Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. — John 16:20-22
In these verses Jesus employs the image of the birth pangs of a woman in labour, imagery that is common in the OT prophets, where it is also occasionally used to refer to a period of intense suffering preceding a new age (similar usage is also to be found in extracanonical Jewish literature). In the prophets the image of labour pains followed by birth is associated with resurrection (Isaiah 26:16-21) and with the restoration of the people of God (Isaiah 66:8-14).
The strong eschatological associations of such imagery are not accidental to the meaning of this passage. Nor should this passage be detached from the general theme of new birth that appears at various points of the gospel of John. The popular employment of the language of new birth and regeneration can blind us to the primary focus of the teaching of new birth in Scripture, which is not a spiritual transformation in the heart of the new convert but the death and resurrection of Christ.
The death and resurrection of Christ represent a watershed in history. The death of Christ was the definitive death of the old world order. Since then the old creation has been passing away and the new creation born in the resurrection has been advancing. The first person to born again was Jesus Christ, when He became the firstborn from the dead in His resurrection. The new birth experienced by the new convert is an entry into the new life of Christ’s resurrection.
In the OT no one was born again. From dust they were born and to dust they returned. Naked people came from their mother’s wombs and naked they returned there. The re-entry into the womb (the earth and the womb are habitually related together in the OT — Job 1:21; Psalm 139:13-15; Ecclesiastes 5:15) was by death and no one had come out again on the other side. The cursed womb of the earth seemed barren; the seed continually entered into its belly, but no fruit came forth (cf. Proverbs 30:15-16).
John employs the imagery of the woman in labour in the context of a broader inaugurated eschatology. For John the birth pangs begin in Jesus’ death; the birth itself is presumably the resurrection. A surface reading of the text might suggest that the birth pangs are undergone by the disciples; closer examination suggests a more complex picture.
Particularly significant are the words ‘because her hour has come’. Throughout the gospel of John the theme of Jesus’ coming hour is prominent, and no more so than in the chapters just prior to the crucifixion account. It is our conviction that the woman in John 16 represents Israel, undergoing the travail that will result in the birth of a new age. Her birth pangs are focused on the cross of Jesus, but are also experienced to some degree by the disciples.
Who is the new child that is born? It seems to me that the new child is Christ Himself. We find this position convincing in the light of the strong Johannine and NT connection between resurrection and new birth. In Revelation 1:5 Jesus is described as the firstborn of the dead. This understanding of the resurrection is also to be observed in Lucan (Acts 13:33) and Pauline (Romans 1:3-4; Colossians 1:18) thought. Such a teaching is not treated as if it were in tension with the fact that Jesus is truly the Son of God before the resurrection. Jesus is the both the one who precedes the creation as the eternally begotten of the Father and the one who leads the way into the new age as the firstborn of the dead. In Revelation 12 it also seems most likely that the birth referred to there takes place in the death and resurrection of Christ.
While the resurrected Christ is the most immediate referent of the newborn child, the image refers more broadly to the new birth of the people of God as a whole (cf. Isaiah 66:8; Revelation 12:17). It is through the birth pangs of the cross that the birth from above that Jesus speaks of in John 3 becomes a possibility.
This imagery is employed in a number of places in the NT outside of Johannine writings. In Romans 8, for instance, the imagery occurs within a context of inaugurated and awaited eschatology. The birth pangs are still taking place, but the manifestation of the sons of God is certain, as Jesus has already been declared to be the Son of God in His resurrection as the firstborn of the dead. Being sons of God is a matter of great eschatological significance for Paul. The fact that people are being set apart as the sons of God by the reception of the firstfruits of the Spirit is a sign that the last days have come upon us.
Understanding the death and resurrection of Christ in terms of birth pangs and new birth provides us with an illuminating perspective on the death of Christ, one that is present at a number of points in the NT, but has not received much attention. It is a model of atonement that focuses on the giving of new life. Within this model (which undoubtedly needs to be complemented by others) sin and death are overcome not by means of punishment, but by the bringing about of new life. Birth pangs may be an effect of the Fall, but the focus of this model is not on punishing man for sin or condemning sin, but on overcoming the death and the frustration of the creation that result from human sin.
Evangelical doctrines of the atonement often have the tendency of detaching the cross from the resurrection and becoming focused on the condemnation of the sins of the past, saying a lot less about how the cross and resurrection bring about new life. We are left merely as forgiven sinners, rather than as participants in a new creation. Such models — which should by no means be rejected — are generally backward looking, focusing on past transgressions. The model outlined above is more forward looking, placing a far greater accent on the resurrection.
This model also ties in very neatly with themes and motifs that are very prominent in the OT. I have already observed how it relates to imagery that is found in a number of places in the prophets. It relates to the common OT theme of God’s overcoming of barrenness to bring forth the seed. Even more significantly, it relates to the unravelling of the curse and the fulfilment of the protoevangelium far more closely than many other models. It relates to the curse on the woman’s womb, the curse on the ground and the overcoming of death.
Significantly, this theme does not merely show the cross and resurrection as the reversal of the curse. The curse stacks all the odds against new birth, but it is not the reason why new birth is necessary. New birth is necessary because the creation must mature. The heavenly must take the place of the earthly (1 Corinthians 15:35-54). The recent film Children of Men well illustrates the dystopic reality of a world of death without new birth. In such a world, all that remains is the agonizing cry of the woman who can bring forth nothing but wind. In the resurrection the world of the first creation is glorified. The natural body is sown and the spiritual body is raised and there is a future for the world once more.
The model outlined above presents us with a natural image — that of giving birth — in order to help us to understand what takes place at the cross. Even apart from the dimension of the overcoming of the curse and barrenness of the womb of the earth, such new birth of the Spirit would have been necessary even in a world apart from sin. Such a ‘natural’ image for what takes place at the cross also suggests how what takes place at the cross may be analogous to the eternal begetting of the Son, which provides the eternal condition of its possibility. Christ is the one who is eternally begotten by the Father through the Spirit and He is the one in whom new birth by the Father through the Spirit becomes a possibility for us in history. The death and resurrection thus mirror to some extent the eternal processions of the Trinity.