The first half of chapter 11 is about John the Baptist. Matthew says:
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Christ, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
First notice that Matthew doesn’t call Jesus, Jesus, but “the Christ.” The context of what is to come, Jesus’ answer, is that he is Israel’s promised Messiah, and Matthew calls him that. The other thing to notice is John’s doubt about who Jesus is. You would think of all people, John would be the last to doubt the identity of his cousin. All of his life he was aware of his nearly miraculous birth, and his cousin’s most definitely miraculous birth. Then as he began his own ministry we saw him “Prepare the way for the Lord.” Not just anyone, mind you, but Yahweh. John tells us in his gospel that when John saw Jesus coming he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” He knew very well who Jesus was.
So why does he doubt now? Uh, he’s in prison. The Messiah Jews were expecting wasn’t exactly the Messiah Jesus turned out to be. We can’t be sure what was in John’s mind when he called Jesus the Lamb of God, but we can be confident he didn’t think ending up in Herod’s prison and likely to lose his head was part of his vision for Israel’s Messiah. Talk about shattered expectations. But if you think about it, shattered expectations is a common theme of many Old Testament (and New) saints. God rarely lives up to our expectations, as is the way it should be if he is God and we are not!
You have to imagine that John thought that even though his ministry was to take a back seat to Jesus’, he would have some place of prominence in Jesus new kingdom. This is all speculation, but it’s not unreasonable. But Jesus’ answer leaves no doubt as to who he is:
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Jesus is basically reciting these words from Isaiah 35:5-6 for John:
5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
Jesus is confident that John knows his Scripture, so notice what he is saying to John by the verse prior to these two:
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”
Remember back in Matthew 3 when it seemed to me that John was mixing up Jesus’ two comings. He wasn’t so much mixing these up because nobody knew there would be two, but it’s the context of vengeance and retribution that they are confusing. God, they think, is going to take it out on his enemies, not at all realizing that every sinner, i.e. every human being, is God’s enemy by birth. What the Lord is saying through Isaiah, and what Jesus is confirming by his healing ministry, is that he, God in human flesh, has come to save his people through his vengeance and divine retribution. He will do that, taking the punishment of God’s wrath due to us, on a Roman cross. He’s saying to John (and us) that, I’ve got you buddy. There’s something more important than an earthly kingdom. So John losing his head, as terrifying as that was for John, was of minor importance in the grand scheme of things we know as redemptive history.