Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The word travail is often found in context with the words labor, sorrow, anguish, pain, and vexation. Travail, of course, refers to birth pangs, to the experience that a mother undergoes in the hours immediately prior to giving birth to a child. This hard labor is necessary in order for the child to be born. Scriptures use the term in the literal and figurative senses. In both usages, three features stand out: 1) As the time of deliverance approaches, the pains come closer and closer together; 2) As the interval between the pangs decreases, the intensity of the pain increases; and 3) Birth pains are the only pains that are a good sign. They are a sign of life. All other pains are indications of sickness, injury, and death.
Travail is a universal experience, not only in the physical sense but also in the figurative sense of suffering in the soul. The wicked travail under the wrath of God for the destruction that comes upon them which they cannot escape (Ps. 48:6; I Thess. 5:3). The Old Testament church is compared to a woman being with child “crying, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered” of the Christ-child that was in her (Rev. 12:2). The apostle Paul, and all faithful pastors, travail as they labor day and night in the preaching of the gospel (I Thess. 2:9). And every believer travails and groans within himself as he awaits the redemption of his body (Rom. 8:23).
Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, travailed in body and soul as no woman ever travailed. In John 16 the Savior speaks of going away from His disciples: “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.” He has in mind the great travail of His cross death, and His birth in the resurrection. God saw the travail of His soul, and was satisfied (Is. 53:11). So God raised Him up the third day as the first-begotten of the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep.
We live in the last hour, the time of travail just before another great birth! In Matthew 24:4-8, Jesus speaks of some of the signs that must take place before His second coming: wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places. “All these are the beginning of sorrows (literally, birth pains).” These things increase in frequency, they grow in intensity and power, and they are a sign that all is well, for Jesus brings them about and uses them to bring the end of this present world Not only will the church of Christ travail under that great tribulation, but the creation itself will partake of it. Paul writes that “we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Rom. 8:22). The whole creation awaits the coming of Christ, its Creator. We who have the firstfruits of the Spirit await the coming of our Head and Redeemer. As we wait, we travail together.
When, out of the womb of this old, groaning creation, Christ brings forth the new heavens and the new earth, we will remember no more the travail and persecution that is ours to endure. “A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” (John 16:24). That is the way it will be for every member of the church of God’s Son. No more pain, no more tears, no more sin! “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).