In his sermon at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter describes the coming of the Holy Spirit as ushering in a new age, one in which God will live with his people in a more intimate way and speak more directly to them. This was to fulfill the promise of God spoken through the prophet Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). This event brings to completion all that Christ accomplished, and from that point on the gospel begins to spread “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:18).
Texts like these are significant in my context of Northern Canada, where I have lived and worked for nearly a decade. Many of the Inuit and First Nations Christians I know are deeply spiritual people, aware of the hidden work of God in their lives in ways that often surprise me. From my perspective, one of the most intriguing features of their spirituality is the attention they give to dreams. In worship services, it is not uncommon for worshipers to share the details of a dream they had; sometimes they will ask others for an interpretation, and other times they will offer their own interpretation. Either way, the assumption is that God speaks in this way, and it is our responsibility as God’s people to discern what he intends to communicate to us.
The revelatory power of dreams is a fairly common theme in Scripture. The Book of Genesis records several memorable dreams; one thinks of Jacob’s ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending, or Joseph’s prophetic dreams and his remarkable gift of dream interpretation. Likewise, God invites Solomon in a dream to ask for whatever he wants (he famously chooses wisdom). In the New Testament, we read of God reassuring Joseph in a dream that Mary’s pregnancy is of divine origin and that he indeed should marry the so-to-be virgin mother. There are many other dreams in Scripture, and many more visions still. If we think of revelatory dreams and visions as similar experiences (both involving divine messages being seen and heard), then it would seem that God communicates often in this fashion. Not always, and not normatively, but often.
Of course, we can choose to dismiss all of this. We can say, as many Protestants do, that having a scriptural canon renders dreams and visions unnecessary today. And yet we have to reckon with the very words of Scripture, describing this age as a time when such visionary experiences will happen more often, not less. The writers of the New Testament seem to lack our modern anxieties about these things; they were no doubt more concerned that people heard the gospel rather than how they heard it.
And yet there are potential pitfalls here. By their very nature dreams are intensely private experiences; they happen at our most unguarded moments, they are perceived by us alone, and our recollection of them is often fleeting and fragmentary. Not only that, but the details are often jumbled and resistant to order. What revelatory status can such experiences have in the life of the Church? And how are we to know it is God’s voice we’re hearing?
The Bible shows an awareness of these pitfalls, and urges caution regarding dream interpretation. For instance, Jeremiah warns the people not to give heed to those who “prophesy lying dreams” (Jer. 23:32). In the Apocrypha, Ben Sirach sternly reminds his readers not to be led astray by following dreams uncritically, for “dreams give wings to fools” and “dreams have deceived many” (Sir. 34:1, 7). The polemical edge to these statements is meant to warn against any tendency to treat dreams as omens and to practice soothsaying and divination as legitimate means of discerning the divine will. They are also meant to instill discernment; not all who claim to speak for God are in fact doing so.
I want to suggest that a scriptural approach to revelatory dreams and dream interpretation must involve at least two postures: first, an openness to hearing from God, however he chooses to deliver his message; and second, a cautious and discerning mind to determine if indeed the message is from God. Human beings are capable of immense self-deception, and the sin of pride has a blinding effect on our spiritual vision. Thus we need the wisdom of the Church to sort truth from error.
This is equally true regarding private interpretation of Scripture. So long as we are submitting to the word of God in Scripture, following the way of Christ in love, and preserving the unity of the Spirit in the Church, I see no reason why these experiences should be dismissed out of hand. In all things we must heed the words of the apostle: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).