Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormons, revere John the Baptist. As Jesus Christ said, John was not only a prophet, but also “much more than a prophet” (Luke 7:26).
“If any person should ask me if I were a prophet, I should not deny it, as that would give me the lie; for, according to John [The Revelator], the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy; therefore, if I profess to be a witness or teacher, and have not the spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus, I must be a false witness; but if I be a true teacher and witness, I must possess the spirit of prophecy, and that constitutes a prophet.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 269.)
JOHN THE BAPTIST
However, there is one special prophet that we usually overlook. That is John the Baptist. We do not usually think of him as a prophet—partly because he did no miracles like Elijah or Elisha, and partly because we sandwich him in-between Christ’s teenage appearance at the Temple and the three temptations. We quickly mention that he was beheaded at the request of Salomé, and then we drop him off the radar until May 15, 1829, when he appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and gave them the Aaronic Priesthood.
We loose the savor of his mission and greatness. We only see him as a minor character, written out at the end of the first act of a play. As Jesus Christ said, “Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28).
Since he did not perform miracles, and spent most of the New Testament in prison before being beheaded, what does this mean, he was “much more than a prophet”?
JOHN’S GREATNESS: THREE REASONS
In 1843, Joseph Smith gave a three-point explanation why John was such an impressive prophet—even the greatest prophet, second to Christ.
“I attended [a] meeting at the Temple [on January 29, 1843]. … I stated that there were two questions which had been asked me concerning my subject of the last Sabbath, which I had promised to answer in public, and would improve this opportunity.”
“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.’ [Luke 7:28.] How is it that John was considered one of the greatest of prophets? His miracles could not have constituted his greatness. [See John 10:41: ‘John did no miracle.’]”
“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? The sign of the dove was instituted before the creation of the world, a witness for the Holy Ghost, and the devil cannot come in the sign of a dove. The Holy Ghost is a personage, and is in the form of a personage. It does not confine itself to the form of the dove, but in sign of the dove. The Holy Ghost cannot be transformed into a dove; but the sign of a dove was given to John to signify the truth of the deed, as the dove is an emblem or token of truth and innocence.”
“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.” (“Chapter 6: The Mission of John the Baptist,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, , 79–87.)
So John was great because he prepared the way before Christ, baptized Him, and had proper priesthood authority. But his greatness has nothing to do with miracles (like Moses or Elisha), or eloquence like Isaiah, or solid theology like Paul. Christ’s teaching, in essence, turns our assumptions about greatness on their heads. John the Baptist was a servant.
This reminds us of the Psalmist, “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalms 84:10). It is the quiet service that counts. Dallin H. Oaks, an apostle, warned about “property, pride, prominence, [and] power” (“Alternate Voices,” Ensign, May 1989, 27ff). John the Baptist had none of these—he was a hermit in the wilderness living off of locust and wild honey. Yet, he was the greatest prophet.
The key was his service. In a sense, we all need to be the woman who washed Christ’s feet—
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
ORDINANCES AND AUTHORITY
The last two points that Joseph Smith highlighted dealt with ordinances and authority. These two questions are hot-button issues for Christianity. Sometimes we get the idea that all we need to do as Christians is to feed the poor. Of course that is an element of Christianity, but there are other issues to Christianity.
Christ fed the hungry, true, but He also submitted to the ordinances of the Gospel. And He also submitted to the Jewish authorized ministers “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe.”(Matthew 23:2-3). Christ also called twelve apostles and groups of seventy elders. Implicit with this is church organization. Christ endorsed organized religion.
I also appreciate the point that “John did no miracle.” We look back at Moses, Elijah, or Elisha, and we get the idea that to be great, a prophet must do mighty miracles. Being a prophet is more than calling fire from heaven, smiting people, or such things. We get distracted by the spiritual razzle-dazzle.
Jesus points out that one can be great without doing the things we usually call greatness:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8)
TRUE GREATNESS: CHILDREN
In another situation, the disciples were debating who was the greatest among their group. Jesus Christ explained:
“And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.” (Matthew 18:1-5)
In Christ’s eyes, who is the greatest? Those who are humble as children, and those that receive children. In other words, garden-variety parents.
Howard W. Hunter, the fourteenth president of the Church of Jesus Christ, said this about the meek:
“In a world too preoccupied with winning through intimidation and seeking to be number one, no large crowd of folk is standing in line to buy books that call for mere meekness. But the meek shall inherit the earth, a pretty impressive corporate takeover—and done without intimidation!”
“Sooner or later, and we pray sooner than later, everyone will acknowledge that Christ’s way is not only the right way, but ultimately the only way to hope and joy. Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that gentleness is better than brutality, that kindness is greater than coercion, that the soft voice turneth away wrath. In the end, and sooner than that whenever possible, we must be more like him. ‘To those who fall, how kind thou art!/How good to those who seek!'” (Howard W. Hunter, “‘Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee’,” Ensign, May 1993, 63.)
That hits me in the heart. We aspire to greatness, but what does that exactly mean? Christ shows us that we can be great in small ways. John played second-fiddle to Christ, but so do we all. First-, second-, or third-fiddles—it’s all irrelevant, so long as we play our part well.
John said of Christ and himself, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We should have the same outlook. The key issue is not our perceptions of so-called greatness, but increasing Christ.
This is the point of John the Baptist’s mission: true greatness is really true meekness.