Have you ever had a dream that you are sure meant something? Or have you ever had something happen to you in real life that you had dreamed about earlier? It’s a kind of weird, amazing experience, isn’t it?
Dreams and visions have fascinated many, if not all, of the cultures and religions of the world. Many religions were (and are) built around putting one’s self in a state to receive dreams and visions (often using hallucinogenic substances) or by dreams and visions given to the founders. Even the modern “non-religious” often place great stock in the revelations provided by dreams as windows into the unconscious self. From Old Testament times (remember the dreams of Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Daniel?) and New Testament times (Peter, Ananaias, John), for believers (see previous examples) and non-believers (the Midianite in Judges 7:13-14, Pilate’s wife in Matt 27:19). Many people are coming to hear about Jesus for the first time because of dreams and visions today. I have met one or two personally. Given the universal occurrence of dreams and visions, and human interest in them, it is unsurprising that the Bible has given us a few ground rules for Christians in this area.
1. God Pours Out Dreams and Visions
Let’s start with the obvious. There are dreams and visions that are from the Lord. There is no getting around that. It has happened, is happening, and will happen. Read with me Peter’s speech at Pentecost.
Acts 2:14-18 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
Dreams, visions, and prophecies happen. If you are a modern person, that probably makes you uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s still true. You might as well get used to it.
2. God Provides the Interpretation
Genesis 40:8 – [Joseph to the Cupbearer and Baker] “Do not interpretations belong to the Lord?”
When we talk about dreams and visions from the Lord in the Scripture, as far as I can tell (and I could be wrong here), the interpretation is given by God as well. I haven’t been able to find a single instance of someone coming up with an interpretation on their own and calling it a revelation from the Lord. The dream is either so simple that it needs no interpretation (like Joseph’s vision of the sun, moon, and stars), or God provides the interpretation (the Baker and the Cupbearer in Gen 40, more interestingly, the Midianite in Judges 7), or no interpretation is provided (some visions in Ezekiel, perhaps the book of Revelation?).
I’d like to stress here that dreams and visions from the Lord have a correct interpretation and a definite meaning. “You should still marry Mary, she has not been unfaithful.” “Flee Bethlehem for Herod is coming to kill you.” “After 3 days, Pharoah will lift your head from your body.” Very, very, very different from psychoanalytical interpretations of dreams (“The white horse represents X”) which are supposed to give insight into your condition. It is also different from the vague generalities that we see in horoscopes, self-help books, psychics (“This dream represents you experiencing a major shift at some time in the future.”) There are biblical exceptions, most particularly Ezekiel and John’s Revelation. But let’s notice that these kind of revelations are extremely rare, even among biblical prophets, and were only given to prophets who have already been proven by God through divine miracles and other true prophecies.
3. Dead Wrong
Related to point 2, dreams and visions from the Lord have a definite interpretation, which is either true or false. If false, the penalty is death. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Deuteronomy 18:20-22 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.” 21 You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” 22 If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.
In other words, dreams and visions are verifiable. And you DON’T want to be wrong. This is a serious, serious message for people who have said, “God told me / revealed to me / etc. that X is going to happen.” and then X doesn’t happen. That’s real bad. But that is not all.
Deuteronomy 13:1-5 If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, 2 and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods”(gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” 3 you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere. Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him. 5 That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. That prophet or dreamer tried to turn you from the way the Lord your God commanded you to follow. You must purge the evil from among you.
Even if the prophecy is right, if it is 100% true, if it isn’t in accordance with the revealed will of God, then the prophet is to die. Because, as they say in Texas, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.” Don’t ever think that a dream, vision, feeling gives you a special pass. “But I have received a word from the Lord that I should divorce my wife and marry this other woman whom I love.” Nope. Sorry. Doesn’t work like that. And, in this case, the sin of saying that the Lord told you to is actually much worse than the sin of divorcing your wife because you love another woman.
The point here is not to start handing out the death penalty to people. It is to see that there are extremely explicit, serious boundaries that God has providentially set on the claim of direct divine revelation (including, but not limited to, visions, dreams, callings, prophetic words, prophecies, and Scripture).
