The NT uses various words in this connection (none of which is rendered “travail” by niv): ōdinō, “to be in pain” (Gal.4.19; Rev.12.2); ōdin, “pain, labor, sorrow” (1Thess.5.3); synōdinō, “to feel pain together” (Rom.8.22); tiktō, “to bring forth” (John.16.21); mochthos, “toil, labor, weariness” (1Thess.2.9; 2Thess.3.8).
1. The literal meaning appears when, at the birth of Benjamin, Rachel “travailed in hard labor” and died (Gen 35:16, 17). Most frequently the meaning of the term is fig.
3. Travail may picture the painful exertion necessary to achieve satisfying goals. The suffering servant “who makes an offering for sin” shall “see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied” (Isa 53:10, 11). The Apostle Paul, in the Lord’s service, not only faced all sorts of dangers, but also “toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night” (2 Cor 11:27). He could not forget the “labor and toil” night and day to plant the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:9). Later he wrote, “with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you” (2 Thess 3:8). The Galatians seemed to return to legalistic works, so Paul was “again in travail until Christ be formed” in them (Gal 4:19).
4. The figure of travail represents the disciples’ sorrow in a world that would crucify Christ. However, just as the anguish is forgotten by the mother rejoicing that a child is born, “So,” Jesus said, “you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:21, 22).
5. Travail also portrays the agony of the world until Christ returns. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom 8:22). At Christ’s return, furthermore, will come sudden destruction “as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape” (1 Thess 5:3).
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
In the New Testament the travail of childbirth is used as the figure of the painful and anxious struggle against the evils of the world in the soul’s efforts to attain the higher ideals of the Christian life (Joh 16:21 (tikto); Ro 8:22; Ga 4:27); twice, however, it is the rendering of mochthos, the ordinary word for "toil," "hardship" or "distress" (1Th 2:9; 2Th 3:8).
See Birth; Labor.