John the Baptist was a major first century figure. Crowds came to see him preaching beside the Jordan river not too far from where it empties into the Dead Sea. John wore the traditional prophetic clothing of camel hair with leather belt. John's following is difficult to assess. However it had to be much larger than we usually think. Disciples of John are discovered hundreds of miles from the Jordan River. Apollos (Acts 18:24) knew only the baptism of John before meeting Priscilla and Aquila and in Ephesus, Paul encounters disciples who had only been baptized by "John's Baptism" (Acts 19:1-7). What this suggests is that John's ministry had enormous and wide spread appeal and influence. Christians understand that John's role in the coming of the Christ was to prepare the way -- that is to call people's hearts and lives back to God in anticipation of the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. John's message (which later becomes Jesus' message: see 4:17)) is that people should "repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!"
Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near is probably the most radical idea ever introduced and is one of the most misunderstood. The assumption that we often make is that because the "kingdom has come near" we should do something (repent) so that we can enter into that kingdom. The reality is much more radical. What John (and Jesus) are saying is the reign of God -- a reality where our lives are in perfect harmony with God's purpose -- is a done deal. The purpose for our creation is that we would live our lives in fellowship with our creator -- to be the object, the focus of God's love and grace. This purpose lived out is seen in the relationship between God and the first human, Adam. The announcement that the kingdom of heaven has come near (is at hand, has arrived) is an acknowledgement that through Jesus our fellowship with God is restored and we can now live the abundant and joy filled life we were called to live.
John's baptism is with water for repentance -- people admitting their failings. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire -- that is the power to fully transform. There is a huge difference between saying "I'm sorry and I'll try harder" and actually having the grace and power in the Holy Spirit to live into a whole new reality. This new reality is what Jesus offers us -- forgiveness for our brokenness AND the fire and power of the Holy Spirit to change. That is a kingdom of heaven value, indeed!