Rule 1: The dream or vision must come true. (which basically means, you gotta KNOW that an interpretation is from the Lord, not just guess, logic, etc.)
Rule 2: The dream or vision must be in accordance with the Bible.
Which leads us to …
4. Test the spirits
This idea is EVERYWHERE in both the New and Old Testaments..Deuteronomy 13 and 20, 1 John 4, 2 Peter, 2 Corinthians 11, Matthew 24, Matthew 7. It is all over the place. The idea is this. People have dreams. Pretty much every day, in fact. And they dream about stuff that is often relevant to them and comes true relatively often (though, dreams don’t come true even more often). But to say a dream, vision, calling, word, thought is from God is to claim to be a prophet, to receive direct revelation from God. And that, my friends, is an extremely serious thing to say. Just look at some of the visions that led to the major Christian cults (Joseph Smith, Ellen White, etc.)
As Christians, and as a church, we are constantly, consistently, regularly taught, exhorted, encouraged, lectured, reminded, and exhorted again to TEST everything that calls itself a revelation from God. We have 2 very simple rules. Does the dream come true? yes/no. If the dream doesn’t come true, the dreamer is/was deceived, and their visions should never be trusted again. Including by themselves! (That’s the polite way of saying that they deserve death as a false prophet, but are forgiven by the sacrificial work of Christ as we all are). Even believing in our own dreams as revelations is serious, serious business! The second rule is that whatever the claimed word of the Lord is, it also has to be in line with the Word of God as handed down to us. Simple enough?
And one to grow on … false prophecies from God?
Ummmmm … this is one of the more disconcerting facts in Scriptures. Sometimes God sends (or allows to be sent) false dreams and visions. That is difficult to reconcile. I choose to think about it in the second way (God permits false dreams) in the same way that I choose to believe in God permits bad things to happen. But it is something to think about. More importantly for us, these false dreams are, according to Scripture, either for judgment OR as a test. Most likely both at the same time. It’s a pass / fail test.
I have never had a true dream or vision that I have received from God. I have had dreams that have kind of come true. My brain is a pattern-seeking machine! But there is a big, big difference between a dream that comes true (or can be interpreted as coming true), and a dream that comes from God. BIG! Nor do I use the language of “God told me to”. That’s dangerous language unless you KNOW (not guess, suspect, hope), that GOD told you. Are you willing to stake your life on it being a message from God? That’s rule 1.
In my mind, the prophets of the New Testament KNEW when they were speaking / seeing / dreaming a revelation from God and when not. If not, how would they have had the bravery to face the death penalty? I don’t think that they were guessing as to the meaning of the revelation either, Only with that certainty were they willing to say, “Thus saith the Lord”.
I hold myself to the same standard, and I hope you do to. I don’t try to interpret my dreams, even if they feel really real and / or significant. At most, I might pray about a dream. If God wants to reveal something to me, I am absolutely confident He will get my attention (cf., for example, Saul, donkey, and blindness).
However, I have lower standards when talking about things that have already happened. It seems like we are allowed a little more leeway to interpret our past (“God allowed this event to happen so that … “). But, even when talking about facts that I know are true, I still like to use qualifiers when talking about why, “It seems like God ..”, “I think that God … “. Why? To remind others (AND MYSELF) that I don’t know! God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. His thoughts are above my thoughts, as are His reasons. So whatever reason I think may indeed be true, but it is very unlikely to be the whole truth. The true meaning of that event may only be found a thousand years from now. We only know the mind of God as far as it is revealed through His word (and I like to use qualifiers a lot even there!)
History is full of those who were so sure that God was speaking to them that they didn’t see how their errors were hurting other people (hear, hear those who have prophesied the end of the world … or the presidential election). It is also full of those who were so sure that nothing new was happening that they rejected everything (remember the Pharisees?).I want to avoid both errors, if possible. I am totally open to revelations from God, but I hold them to the standards that have already been given, which are high standards indeed.