In the Bible, we come across a number of places where dreams play a role in advancing the story of God’s people. For instance,
- In Genesis 20 God protected Abimelech, king of Gerar, from sleeping with Sarah by means of a dream.
- In Genesis 28 God met Jacob in a dream, revealing to him his presence in the land of Canaan.
- In Genesis 31 the Angel of God told Jacob to leave Laban and return to Canaan.
- In Genesis 37 Joseph has multiple dreams that foretell his future rise to power; in Genesis 40 Joseph interprets the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker; and in Genesis 41 he interprets the dreams of Pharaoh.
In reading these dream accounts, the thoughtful reader may ask—Does God still speak through dreams today? Indeed, throughout the Scripture we find God leading his people with dreams. And today, we hear rumbles that Muslims and others are coming to faith in Christ by dreams.
Put this altogether and we might wonder, what should we think of dreams—in the Bible and today? The answer requires nuance, a full look at Scripture, and especially attention to the changes between the old covenant and the new. Yet, when we keep an eye on all those factors, we can give an open-handed answer to this question.
Dreams in the Bible
The place to begin is always in the beginning. So let’s consider how dreams are presented in the Bible.
1. God initiates the dream and communicates through the dream.
In a period of time when God led his people through theophanies and prophetic oracles, dreams played a part in leading and protecting his people. Importantly, God gave dreams to his covenant people and to those who outside the covenant. In this way, we see that dreams do not communicate saving grace, but common grace. They may protect a king like Abimelech or preview coming world events as with Pharaoh, but they do not communicate eternal salvation.
2. Dreams were necessary because God’s revelation was incomplete.
As God started his program of salvation with Abraham, there was no Bible. Rather, he was acting in space and time in ways that would later be interpreted and inscripturated (written in Scripture) by Moses. Naturally, personal divine intervention included dreams directing his people.
3. The interpretation of dreams was included.
In contrast to a dream today that does not have an interpreter, Genesis 40:8 indicates how God interpreted dreams and gave interpretations to Joseph (and later to Daniel). In this way, God-given dreams came with interpretation. This is a significant difference from modern dreams that rely on human wisdom for interpretation.
4. Dreams were special revelation.
Summarizing these points, we can conclude that dreams were not a part of general revelation—what we find in creation or in our consciences. Dreams were special revelation to accomplish the purposes of redemption. Often they are extensions of God’s presence in the world and applications of his divine providence. However, we cannot make the jump to say they are ongoing aspects of general revelation. To say it succinctly, dreams functioned as special revelation communicating common grace for the purpose of salvation history.
While dreams continue beyond Genesis, this pattern continues primarily under the old covenant. Dreams do not save people, but they specifically direct people in ways that God designs for the fulfillment of his covenant promises. Thus, they were special revelation, but not a communication of the gospel nor a means of salvation.
5. Dreams led God’s saints.
Adding to the total picture, we must include Acts 16:9, where Paul is led to Macedonia through a “vision . . . in the night.” Like the dreams of Joseph, Jesus’s father, this communication directed Paul to abandon (for a time) Asia, in order to bring the gospel to Macedonia. The word used here is not dream but vision, but the experience is certainly dream-like.
If a dream, it is the only one recorded after the ascension of Christ. Moreover, because God chose Paul for a unique ministry of apostleship to the Gentiles and gave him visions of heaven (2 Cor. 12:1–10), we must be cautious to base normative Christian practice on his experiences of divine revelation and direction. Moreover, in the only place where dreams are mentioned in the Epistles, Jude 8 warns of false teachers who “rely on their dreams.”
6. The new covenant calls us to the Scriptures, not speculation.
All in all, we can say God directed his saints by means of dreams throughout the Bible, but because most of the Scripture records events, people, and revelation under the old covenant, we have little reason to believe dreams will now play a normative part of the Christians life. Just the reverse, the New Testament affirms the sufficiency of the Scripture, such that dreams (like that of Joseph and Daniel) would pull disciples of Christ away from Scripture, rather than studying the word (2 Tim. 2:15) and learning to obey all that Christ commands (Matt. 28:19).
