Let’s take a look at some old ideas that may be new thinking for many of us.
Next, Matthew gives us the account of some more dreams. First off, the Magi, “having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, returned to their country by another route.” Their decision not to report to Herod might have cost them their lives if they were caught! Herod was no one to mess around with, as the pile of slain children in Bethlehem clearly attest.
Then we get two of St. Joseph’s dreams. “When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’”
To me, that seems like a lot of trust in a dream! Just imagine if your spouse woke up and said, “Honey we have to move to Japan! God told me in a dream that our government is about to kill our child!” What would you do?
Finally, Matthew concludes with: “after Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
Whenever dreams, visions, or supernatural signs show up, we immediately have questions. Are such things really possible today? If they are, what part do they have in our spiritual life? And the very practical one, if you think you have had a dream, a vision, or some kind of supernatural experience, what guidelines should you follow in evaluating that experience?
I think all of us would love to have a dream or a vision or a supernatural sign. We would like to have one of those defining moments in life when the eternal, almighty, transcendent God communicates directly with us. Wouldn’t it be great if you got up in the morning to find a message from God written in 4-foot tall letters in your front lawn? “Go to Guatemala and be a missionary” “Sell your house and move to St. Louis.” “Apply to West Point.” “Don't worry about your sister. She's going to be fine.” “Don't marry David. Marry Tom instead.” Who wouldn’t love for God to say, “Yes, I am paying attention to you. I know what you are going through. Here’s a sign of My presence and a proof of My love for you.” I don't think any of us would reject a personal word from God--if we knew it was authentic.
Mainline Denominational Thinking
On the other hand, I there are people who are really uncomfortable with the idea of God speaking to them, (or anyone else for that matter!), directly and personally. If you grew up in most of the mainline denominations, you may have been taught that God isn’t speaking to people today like He did in Bible times. Putting the best spin on it, a well-meaning teacher or pastor might have said: “How can you protect yourself from strange doctrine, and protect the authority of scripture, if you think God speaks today? The words that God said to you personally would take authority over the Bible and then you would be in big trouble!”
While there’s a legitimate point in that, more often the message meant to be conveyed is something more along the lines of “We don’t want anything to do with those crazy Charismatics and Pentecostals who are always claiming to hear from God, so, let’s just get deep into Bible study and be safe.” The thing is, getting deep into Bible study and taking God’s Word seriously is anything but safe!
Most of us know a few Christians who claim to have supernatural experiences on a fairly regular basis. It seems that whenever they come to a crossroads, God speaks to them in some unusual, mystical, visionary way and they know exactly what He wants them to do. But for every one person who gets dreams and visions and supernatural signs, there is another hundred who go for years (even a lifetime!) and never have anything mystical or seemingly supernatural happen at all. And if you hang around people in that first group very long, you can begin to wonder if maybe something’s wrong with your own Christian walk. “Maybe if I was a better Christian, maybe if I was more surrendered, maybe if I started tithing, God would speak to me the way He does to these other people.”
I realize that most of us are in the second category. If you’re in the first category, you don't need me to say anything to you. You’re already convinced that is God speaking today in dreams and visions. But what about those of us who rarely, if ever, hear supernaturally from God?
What does Scripture have to say about this?
The Bible gives a clear and consistent witness of how God has spoken to people since the very beginning. In the Old Testament, He spoke through creation, angels, prophets, dreams, visions, casting lots, the strange thing called the “urim and the thummin,” a fire, a burning bush, preaching, judgments, symbolic actions, signs, miracles, writing on a wall, a donkey, trumpets, thunder and lightning, smoke and storms, a fleece, sound of marching in the treetops, sometimes face to face, in personal guidance, the still small voice, plus various unspecified ways. In the New Testament He spoke through Jesus, nature, angels, dreams, visions, prayer, prophets, signs and wonders, preachers, scripture, an unbeliever, the church, sometimes a direct word from God, the Holy Spirit, plus various unspecified ways.
God didn’t speak in one simple way in either Testament, so why should we expect Him to change His ways for us today? God is not limited in the ways that He speaks to His people. Now, we may be self-limiting in the ways we will accept communications from God, but that’s really our issue and not His.
The prophet Joel wrote: (2:28‑29) “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. And also on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days.”
