Jesus said in John 16:21 – “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” (all Scripture ESV). This mini-parable provides an excellent illustration for Jesus’ point about sorrow giving way to joy on the other side of the cross.
However, there may be more to it than that.
The Old Testament prophets frequently used the metaphor of a woman in labor to discuss various truths about Israel and her Messiah. For example, look at this long passage from Isaiah:
Like a pregnant woman who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near to giving birth, so were we because of you, O LORD; 18 we were pregnant, we writhed, but we have given birth to wind. We have accomplished no deliverance in the earth, and the inhabitants of the world have not fallen. 19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. 20 Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. 21 For behold, the LORD is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain. (Isaiah 26:17-21)
Israel tells the Lord that she felt like a woman who gave birth to nothing but air (vss 17-18). They were not able to accomplish the deliverance Israel needed. Israel has yet to “give birth” to the right kind of ruler who will enact judgment and bring justice and stability to the land. This passage looks forward to the Messiah and the messianic age He establishes.
Here’s an even longer passage from later on in Isaiah:
“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son. 8 Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment? For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children. 9 Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the LORD; “shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” says your God. 10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her; 11 that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.” 12 For thus says the LORD: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. 13 As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. 14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the LORD shall be known to his servants, and he shall show his indignation against his enemies. (Isaiah 66:7-14)
Once again, Israel is pictured as a pregnant mother, but this time she delivers a son before her labor pains! Without getting into all the details of this text, I simply point to the consistently of this passage with Jesus’ point in John 16: after the delivery comes rejoicing. Notice especially verse 10, how it mentions mourning turning into joy. The point of this passage, though, is that the Lord will surely bring Israel to a point of rejoicing in the great day of the Lord (see 66:15). Though others will be judged during that time, Israel will have great joy for God’s deliverance.
There are many other passages in the OT that use the metaphor of labor and delivery, some using the pains of labor to illustrate the various pains of Israel (Is 21:2-3, Jer 13:21), especially those pains associated with the consequences of her sin and the pain of exile (Mic 4:9-10).
But with the larger passages that look forward to the coming messianic day, Jesus may have intended for the disciples to make some association with Isaiah’s prophecies when He gave the mini-parable in John 16:21. Jesus’ point was that the suffering and death of the Messiah would at first bring sorrow and grief, but that would give way to joy once the Messiah rose from the grave. If the Isaiah passages were meant to inform His meaning, Jesus is telling the disciples that with His resurrection begins the messianic age (at least the first part of it – there is more to come!). The labor pains are over, and a new beginning has begun.
One small caveat before ending this post, though: keep in mind that the same metaphor can be used in many different ways in Scripture, sometimes even within the same book and chapter! For example, Hosea compares Israel to “dew” in 6:4, meaning that their love is as long-lasting as dew (not long lasting at all!). But in 14:5, God says that He Himself is like dew to Israel, focusing on the positive effects it has on the land. Same book, same thing being compared, but two very different usages.
I mention that because there are a lot of “birth pangs” metaphors throughout Scripture, in both Testaments. The woman giving birth in Revelation 12 is not necessarily the same as the woman giving birth in Isaiah 26 or 66, which may not be the same as the “birth pangs” Jesus talks about the earth going through in Matthew 24:8. When we see a metaphor in Scripture, even if it reminds us of something that was previously described in a similar way, we must be careful to first look at the immediate context of how that metaphor is being used, then we can ask whether or not it is informed by or consistent with previous usages of that same image.