In other words, with the full revelation of God in Christ (Heb. 1:1–2), we do not need dreams to follow God. Rather, the Spirit has been given to instruct Christians in wisdom and knowledge. Borrowing an analogy—one that Scripture uses (Gal. 3:24–25; Eph. 4:11–16)—saints under the old covenant were young children, but saints under the new covenant are growing into adulthood. It would hinder maturity to be constantly looking for dreams, instead of learning the ways of God from the Scriptures which make us wise.
To say it more completely, just as young children need direct instruction (not multiple options to decipher), so the Lord gave the people of Israel dreams to lead their steps. However, when the Spirit came, instruments like “lots” went away (Acts 1). In their place, God gave his people the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:10–16) to think biblically about all of life. Now that the full revelation of God had come, the old covenant means revelation was replaced by a normative pattern of biblical exhortation and Spirit-filled churches instructing one another from God’s inspired word.
This focus on the Bible has become the normative pattern for worship and discipleship. Churches or teachers who call people away from the sufficiency of Scripture, therefore, invite all manner of speculation—the very thing Paul warned against in 1 Timothy and Titus. Nonetheless, there continue to be reports of dreams, especially on the mission field and among Muslim nations. So what do we do with those testimonies?
As with any experience we encounter today—personally or by testimony—we must test it by the Scriptures (1 John 4:1–6). If there is anything the New Testament teaches, it is the nature of spiritual warfare is a battle for the hearts and minds of those who have come in contact with the gospel. Yet, there is also those times and places where the gospel enters a region for the first time, and it is here where many dream testimonies occur. So what does Scripture say about dreams today?
Well, the most clear testimony seems to be one of caution (see Jude 8). That said, if God is at work in the world (which he is) and Christ is calling his sheep to himself (which he is) and the Spirit is sovereignly preparing hearts and lives to hear the gospel (which he is), then it is plausible that non-saving dreams might play a role in preparing people for the gospel and their salvation.
The most helpful article I’ve read on this question is that of Darren Carlson, president and founder of Training Leaders International. In “When Muslims Dream of Jesus” he gives a cautious affirmation of dreams occurring among Muslims he has met. Rightly considering the counterfeit miracles that Satan can produce, he points to the gospel fruit that has come not by dreams alone, but by dreams as a part God’s salvation through the Gospel.
With this sort of Scripture-chastened approach to the question of dreams, I might offer seven exhortations for considering dreams today.
1. Affirm the active providence of God in the world.
Christianity is not a Deistic religion. We believe, as Scripture testifies, God is present and all-powerful in the world. Scripture testifies God has used dreams in the past, and thus in non-saving ways, it is conceivable that dreams may again play a part in preparing people for the gospel.
2. Affirm the necessity of Scripture.
If dreams play a part in salvation, they are insufficient in themselves for salvation. Scripture teaches faith comes by the hearing word of Christ (Rom. 10:17), regeneration comes by the word of truth (James 1:18). Therefore, a dream is not sufficient for salvation.
Just as the Spirit inspired the Word, he gives life by that Word (1 Thess. 1:5). Likewise, the Spirit bears witness about Christ and thus cannot save without a proclamation of the gospel. Therefore, if dreams are valid today, they must be coupled with gospel proclamation. Any replacement of the gospel with dreams undermines the very economy of salvation God has revealed in Scripture.
3. Stress the sufficiency of Scripture.
God never contradicts himself. So if the Bible teaches the necessity of the gospel, true dreams will be preparatory for (or maybe recollecting of) the gospel. How God works on the mind is an amazing evidence of his providence. Luke Short remember the gospel he heard 85 years earlier and was saved. Certainly the Spirit was involved in Short’s conversion, but the time between hearing the Word and receiving life was separated by eight decades.
Could something like this happen in a dream? Certainly. What could not happen is a man or woman finding salvation apart from knowledge of the true gospel. For as Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Without hearing the gospel, the lost cannot be found; the dead cannot be raised; the sinner cannot be saved.
