There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
-John 1:6-8 (NASB)
Here, we meet one of the central characters of John's gospel: John the Baptist. The evangelist's introduction of him is stripped-down, simple, and straightforward -- surprisingly so, in fact.
If it had been up to me to introduce the baptizer, I would have been tempted to give a list of his qualifications:
1. He was the founder and lead minister of a large and exciting ministry on the banks of the Jordan, baptizing folks and calling them to repentance. Jews of every background and theological bent flocked to hear him preach, and even Roman soldiers attended to get his advice on godly living.
2. He led a simple, holy life in the desert, devoting himself to God's service and the preaching of the truth.
3. Like Jesus, he had made some very powerful political and religious enemies.
4. As a pre-born baby, he leapt at the very (also pre-born) presence of Jesus, who, by the way, was also his cousin.
5. He was born miraculously to aged parents who, like Abram and Sarai, had long ago resigned themselves to being barren. His birth, like that of Jesus, was foretold by an angel. Also like Jesus, John's very name came straight from God's messenger.
But John the Evangelist mentions none of these things. For him, the baptizer's primary importance was as a witness sent from God to testify about Jesus. His purpose, like the evangelist's, was to bring people to belief in Christ.
The spareness of John the Baptist's introduction holds a vital reminder: In God's economy, human ideas about importance, accomplishment, and renown are of little use. What matters to God is that whether we are faithful in what He has called us to do. Though John was a remarkable man for all the reasons listed above, his most important function was to testify concerning the divine Light, the everlasting Word.
And testify he did! As we'll see later on, John testified without fear or regard for men's reactions. He was so committed to his calling that he preached himself right into a prison cell... and then into the ground.
One other noteworthy thing about these verses: The evangelist makes it very clear that John himself is not the light. In other words, he is not the protagonist in this story. Rather, he's merely a supporting character. Perhaps the evangelist feels a need to mention this because the baptizer is a larger-than-life figure. After all, he's very recognizable, iconic, and clearly filled with God's power. Another possible reason for mentioning this could be simple narrative clarity. Perhaps the evangelist is simply avoiding any possibility of confusion for his readers.
Regardless of why the evangelist mentions this, though, we now have a new character on the stage: John, the first of many witnesses to the truth and the power of the Word made flesh.