A biblical paradigm
Years ago, a friend who lived in Turkey with his family said something that sent me spinning and propelled me on a 15-year quest. “Rick,” he told me with enthusiasm, “every one of the believers my parents know came to faith in Christ because of a dream or vision. Every one.”
In the days and weeks that followed, I considered whether this might not be a primary way that God intends to reach the more than 1 billion Muslims in the world. Yet I also wondered: Is it valid to suggest that God still utilizes dreams and visions to communicate with mankind, considering the close of the canon of Scripture?1
A brief survey of the Bible reveals that dreams and visions occurred throughout biblical history. Starting with Genesis and the life of Abraham, we find numerous incidents2 in which God gives instruction and warning—sometimes in a dream, other times by means of an audible voice that is heard even though nothing and no one is seen.3
Following Abraham, dreams and visions continue to play significant roles in the lives of his descendants, Jacob and Joseph4 as well as the lives of others in authority over the Jewish nation.5
Yet it is in the writings of the prophets6, and especially those of Daniel, that dreams and visions become a dominant vehicle of divine communication.
But what about today?
Hebrews 1:1-2 sheds some light on the question:
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
Here we see that with the arrival of Jesus, something new and vastly superior in divine communication takes place.
True, God continues communicating through dreams and visions across the pages of the Gospels. Each of the synoptic writers records these types of incidents accompanying the birth and, later, ministry of Jesus.7 In the Book of Acts, dreams and visions also recur in the lives of the apostles—not only Peter but also Paul, who never physically encountered Jesus.8 And the New Testament closes with the Revelation of John, a glorious and complex portrayal of a divine vision.
So is it accurate to say that God’s revelation of Himself in and through Jesus Christ—now through the written Word, since we can no longer directly encounter Him—replaces and therefore invalidates all other forms of divine communication?
Some have indeed argued that with the coming of His Son, God is replacing supernatural psychical experience as a means of knowing divine truth. In other words, all that man needs of divine knowledge can be perceived directly in/through Christ.
The larger context of Hebrews, however, does not rule out the possibility of a supernatural experience (nor, of course, do the experiences of Paul and John). Following the remaining introduction in Hebrews 1:3, the author begins to establish the greatness of Jesus Christ by demonstrating His superiority over other highly regarded religious entities. First, Christ is shown to be superior to angels (Hebrews 1:4), then superior to Moses (Hebrews 3:3-6) and then superior to the high priest (Hebrews 7:23-27). And so it continues through much of the book.
Clearly the emphasis is on Christ’s superiority. Yet this superiority doesn’t imply that He has abolished that to which He has been compared. If that were the case, Christ would have done away with the ministry of angels; He would have destroyed the role of Moses (and the Law); and He would have eliminated the office and service of the high priest—which He clearly did not do.
Instead, Christ’s life was marked by the ministry of angels from before His birth to the resurrection.9 Rather than eliminating the role of the high priest, Jesus assumed the role Himself, that He might fulfill it perpetually (Hebrews 7:24-28). Finally, Jesus plainly states with regard to His life and ministry, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
Therefore, on the basis of Hebrews 1:1-2, we can conclude that far from destroying the means of God’s previous communication, Jesus—being far superior—fulfills those means. He does so by giving us a first-hand view of the subject matter of which, and on whose behalf, the Old Testament prophets spoke. That subject matter was and is Himself. Dreams and visions therefore retain their role as vehicles of divine personal revelation, but now the object of their revelatory content, Jesus, is clearly seen.
Yet one final issue remains. Revelation 22:18,19 says:
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in the book.
Is divine supernatural revelation via dreams and visions, then, to be understood as standing above and apart from the parameters of biblical truth? In other words, do dreams and visions provide a validation for new revelation—revelation received after the Scriptural canon was complete? To say “yes” would, of course, challenge the evangelical conviction that new, divine revelation is no longer granted by God (cf Revelation 22). To say “no” requires that spiritual messages conveyed by dreams and visions not be considered “new revelation” but rather affirmation of previously revealed biblical truth.
So, if we are to consider the messages found in dreams and visions as a “word from the Lord,” consistent with evangelical doctrine, then the content of these experiences must be judged by Scripture. In order for the dream/vision to “pass the test” of trustworthiness, it must be in agreement with the contents of the Bible.
With the coming of Jesus, the use of dreams and visions as a vehicle of divine revelation does not get discarded; rather the object of God’s revelation—Jesus—becomes clear. At issue today is not can God speak to us in dreams and visions, but rather, is what we are “hearing” and “seeing” in conformity to what He has already revealed in His Word?