. Without divine authority given through priesthood ordination, the power to perform a binding saving ordinance does not exist. This authority does not come through study, prayer, acts of service, election, appointment, or personal desire. Divine ordination must be given through the "laying on of hands" by one who possesses that authority. (Numbers 27: 18, 22-33, Mark 3: 14Acts 6: 1-6, Doctrine and Covenants 42: 11Doctrine and Covenants 84: 6-16)

While we presume that John the Baptist was ordained by his father Zacharias, we know for certain that Jesus recognized his authority. No greater endorsement could ever be given by anyone else on earth. Therefore, anyone who claims to have authority to baptize should be able to demonstrate how they received authority from John the Baptist. The only church I know of that can do this is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See Doctrine and Covenants 13, Joseph Smith--History 1: 68-72)

Finally, it needs to be emphasized that Jesus was of sufficient age to where he was accountable to God for his own actions. He was not baptized as an infant. In none of the New Testament accounts of baptism do we see the apostles baptizing infants, nor do they ever teach or encourage such a practice. There is no scriptural mandate of any kind to baptize infants and young children--not from any Biblical prophet or apostle, and not from Jesus himself.

If anything, it should be noted that Jesus taught in no uncertain terms that children (and those who become like them) will enter the kingdom of heaven. The only time Jesus pointed to an individual as an example of who would enter heaven without question, he pointed to a child. (Matthew 18: 2-4)

As Latter-day Saints, we do not believe in original sin. We believe people are punished for their own sins, not for Adam's transgression. We believe a child must grow to be accountable--mentally competent and responsible for their own choices and actions--in order to sin and require baptism. We believe that the age at which this happens is at age 8. Anyone who dies before reaching that age, or who was never mentally capable of making their own choices, is saved through the grace of Christ without exception. (D&C 18: 42, D&C 20: 70-71, D&C 68: 25-27, Articles of Faith 1: 2, Moroni 8: 10)

Was John the Baptist the only one in his day with the authority to baptize? Was John the Baptist the only one who could baptize Jesus Christ?

Joseph Smith publicly commented on Luke 7: 28, which is where we gain much insight into John the Baptist's unique position in Christ's day. The verse reads as follows:
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.

Joseph Smith commented on the first part of this verse by defining John the Baptist's greatness in three points:
  1. It was his responsibility alone to prepare the way before the Son of God
  2. He was required to baptize the Savior of the world
  3. "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." (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, Chapter 6)

Because John the Baptist was the only one with priesthood keys, he was the only one in the time of Jesus Christ with the authority to baptize. The Savior sought him out specifically "to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3: 15, JST Matthew 3: 43)

What is the meaning or significance of the baptism John the Baptist performed?

The best explanation for the significance of baptism is the one given by Jesus Christ to Nicodemus in John 3: 3-5. The purpose of the baptism performed by John the Baptist is to open the door for us, so we can enter into God's presence. Without being born of the water (baptism by immersion) and the Spirit (receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost) we cannot enter the kingdom of God. 

Just as the Holy Ghost descended upon Christ after his baptism, we also need to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost in order for our baptism to be complete. This point was so important that Paul begins re-baptizing people who were baptized without receiving the Holy Ghost. (See Acts 19: 2-6Doctrine and Covenants 22) He also labors the point that the whole point of John's baptism was to point them to him that would follow, namely Jesus Christ. And an essential part of Christ's baptism was receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Notice how Paul confers the gift of the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands. This ordinance is performed after baptism, and is part of the Confirmation for Latter-day Saints today. This ordinance can only be performed by those who can trace their authority back to the New Testament apostles. The only church I know of that can present a documented line of ordination back to the Peter, James and John for every man it ordains is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (See Matthew 28: 18-20Doctrine and Covenants 18: 37-42Doctrine and Covenants 27: 12-13

The significance of John the Baptist's baptism was different for Jesus Christ because Jesus lived a sinless life. Seeing as one of the primary purposes of baptism is to wash away our sins, it really doesn't follow that Christ should need baptism. But our Savior asks nothing of us he is not willing to do himself. So to "fulfill all righteousness," Jesus submitted himself to the will of the Father and was baptized. Nephi's analysis of the baptism of Christ explains this idea, and even poses the question, "if the Lamb of God, he being holy, should have need to be baptized by water... how much more need have we, being unholy, to be baptized"? (Matthew 3: 15, 2 Nephi 31: 5-7)


What other questions do you have about John the Baptist? Leave them in comments!