St. Peter recognized the fulfillment of this promise as he viewed the scene around himself on the Day of Pentecost. We are living now in the age that Joel prophesied and was begun on the Day of Pentecost. The Lord has kept His promise to “pour out” His Spirit! Because of this great gift, people who have never prophesied before will find themselves prophesying in the midst of the congregation. Children who have never had a vision will see into the realm of the Spirit and declare what they are seeing to those around them. God’s people will dream dreams and have visions! That’s not my line, that’s His! About one third of the Bible, over 200 references, speaks of dreams and visions. If we approach the subject on the basis of the Scriptural witness, we can’t honestly claim that God doesn’t communicate to His people in dreams and visions today. Yet, many of us do precisely that!
Why do we feel so uneasy with dreams, visions, and supernatural workings of the Holy Spirit?
Part of what holds us back is that we don’t want people to think we’re religious nuts. We fear excess much more than we fear lack and so we choose to live blurry, grayscale lives even though God offers us a high definition, technicolor world.
Another reason is that, while our unbelief is not compatible with the clear word of God, for most of us, it is very compatible with our life experience. Those are two very different things! We tend to equate “my experience” with “what is meet, right, and salutary” and reject anything outside of our experience grid. The arbiter of truth is not our personal experience but the testimony of Scripture. And what does Scripture say? “For God may speak in one way or in another, Yet man does not perceive it. In a dream in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, While slumbering on their beds, Then He opens the ears of men, and seals their instruction. In order to turn man from his deeds, and conceal pride from man, He keeps back His soul from the Pit, and his life from perishing by the sword.” (Job 33: 14-18)
Basically, there are two types of dreams. About 95%‑98% of the dreams we have are intrinsic, meaning that they are talking about you. These are dreams that reveal what is going on in your life and they deal with the issues of your heart, mind, will, emotions. About 2%‑5% of our dreams are extrinsic. An extrinsic dream talks about other people and situations outside of oneself. Extrinsic dreams sometimes reveal things like murders, airplane crashes, earthquakes, etc. before they actually happen. Pharaoh’s dream about the fat and thin cows was an extrinsic dream speaking about the coming famine.
What can dreams do? Dreams can place a spirit of intercession upon us or give us a burden to pray for a particular person or event so that problems can be averted. Dreams have the ability to reveal our calling or ministry gift to us. Solomon received his amazing gift of wisdom in a dream. Dreams also have the ability to bring correction, edification, and warning. Dreams also can be prophetic, revealing the future and giving us insight into what lies ahead.
Are all dreams and visions from God?
No. So, how can you tell the authentic from the counterfeit? The fundamental test for anything that appears to be a supernatural message from God is this: is it consistent with what He has already said in His Word? Does it reflect the character of Jesus? If it’s not loving, it is not of the Lord. Will it lead me to a closer walk with God? Wait before you make a major decision. Don’t ever make a major decision in your life solely on the basis of a supernatural experience. Don't get married because you had a vision. Don't go to college just because you had a dream. Don't move to Cambodia because you saw it floating overhead in the clouds. Don't make a major decision in your life solely on the basis of that which appears to you to be supernatural. People sometimes think they've received a message from God and they run right out and do crazy things that ruin their lives. Seek counsel! If it is truly of God, spiritual men and women normally will recognize it as well.
Dreams and visions can be an important part of our spiritual life if we will open our spiritual eyes and ears. We have a rich tradition for making good use of the amazing journeys we embark upon every single night of our lives. Our dreams can become valuable messages from the One who knows us far better than we know ourselves and who loves us deeply. Should you wish to go exploring, a boat leaves every night. You just may discover the best encounter with the Divine that you have had in a long time.
Would you like to explore the meaning and significance of your dreams? Discover your spiritual gifts? Begin moving deeper in the realm of the Spirit? Maybe you'd like to schedule some training for your congregational elders or ministry team? Let me know! I’d love to spend some time talking with you! Click here to contact me.
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Steve Stutz, M.Div., is a former mainline denominational pastor and certified Transformational Life Coach. As a spiritual director and coach, he specializes in helping busy people find their way through the challenges and obstacles that keep them from fulfilling their potential–in business, in relationships, spiritually and temporally! He works with individuals and congregations ecumenically and around the world. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org