In the days before Christ’s death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell His followers (Acts 2:1-4), one of God’s primary ways of speaking to people was through dreams. This was especially true concerning His prophets. In Numbers 12:6, God even says, “Hear now My words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak to him in a dream.” Moses was the only prophet to whom God spoke “face to face.”
It wasn’t just prophets, though, that received messages from God via dreams. The fact is, the Bible provides us with numerous stories in which God speaks to individuals through dreams. Here are 10 examples:
- Abimelech (Genesis 20:3)
- Jacob (Genesis 28:12, 31:10)
- Laban (Genesis 31:24)
- Joseph (Genesis 37:5,9)
- Pharaoh (Genesis 41:1,5)
- Solomon (1 Kings 3:5)
- Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2:1)
- Daniel (Daniel 7:1)
- Joseph (Matthew 1:20, 2:12,19)
- Pontius Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19)
There are a couple of things to note about this list. First, God used dreams to speak to not only saved believers (Jacob, Joseph, Solomon, Daniel, and Joseph) but also lost unbelievers (Abimelech, Laban, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and Pilate’s wife). Second, every story on my list takes place before Christ’s death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
So, the question is not, “Can God speak to someone through a dream?” Obviously, His track record in history proves that He can. The more relevant question is, “Does God speak through dreams today?” Ah, now you’re on a subject.
In the New Testament’s record of the post-Pentecost years, there isn’t one example of God speaking to someone through a dream. In that record, God-sent dreams are replaced by God-sent visions. Ananias had such a vision (Acts 9:10-16), as did Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8) and Peter (Acts 10:9-23). Paul had at least two (Acts 16:9-10, 18:9-10). He had three if his account of visiting heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-6) describes a vision rather than a literal out-of-body experience. The same thing is true of John and how he experienced The Revelation while he was on the island of Patmos. He does specifically use the word “vision” in Revelation 9:17, but in other passages — such as Revelation 4:1-2 — he speaks as if he is experiencing something much more than a vision.
As for dreams, there is only one post-Pentecost passage that mentions them. That passage is Acts 2:16-17, and it’s actually an Old Testament reference from Joel 2:28 that Peter incorporates into the sermon he preaches to explain what has just happened at Pentecost. As the whole city of Jerusalem is in a stir because of the effects of Christ’s followers becoming indwelt with the Holy Spirit, Peter begins his sermon by saying:
“But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams….'”
The term “the last days” is a sweeping term that encapsulates the period of history that began with Christ’s birth and ends with His second coming. Basically, it covers everything from the time Jesus first walked this earth until the time when He walks it again (Hebrews 1:1-3; James 5:3; 1 Peter 1:20, 1 John 2:18). Therefore, Peter’s point is that what occurred on that famous day of Pentecost was the beginning of the portion of “the last days” in which the followers of Christ would be indwelt with the Holy Spirit, and that indwelling would produce certain tell-tale signs in those people.
It must be understood, though, that the events of Pentecost were not a complete fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy concerning the Jewish people (read all of Joel 2:28-32 and Acts 2:17-21). Those events were merely a foretaste of it. The complete fulfillment won’t occur until a remnant (one-third) of the Jewish people believe in Jesus as their Messiah/Savior at the close of the tribulation period (Zechariah 12:10-14, 13:7-9), are welcomed into Christ’s 1,000 year reign upon this earth at His second coming (Matthew 25:1-30), and have the Holy Spirit poured out upon them in that kingdom age (Zechariah 12:10).
Think of it this way: What God began doing with the Jewish people on the day of Pentecost, He won’t completely finish until the days of Christ’s 1000 year reign upon this earth. Evidently, then, it will be during those days of Christ’s millennial reign that the Jewish sons and daughters will prophesy, the Jewish young men will see visions, and the elderly Jewish men will dream dreams. This seems to be an accurate interpretation of Peter’s words.
To be clear, I’m not completely ruling out the possibility that a dream can be from God. I would never take the question to such an extreme answer. I’m simply saying that if someone tries to use Acts 2:17 as a proof text to say that God spoke to them through a dream, he or she is on dicey ground interpretation wise. We just can’t go around yanking passages out of context to make them back up what we want to believe.
I myself dream pretty much every night, sometimes two or even three per night depending upon how much I wake up during the night. My dreams are always in color and they are oftentimes quite vivid. I am 50 years old, which means that I have spent over 18,000 nights on this earth. That adds up to a whole lot of dreams. But have I ever had a dream in which I honestly felt that God had spoken to me? I can think of two such dreams. I had one in the days following the death of my grandmother Mildred, and I had the other one in the days leading up to the first time I ever stood in a pulpit and spoke. I’ve had some other dreams that remain fresh in my mind because they were so “real,” but these are the two of which I would most entertain the idea that God had actually spoken to me through them.
In the light of all this, I guess my standing word on this whole subject would be a word of warning. In the Old Testament, God warned the Jews about giving heed to the dreams of false prophets (Jeremiah 23:25-40, 27:9-10). Furthermore, under the Mosaic law, if a supposed prophet used a dream to convince people to worship a false god, that man was to be put to death (Deuteronomy 13:1-5). Even in the New Testament, in Jude verse 8, Jude gives the apostate teachers who were defiling the flesh, rejecting authority, and speaking evil of dignitaries (literally, “glorious ones”) the uncomplimentary title “dreamers.”
Needless to say, the last thing that God ever wanted anyone to do was get all worked up over some dream and run off to make a half-baked decision based upon some highly questionable interpretation of that dream. This held true for the people of the pre-Pentecost period, and it holds even more true for us today. You and I live in an era in which we have so many reliable sources by which we can glean guidance and direction for our lives. We have the completed Bible. We have excellent books and commentaries written by God-gifted teachers to help us understand the Bible. We have churches around the world. We have Christian television and radio ministries. We even have websites and blogs (shameless plug there).
Most importantly, at least for those of us who are authentic Christians, we have God the Holy Spirit dwelling inside each of us and offering us His wisdom, discernment, and help. Why then would we ever base our decisions upon dreams that are most likely more indigestion than inspiration? That makes no sense.
So, when it comes to your dreams, always approach each one like you would approach a roaring fire. Certainly that fire, if used properly, can be a good and helpful thing. But, if used improperly, that same fire can burn you badly and burn down your house. You see, it’s not that God can’t speak through a dream; it’s just that nowadays it is surely an exceedingly rare thing when He does. That is assuming, of course, that He ever does it at all.