In January 1972, at the end of my first year as an English major at Brigham Young University, Dr. Brian Best invited members of his class to select and analyze what we believed were the most profound example(s) of literature ever written. I told Dr. Best that I wanted to understand John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (italics added). Dr. Best agreed that my choice was admirable but challenging. After two weeks of trying to unpack the meanings of those 17 introductory words to the Gospel of John, I admitted that I was incapable of completing my ambition. This idea has remained at the back of my mind for the past 46 years. As I began the weekly reading schedule for March 11-17, 2019 Come, Follow Me—For Individuals and Families, the Savior’s appraisal of John the Baptist spiritually touched my mind. I would now like to share my impressions and experiences about John 1:1.
Jesus Christ Teaches the Gospel in the Pre-existence
The initial six words of John’s first independent clause—“In the beginning was the Word”—radically differ from the introductions of the other Gospels. Matthew 1:1-17 traces the royal linage of Jesus back to Adam; Mark 1:1-11 begins with the voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness that led to the divinely witnessed baptism of the Son of God; Luke 1:1-25 starts with Gabriel’s angelic annunciation and naming of a “John” who would prepare people for the impending mortal ministry of Jesus Christ. The opening six words in the Gospel of John, however, predate the creation of the earth.
They invoke the mystery of a pre-mortal divine language that was heard eons ago and witnessed by Abraham: “Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was…. And there stood one among them that was like unto God” (Abraham 3:22, 24). John’s next clause—“and the Word was with God”—informs us that the personage who spoke words of infinite hope and redemption was united in purpose “with God.” The five words in the final clause—“and the Word was God”—declare that the great Jehovah of the pre-existence would be born as the Only Begotten Son of God the Father and be known as Jesus Christ.
Insights from the Prophet Joseph Smith Translation
In January 1972, excerpts from the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) were not included in editions of The Holy Bible published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (JST excerpts were added in 1979). For Christmas 1975, I was given a copy of Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Volume 1: The Gospels . The Joseph Smith Translation, John 1:1 is: “In the beginning was the gospel preached through the Son. And the gospel was the word, and the word was with the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was of God.” The Joseph Smith Translation doubled the word count to 35 words. Every one of the prophet’s additions adds clarity and understanding. In those primordial beginnings, the “Son” taught the “gospel,” which “was the word.” The Son was also completely obedient to God’s ordained gospel plan, saying, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). Therefore, “the word [the gospel] was with the Son.” This also meant that the Son stood in complete unity “with God” and “was of God.” As Moses heard God say, “mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Savior, for he is full of grace and truth” (Moses 1:6).
The Record of John
For me, the most surprising assertion made by Elder McConkie in his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, however, was that “the material in the forepart of the gospel of John … was written originally by John the Baptist” (p. 70). He cited modern revelation—Doctrine and Covenants 93:6-18—as the key to identifying the original author. At that time, chapter headings (which were added in 1921) stated that the record referred to was that of “John, the Apostle and Revelator” (Doctrine and Covenants, 1966, 158).
In editions published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 1979, the heading only clarifies that this revelation was received at Kirtland, Ohio on May 6, 1833. In 1979, a subject-matter summary was added stating that in verses 6-18, “John bore record that the Son of God went from grace to grace until he received a fullness of the glory of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 93: subject-matter summary). It is now left up to the reader to decide which John is being referenced.
The introductory 31 words of this revelation of “John’s record” are: “I saw his glory, that he was in the beginning, before the world was; Therefore, in the beginning the Word was, for he was the Word, even the messenger of salvation” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:7-8). Abraham, Moses, and John were “chosen vessels of the Lord” (Moroni 7: 31) who bore testimony of the Savior proclaiming the plan of salvation before the creation the earth. The Lord’s purpose for teaching the words of God to those who would be born on earth was “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25). What such a revelation discloses is that John the Baptist was as Jesus Christ said of him, “Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist” (Luke 7:28).
John’s Ongoing Ministry
The ministry of John the Baptist continued, for it was he who restored the Aaronic Priesthood to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on May 15, 1829 (Joseph Smith-History 1:68-74). In so doing, he helped lay the foundation for the restoration of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was and is a preparatory forerunner (an Elias), a powerful teacher, and the one who baptized Jesus. John the Baptist is a special witness of Christ’s divine heritage—in the pre-existence, in mortality, and now as the resurrected and “perfect” Lord (3 Nephi 12:48). Because of the scriptural revelations received by Joseph Smith, I am now better able to understand not only the text of John 1:1 but also who wrote this soul-stirring introduction. John the Baptist was a New Testament author who wrote some of the most profound scriptural words ever expressed about our Redeemer—even Jesus Christ.