In the New Testament, the first character we encounter is John the Baptist. This well-known preacher announces the impending Kingdom of God and prepares the way for the ministry of Jesus. John’s audience listened expectantly, wondering if he was the Messiah (Luke 3:15), although he made it clear he was not (John 1:21). John is not a Christian preacher, but rather a distinctly Jewish voice which expresses an understanding of the coming kingdom in Jewish terms, relying on the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish religious world of early first century Palestine. John is therefore an important witness to Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus’ ministry.
The historicity of John the Baptist is rarely doubted. As John Meier describes him, John is a “wild-card” in the Gospel tradition and all four gospels struggle to “make John safe.” (A Marginal Jew 2:19-22). He is an independent prophet who preceded Jesus and had a following which might be described as a rival to Jesus’ ministry. He was so respected by the Jewish people that after his death he was still regarded as a prophet (Matt 21:26) and still had disciples well after the events of the gospels (Acts 19:1-6). That Jesus submits to the baptism of John is certain – the writers of the four gospels would not have created such a difficult problem for their own theological aims.
John himself does not become a disciple of Jesus and it seems he doubted Jesus was the coming Messiah. In Matt 11:2-3 (cf. Luke 7:18-20), John sent disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the “coming one” or if they should expect someone else. Does this imply that John had second thoughts about Jesus? Jesus does not condemn this as a lack of faith, however, he praises John as the greatest of the prophets and associates him with the coming prophet of Malachi 3:1; 4:5-6.
John is so significant in the synoptic gospels that his death is recorded in all three synoptic gospels (Mark 6:14-29, Matt 14:1-12, Luke 9:7-9). Even after his death, John still commanded the respect of crowds at Passover who still regarded him as a prophet (again, all three gospels relate this tradition: Matt 21:23-37 / Mark 11:27-33 / Luke 20:1-8). A few disciples of John are mentioned in Acts 19, nearly 30 years after their master had died. When Paul meets these disciples, they claim to only know the “baptism of John” and do not even know that there is a Holy Spirit (Acts 19:1-7).
What was so compelling about John’s preaching that he gathered disciples who continued to following him long after his death, perhaps even rejecting the preaching of the disciples of Jesus? First, John’s preaching was drawn from the Hebrew Bible and declared that the Messianic age was about to begin with a fiery judgment. This is one of the most common messianic expectations in the Second Temple Period and it was popular because many who were looking forward to a Messiah expected him to deal with the nations oppressing God’s people.
Second, there may have been some dissatisfaction with Jesus’ version of the Kingdom of God. The idea that the Messiah would become the suffering servant and die on behalf of others was not a common view. In fact, claiming that the Messiah would die to take the curse of the Law on himself is virtually unique to Christian preaching. For the disciples of John, then, it is at least possible that the rejected Jesus and his disciples because these new “Christians” misunderstood the Messiah.
Is there a contrast between John’s preaching and Jesus with respect to the Kingdom? Is it possible that John was looking for something different than what Jesus ultimately offered as a Kingdom?