“Listen to my words: ‘When there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions, I speak to them in dreams’” (Numbers 12:6). God says He will speak in dreams, yet Christians sometimes wonder why God used dreams more during biblical times than today. Is this true, and if so, why is it true?
What Are Dreams?
“A dream is something you are aware of at some level. It may be fragmentary, disconnected, and illogical, but if you aren’t aware of it during sleep then it isn’t a dream.” The scientific world has not yet come up with an answer to why we dream, “there’s no universally accepted definition of dreaming. One fairly safe catch-all is ‘all perceptions, thoughts, or emotions experienced during sleep.’”
Another aspect of a dream is physical: “Neural activity in the primary sensory areas of the neocortex produces the impression of sensory perception.” The resulting “random imagery and sensations” are “woven together to create a complex, multisensory hallucination.”
The spiritual point of view differs from the secular one. “The Scripture declares that the influence of the Spirit of God upon the soul extends to its sleeping as well as its waking thoughts,” which is a spiritual definition of dreaming, although one might argue that “waking thoughts” which come from God are visions, not dreams.
Purpose of Dreams
Many (though not all) scientists and psychologists believe there is a purpose to dreaming, but “there are lots of different ideas about what this function could be.” One is a “threat simulation hypothesis” in which the subject unconsciously prepares in case of disaster.
Studies also suggest that “dreams influence the way you feel the next day” both emotionally and physically and dreams can be influenced by the introduction of pleasant smells and sounds as one falls asleep. In other words, we can manipulate dreams to promote happy thoughts.
From the biblical perspective, dreams might stimulate good or bad feelings, but that is never the ultimate purpose. And they have certainly acted as warnings or prepared individuals for conflict and suffering. “Dreaming and the prophetic function seem to have been closely associated.”
Types of Dreams
The Lord appears to have used dreams as a way of conveying warning, direction, prophecy, or a combination:
1. Warning Dreams
Old Testament: God gave His people dreams or the ability to interpret dreams in order to protect them from danger and fulfill His purposes. In the Old Testament, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream to mean that there would be seven years of plenty and seven years of famine (Genesis 41). Joseph’s gift put him in a powerful position to implement a plan to protect Egypt from famine and rescue his family from potential starvation.
New Testament: The Magi were directed not to return to Herod with news of Jesus for, “having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:12). Consequently, Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt to protect Jesus.
2. Direction Dreams
Old Testament: Certain dreams were simple commands. After years of submitting to Laban’s duplicity, an angel told Jacob to “leave this land at once and go back to your native land” (Genesis 31:11-13).
New Testament: When the danger had passed for Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, “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’” (Matthew 2:19-20).
3. Prophetic Dreams
Old Testament: The dreams Joseph interpreted for Pharaoh were both directional and prophetic. They showed the future and gave instructions. Other dreams foretell of inescapable events such as the baker’s dream in Genesis 40 which prophesied the man’s own death.
New Testament: Joseph received heavenly instruction not to divorce Mary. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (Matthew 1:20). This was a prophetic dream and also one in which Joseph received direction.
Revelation and Dream
Daniel, like Joseph, interpreted dreams for a ruler. Daniel served at the court of the king of Babylon. When Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a statue constructed from various materials, Daniel explained how the “God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44).
Daniel was also given dreams of his own. Chapter 7 recounts Daniel’s dreams of horrific beasts whose descriptions are echoed in Revelation. “Daniel had a dream, and visions passed through his mind as he was lying in bed” (Daniel 7:1).
This dream was so frightening that he “was troubled in spirit” (Daniel 7:15). His dream depicted a number of beasts, the fourth of which was “terrifying and frightening and very powerful” with “iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left” (Daniel 7:7).
In Revelation 13, John saw “a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads.” This beast “was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (Revelation 13:1-2).
Bridging the Gap
“Understanding Daniel helps us understand Revelation” where the Apostle John “often uses the Old Testament language to describe what he’s seen and heard” in the vision God gave him of end times.
Revelation is confusing, so we need “both the historical context and the Old Testament” in order to understand its central meaning. Jesus bridges the gap between Old and New Testaments, and parallels between the Books of Daniel and Revelation reinforce the fact that all of Scripture is the story of Jesus.
When the Lord used dreams in the Old Testament examples above, the context was a foreshadowing of the coming Messiah. Jacob, enslaved to Laban, was freed at God’s appointed time according to a dream. By equipping Joseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, He enabled Joseph to rescue Jacob, his brothers, and his extended family from starvation after enduring years of suffering.
God used the brothers’ evil for good (Genesis 50:20). Christ would come according to the Lord’s perfect timing. He would be a better Jacob, a better Joseph, to release all believers from slavery to sin and use the ultimate evil — His crucifixion — for the ultimate good: victory over sin and death.
Do We Need Dreams Now?
The Lord speaks to people in dreams today; there are many accounts of individuals receiving a warning or direction in their sleep. Those are personal revelations (small “r”). If an individual tests the dream against Scripture and in prayer, and it seems to come from God, it sheds light on the individual’s life in some way.
Dreams recorded in Scripture, however, serve a wider purpose established by God. They were given by the Father and recorded by His children for the sake of the church body throughout time. Every prophecy, direction, or warning is relevant to Christians today.
The Bible is a finished work. Everything we need to know about God’s story, His character, eternal salvation through Christ, Christian mission, and end times has been recorded in Scripture already. Whatever He left unsaid is supposed to be a mystery. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets [...], but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
We must handle dreams and prophecies carefully. Examine the nature of dreams and consider what motivates a person to share them. “While no Christian today seeks to add to the Canon, there are those within the visible church who claim to have new, direct, binding words from God.” We must “beware of this dangerous heresy in the modern church.” Christ gave this warning about such people: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
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