DREAMS AND VISIONS
Christmas brings many things to mind: Presents, family, parties, travelling, and many, many more things that we associate with Christmas that centers around the birth of Jesus. A story most of us probably know very well. What is truly remarkable about the incarnation, is the huge role that dreams and visions played before, during, and after the birth of Jesus himself. Indeed, that is actually true about the whole of God’s history with his people, as he very often used visions and dreams to make himself and his purposes known.
When I speak here and now about visions and dreams, I am always speaking about visions and dreams that are from God, and not from any other source. A dream is a vision of the night – a vision during sleep. Other than that, there is no difference between a vision and a dream. A dream seems real while we are dreaming, but waking up makes us realise that the dream was a vision of the night. Do we expect to see visions when we are awake?
Visions and dreams that are from God will most certainly involve our imaginations, but our imaginations cannot help us very much in this regard unless they are free to roam and explore under God’s direction. Why, then, have Christians in the West historically been suspicious of visions and dreams? Where would we be without visions and dreams?
Visions and dreams from God are rarely “stand-alone.” They are usually connected with other things and so are part of a longer-term process of events in history. The number of visions and dreams experienced by God’s people is directly related to the significance of the event(s) those visions and dreams are about. The more significant the event, the more visions and dreams about it. The most significant event in history, the incarnation, has the most visions and dreams recorded about it.
Visions and dreams from God are spiritual realities that are manifested through the workings of human imagination. For people like us who live in a sophisticated and intelligent, Greek-inspired society, visions ¾ and especially dreams ¾ easily fall under suspicion. But God has historically used dreams to guide people ¾ and not just his own people. Let’s have a look at Scripture, and we begin by looking at a vision of Isaiah:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6,7)
These are famous words, but Isaiah was not given words. Isaiah was given a vision, which were only described in words when he wrote it down. It is very hard to reduce to mere words something you have experienced that has had a great impact on you. For example: Parents, describe in words the birth of your first baby.
How Isaiah must have struggled to put the revelation he received into words. God is seen in a vision and speaks to his servant. That servant sees and hears things that actually will not find their ultimate fulfilment for hundreds of years. That servant must have looked for the fulfilment of the vision and the prophecies that he had received over the years of his own life, but he never found them.
Did that servant wonder if God had slipped up? Or, far more likely, did that servant come to doubt that he had really heard from God? If he did doubt, I am sure he wasn’t the only one. You hear words if a letter is read aloud to you, but this faithful one saw a vision in which God spoke. We now know that Isaiah’s vision was ultimately to find its fulfilment in Jesus, and we celebrate that at Christmas time. And of course we know about the birth of Jesus himself:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
A dream turned Joseph around and saved Mary from shame and disgrace. A dream! Critical events in history rested on one dream! A future marriage depended upon one dream. Jesus’ name depended upon one dream. God’s plan of salvation plan apparently depended upon one dream.
Let me ask you: Would you let the course of the rest of your life be directed by one dream? Yet the incarnation itself was realized through, and surrounded by, visions and dreams. Consider the astrologers who knew something was going on:
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the astrologers] left for their own country by another road. (Matthew 2:12)
God even gave visions and dreams surrounding the incarnation to people who did not even know him nor follow him. Consider the events immediately after the birth of Jesus.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him’… When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly 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 seeking the child’s life are dead’ … And after being warned in a dream, [Joseph] went away to the district of Galilee. (Matthew 2:13,19,20,22)
How can it be that so many critical events in history rested on visions and dreams? Would you trust your entire future to a dream? Let me ask a different question.
How can it be that so much of the Christian church has written off visions and dreams as being the sole purview of drug addicts and occultists? The incarnation is surrounded by visions and dreams. Three more examples:
- An angel appeared to Zechariah the priest (Luke 1:5–20)
- An angel appeared to Jesus’ mother, Mary (Luke 1:26–38)
- An angel appeared to shepherds (Luke 2:8–14)
All of this clearly tells us something today:
- God takes visions and dreams far more seriously that we do.
- Would you change the whole direction of your life because of one dream?
- So, would you trust your entire future to a dream?
It tells us that God is much more active through our human imagination than he is through merely speaking words to us. God wants to communicate with the whole of our being, not just one part of us. We normally use our imaginations in almost anything that takes our fancy, except in receiving from God. But God does communicate in dreams and visions today, because God hasn’t changed.
Visions and dreams that we experience mean that God is on the move in a specific way. If we want to see what God is doing so that we can join with him in doing it, then we need to take visions and dreams seriously. We need to share our visions and dreams together in order to build up a bigger picture of what God is doing and is going to do in our midst. So don’t keep visions and dreams to yourself. Share them carefully and with wisdom.
Visions and dreams experienced mean that we are involved in what God is doing. If we are receiving visions and dreams, we should expect more! But we should not expect instant results. Expect to be history-makers! We sing about that often enough. Believe it! But we should not expect instant results. Visions and dreams will help you to deepen your relationship with God and so lead you into a more mature and deeper prayer experience.
20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:20,21)