4. Evaluate the dream by its fruit.
The validity of the dream, as Carlson asserts, is found in its fruit. If the dream leads to faith in Christ, suffering for that faith, desire for the Word, and spiritual fruits that confirm repentance, there is strong evidence for the dreams divine origin. However, if the dream leads to further speculation, disinterest in the Word, or division from the church, its origin is equally clear.
Second Corinthians 10:14 speaks of Satan disguising himself as an angel of light. And certainly the glorious visions described by many dreamers could fit this description. Yet, if the dreams are genuinely from the Lord, there is equally the chance Satan would confuse seekers with counterfeit visions. As Carlson concludes,
Where the Spirit moves, Satan distorts and distracts. But we can rejoice in the powerful work of God in the world and trust the sufficiency of the preached gospel to save sinners.
As I have pondered the legitimacy of these dreams, I have been drawn to passages like Matthew 12:22–36, where the validity of Jesus’s own ministry was questioned. Would Satan cast out Satan? Would he give dreams filled with Scripture, pointing to Jesus, that ultimately lead to conversion and purity? I doubt it. The Spirit is still on the move, saving his people from among the nations. Of course Satan tries to attack and muddle what is real, but this should cause us to be discerning, not dismissive.
All in all, the genuine test of these dreams is the fruit that results.
5. Retain the bodily ascension of Christ.
Affirming all Scripture teaches, we must remember that in visions of Jesus, the physical body of Christ is located in heaven. In personal correspondence with Steve Wellum, author God the Son Incarnate, he wisely noted,
If these dreams are claiming that Jesus is appearing to them, I find this problematic. In the ascension, Jesus has taken his human nature out of this realm [i.e., the earth] and he will not return bodily until the end. If these are angels that is one thing, but I don’t see how Christ can actually be present other than in some visionary form.
This is vitally important. While angels ministering to the elect (Heb. 1:14) is one thing, claiming the bodily presence of Christ is another. To be comprehensive, we can say Jesus, post-ascension, did appear to Paul in Acts 9 and John saw the glorious Christ standing in the midst of his seven lamp stands (i.e., the seven churches) in Revelation 1. Yet, these counter-examples do not override the metaphysical claim of Christ’s presence in heaven.
6. The normative pattern of God’s revelation is by the Spirit and the Bride.
Continuing to let the ascension of Christ inform our answer, it should be remembered that the New Testament speaks often of Jesus speaking to his sheep (John 10:26–28) and preaching the gospel to the church (Eph. 2:17). Yet, as Revelation 22:17 records, it is the Spirit and the Bride who communicate Christ’s invitation to the world. As the Word of God explains, the normative way of communication is through the Spirit-filled Church.
As Ephesians 3 indicates, the church is the wisdom of God and the people entrusted with the mission to bring the gospel to the nations. If dreams serve in preparing the way for the gospel, then there is a place for them in God’s economy of grace. Yet, if they created an alternative way of salvation, then clearly they are to be rejected not accepted.
7. After testing, marvel at the way God leads people to himself.
Finally, if these dreams do produce good fruit based on faith in the gospel and fruit that comes by the Spirit of Christ. If they enhance trust in the Bible and not an appetite for speculation and more dreams. If they retain, the place of Christ seated in glory at God’s right hand and serve as a means of Christ’s providential rule in the world, then what else can we do but marvel.
Truly, God is active in the world to bring his people to himself. Looking back in time, the common testimony of Christians is the way God has providentially ordained events in our lives to save us and sanctify us. Sometimes, Christians are imprecise in their descriptions and attribute God’s regular means of providence in quasi-miraculous language.
Nevertheless, it is absolutely the case that God does work on behalf of his people, and with these biblical-theological qualifications in place, we can see how God has and continues to work through dreams to prepare his people for faith in the gospel. To that salvation in Christ, we can give all glory to God—whether it includes a dream or not.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds