Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
To travail is to experience birth pangs; it is to bring forth a child by way of deep, excruciating pain. All other physical pains are evidence of disease, decay, and death; birth pangs are the only pains that are a sign of life. “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 16:21). The word “travail” is often found in context with the words sorrow, pain, grief, pangs, and vexation. It was part of God’s curse on the woman that pain would attend her bringing forth of children (Gen. 3:16). Some mothers die bringing forth children; for example, when Rachel travailed and had hard labor, she died (Gen. 35:16-18). Birth pangs are characterized by two things as the time of deliverance approaches: they increase in frequency and they grow in intensity.
Scripture uses travail in several figurative senses. In a very beautiful way the church of the Old Testament, spiritually considered, is the mother of us all (Gal. 4:26). When Paul writes this, he has in mind Isaiah 54:1: “Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.” The church of the old dispensation underwent sore travail in bringing forth Christ and all that are His. This same mother-church is seen by John in vision as a great wonder, “. . . a woman clothed with the sun . . . and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered” (Rev. 12:1, 2). Despite the opposition of a great red dragon who would devour her child as soon as it was born, “she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God and to His throne” (Rev. 12:4, 5).
The Apostle Paul, when combating the influence of false teachers upon those with whom he formerly labored, likens this difficult labor to painful birth: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…” (Gal. 4:19). His motivation for working day and night, laboring and travailing, is that “he would not be chargeable unto any of you” (I Thess. 2:9); now would he eat any man’s bread for the same reason (II Thess. 3:8). The difficulty of preaching the full counsel of God in the face of apostasy and worldliness is not less today; it can only be compared to labor and travail. But when the fruit of the gospel is that Christ is formed in a man or woman, that travail, also, is forgotten!
Finally, the Holy Spirit of inspiration likens the signs of the coming of Christ and the end of the world to travail. After Jesus has mentioned false Christs, wars and rumors of wars, ethnic uprisings, famines, pestilences, and earthquakes, He summarizes by saying, “All these are the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8). Literally the Greek states, “All these are the beginning of travail or birth pains.” Terrible, terrible things are happening in the church, in the nations, and, in nature. As time speeds to the end, these signs occur with greater frequency and intensity. And the comfort that these words of Jesus give us is not only that we know that He rules through these things, but also that these painful signs are sure signs of life and health! They end with the birth of the new heavens and earth wherein righteousness dwelleth! And so we read in Romans 8:22-23of the whole creation which “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” and the church groans with the creation, “waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” The cursed creation will not be annihilated by fire, but fire will be the catalyst that changes this creation into the heavenly creation. As a womb convulsed with pain, the whole creation brings forth the heavenly state where God’s tabernacle is with men. As “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18), so also when we are delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we will remember no more the travail that God used to bring us to Himself in the covenant of grace made perfect.