“When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” (John 16:21).
If it is true that, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit,” then once we have been brought into the Kingdom, why do we not experience perpetual joy and peace? (Romans 14:17) The real question is, “Why do we suffer on this earth as Christians?” I don’t believe there to be only one definitive answer to that question. However, I do believe that question falls under one main principle, even if that principle has many applications. We find this thought in the words of Paul as he states, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings becoming like Him in His death.” (Philippians 3:10)
In John 16:21, we see Jesus preparing His disciples for the sorrow ahead of them as He takes His steps toward the cross. Always the master teacher, Jesus paints a picture for His men so that they may understand that what they are about to experience is not the final outcome. He uses this idea of a woman in labor. Every woman that has gone through childbirth understands this principle. No one can prepare you for the intense pain that you go through while in labor. Thankfully, these days, most of us opt for the epidural so that we do not have to experience the intensity of what most would consider unbearable. But if we put this scripture in its historical time frame, epidurals were not given during childbirth and the full expression of that pain had to be endured. However, any mother will tell you that after travailing in labor, when she saw her baby for the first time and held him in her arms, the pain was all but forgotten and love like she had never known filled her heart.
Several applications are correct pertaining to this scripture. We could certainly apply this thought to Jesus being the woman in travail. He knows that His hour has come and He is about to endure the cross. His joy will be realized as He is raised from the dead, reunited with His Father, and seated at the right hand of God.
The most obvious application is that He is using this metaphor to explain the events that His disciples are going to have to live through as He is crucified. He is going to be taken from them in what will seemingly be unbearable circumstances. Not only is He not going to be with them, the events surrounding His death are likely to shake them to their core as they try to understand what is actually taking place. Of course, upon the evidence of the Lord’s resurrection, His disciples will be filled with joy to learn that their Messiah is truly the Son of God. Not only will He send them the comfort of the Holy Spirit, but one day, they will be reunited with the One they love. It would certainly bring them deep joy to know that all they had staked their lives upon was true.
In a more prophetic sense, we can say that the Kingdom of God is the woman in travail. The intense labor that would birth the reality of the Kingdom Age would be the death of the one that all hope was laid upon. The Seed of the Woman that was to be born into this world would fall into the ground and die. But, He would also spring forth and bear eternal fruit as He was raised to life. Fullness of joy can be known because the One who came to save mankind has defeated the anguish of death and the grave.
So what does that have to do with why we suffer as Christians today? Let’s go back and look at our scripture in context. After a lengthy conversation concerning the fact that He is about to be taken from them, Jesus tells them that their joy will be restored. In that day, they are to ask the Father whatever they will in the name of Jesus and it will be granted. John 16:24 says this, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” The only thing that would make the disciples full of joy again would be the presence of Jesus and the promises of the Kingdom fulfilled. All of this would take place in an upper room as the Holy Spirit descended and empowered them to go forth preaching in power with miraculous signs following. We do know however, that as they lived out their ministries here on the earth, the disciples experienced this travail on some level over and over again as the message of the Gospel confronted enemies without and sin within.
If we are going to be full of the Holy Spirit, it will be no different for us. We will share in the Lord’s travail as we endure hardships, resist temptation, suffer shame and ridicule, and experience persecution for the sake of Christ. Even in our own short comings and failures, the Lord has made a way for us to be made right with Him through repentance and restoration. If we truly surrender to the Holy Spirit, the right standing that we have been given with the Father because of the shed blood of our Lord Jesus, will be made known to us experientially as we are changed from glory to glory through the work of sanctification.
Going back to Romans 14:17, how can we truly know the joy of the Lord’s resurrection unless we have shared in the sufferings of His death? Is it possible to understand the depths of the peace that He gives unless we have known the unrest of our own sin-sick souls? There is an agony involved in the process that leads to true righteousness and holiness within. But in the midst of all that afflicts us here on this earth, we must understand that because we are in Christ, all the crosses we are asked to bear are no more than light and momentary afflictions that lead us on into glory. In Christ there is not one cross that doesn’t lead to resurrection life. Like the disciples, we need to ask the Father to make our joy full. Because of the Lord’s travail, there is only one thing that we will receive in that request and that is life abundant through the saving blood of Jesus and the sustaining work of the Holy Spirit. Truly joy, peace, and righteousness are the inheritance of those that share in the travail of the Lord’s sufferings.
Paper written for my New Testament History and Literature Class at SUM Bible College and Theological Seminary. December 19, 2014.