How could we describe the prologue so far? Perhaps philosophical: the discussion of things coming into being, rationality given the Logos language. Perhaps cosmological: the focus on creation – light and darkness. Perhaps even mysterious: a lot of the language is poetic and not yet fully defined.
John now changes tack and introduces a more historical element with the arrival of the first named person: John the Baptist — not the gospel writer! John the Baptist is described as “sent from God”. He follows in the line of the leaders and prophets of Israel (like Moses, David, Elijah, Isaiah) who were sent by God for appointed purposes in time.
John the evangelist makes it clear that John the Baptist has come for a purpose. That purpose was to witness or to testify about the Light, Jesus Christ, so that everyone who heard John’s testimony about Jesus would be prepared for Jesus’ arrival – and would believe in Him. This was a privileged task, but also a costly one: John the Baptist was not understood by all. The Greek word for witness is marturia, from which we derive our word ‘martyr’: in the synoptic gospels, John the Baptist ended up dying under Herod for his association with Jesus.
It is important to remember that for some Christians around the world today, witnessing about Christ can lead to imprisonment and death. Even if in our postmodern, relativised society, the freedom to witness, i.e. speak freely about matters of faith, is also subtly coming under threat, it is not currently a matter of life or death.
Nevertheless, witnessing remains central to the Christian calling: in Acts, before his ascension, Jesus says: “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Contestants on the TV show Catchphrase are encouraged: “say what you see”. That is the essence of witness. John the Baptist has the privilege of being the final prophet before Christ’s arrival; we continue the mission, by saying what we see concerning the Light.