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The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporating a witness, a go-between, a messenger? It seems inefficient at best and a recipe for miscommunication at worst.
Perhaps one way to understand the role of a messenger or witness is to look at the metaphor of light used in this passage. Here we have two important words, both used three times in these three verses. Light (phos in Greek) means source of light, radiance, to shine. It implies a pure, brilliant quality, and here it refers to the manifestation of God's self-existent life and also divine illumination which reveals and imparts life, especially through Christ. It reminds one of the Psalmist's words to God, "In your light we see light" (Psalm 36:9). The second word is witness (martureo) which means to testify, commend, or speak well of. In being a witness, one affirms that one has seen or heard or experienced something, and gives testimony instead of being silent.
Two other very small words that are notable here are the prepositions peri (around, about) and dia (through). Peri means concerning, properly, all-around on every side, encompassing, full and comprehensive. This meaning is evident in the word peri-meter. Dia means through, by the instrumentality of, to bring successfully across to the other side of something. Hence the word dia-meter. John testifies about (peri) the light so that all might believe through (dia) him. When a messenger testifies fully and properly, people are successfully brought across to the other side of the message to engage directly with the subject. In other words, they are able to focus on the light instead of the witness to the light. John, the messenger, is not the light, but he testifies to the light. This "throughness" is what John means when he says, "He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30).
So, how does someone testify about the light? A metaphor that might be helpful here is that of stained glass. Stained glass is made by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. Sodium chromate yields a yellow colour. Potassium dichromate makes orange. Red comes from cobalt nitrate, purple from potassium permanganate, and green from nickel chloride hexahydrate. Most mineral pigments and dyes are salts. This lends another slant to Jesus's words, "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). It is interesting to think of Jesus's followers as not only the flavour and preserving agent, but the "colour" of the earth.
In order to adjust the colour and texture of stained glass, it is heated to around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. The coloured glass is then cut into small pieces which are arranged side by side to form a design. Finally, they are soldered together with strips of lead and held in place by a rigid frame. Heat (fire) and radiance (glory) are often linked in the Scriptures, perhaps most notably in the passion of Christ and his subsequent resurrection. The joining together of differently coloured pieces reminds us of the nature of the church, where each part is "joined and knitted firmly together" to form a functioning, unified whole (Ephesians 4:16).
Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of stained glass is that it is stained and broken. It is not a large, clear window allowing an unobstructed view of the light. In fact, the purpose of stained glass is to limit light, to constrain it, and to do so through showcasing broken, stained pieces of glass purposefully arranged by an artist. This constraint is what renders a masterpiece, what makes a work of art, what tells a beautiful story in glowing colour. Stained glass is a lesson in humility and restraint, both of which were embraced by Jesus when he walked this earth. He set aside his divine privilege and became broken, stained with blood and sin in order to reflect the Light of heaven in all its loving splendour. But not everyone saw the divine light in Jesus. The outside of a church with stained glass windows or a piece of stained glass sitting on a table do not look like anything special. But go inside a church and face the sun, or lift up a piece of stained glass to the light, and you will see colours and patterns and reflections which will astound you. In order to see the true beauty of stained glass, we must be facing the light. And if we are stained and broken pieces of glass seeking to reflect the true Light, we must remain in the Light.
Back to the question I posed at the beginning: why does God choose the inefficient use of messengers and witnesses? Why not a more direct route for revelation? Human messengers are imperfect, they are stained, they are broken. And that seems to be the point. The stained, broken pieces are nothing without the light, and they are nothing without other stained, broken, pieces. Donald Miller writes, "We are a little sliver of glass in a stained-glass window. We aren't the whole and we aren't the light." In some mysterious way, the relationship between God and humanity is always intertwined with the relationships we have with each other. This is the indirect, inefficient way that a loving, relational God chooses to reveal himself. But, oh, what a wondrous beauty shines through human beings when they join together and turn themselves toward the full light of heaven. When stained, broken glass is enlightened, the whole world is enlightened.
"There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light. There it was - the true Light [the genuine, perfect, steadfast Light] which, coming into the world, enlightens everyone" (John 1:3-9, Amplified Bible).