“In those days John the Baptist appeared i the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.'”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” ”
There’s a lot of good stuff in Matthew’s story of John the Baptist. John lived in a very monk-like way. He lived in the wilderness, ate only food he could find, and worse the cheapest clothes imaginable. That is one of the reasons, I think, that he was so popular. Everyone could see how devout he was.
So when the Pharisees came to be baptized by John, he is the first to proclaim something that will become essential to Jesus’s message. He says, “Don’t assume that because Abraham is you ancestor that you are saved! You must bear good fruits.” “Who cares if they follow the rules if they bear evil fruit?” Jesus will later ask. John is already warning them that if they don’t repent and start bearing good fruits they will be thrown in the fire.
THEN John proclaims the coming of the Messiah. He says that his water baptism is merely symbolic, but that the Messiah will come and baptize them with the Holy Spirit. Then John says that he will judge the people and separate the good from the bad. But, of course, John used a metaphor, so the people and the Pharisees probably didn’t understand what exactly he meant.
I suspect that John the Baptist was more popular during his lifetime than Jesus was during His. Notice the Pharisees didn’t try to execute him, but even came to learn from him. I think this is because John lived and behaved in a way the Jews expect a prophet to live and behave. Even though his teachings were radical, the way he did things was familiar. But I think Jesus broke the mold and all the rules when it came to how He acted and spread His message.