Dreams, Visions, Angelic Visitations, and Revelation2
Yes, I know the Christmas season is behind us now. It’s typical of most Christians, once December gives way to a new year, to turn their attention to other themes and the responsibilities of the new year. But permit me for a brief moment to linger with the Christmas story and the events surrounding the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As I was preparing to preach on Matthew 2 at Christmas, I couldn’t help but notice how often God employed angels and dreams and direct revelatory disclosures to accomplish his purposes. Let me give you a brief rundown, in chronological order.
First, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah with the news that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and give birth to a son who would proclaim the coming of the Messiah (Luke 1:8-23). Zechariah’s reaction is understandable: he was “troubled” and “fear fell upon him” (Luke 1:12). The angel communicated directly with him, providing details of how his wife would conceive in spite of her old age.
Zechariah does not respond in faith, but questions how this would come to pass. Consequently, the angel causes him to be mute. Thus we see that an angel can appear visibly to a human, can speak a message from God, and can be used as the one who inflicts discipline on anyone who might doubt the reality of what God has revealed.
The second appearance of an angel has Gabriel appearing yet again to Mary, telling her that she, a virgin, is going to conceive and give birth to the Messiah (Luke 1:26-38). Although Mary is initially “troubled” (Luke 1:29), like Zechariah, she eventually submits to God’s will: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Third, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph and tells him to proceed with his marriage to Mary, that she is not pregnant because of sexual immorality but because the Spirit has performed a miracle (Matt. 1:18-25). Unlike the instances in Luke 1, in this scenario the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, rather than face to face while he was conscious. All of us wonder whether dreams we have experienced are from God, but in this case the angelic presence was evidently so powerful and self-authenticating that Joseph never hesitated in believing what was said.
Fourth, the shepherds in the field are told by a single angel that the Messiah would be born. So, here we have one angel communicating simultaneously with several men. Had any of them questioned the reality of what they saw and heard, he could have sought verification from the others who were present. My guess is that this may well have happened. “Hey, did you see what I saw? Did you hear what I heard?” “Yeah, I did.” “OK, just checking.” Following this a multitude of angels appeared in praise of God for the birth of Christ (Luke 2:13-14).
Fifth, the Wise Men are informed in a dream not to go back and tell Herod about where Jesus could be found (Matt. 2:12). The text isn’t explicit, but evidently the angel appeared to each of them simultaneously in a dream and communicated the same message. My guess is that they would have consulted with each other upon waking up to confirm the truth of what each has experienced.
Sixth, an angel of the Lord appears yet again to Joseph and tells him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). In both cases, the angel comes to Joseph in a dream. There is no way to know why the angel communicates with Joseph via dreams while Gabriel appeared physically and visibly to Zechariah and Mary.
Seventh, yet again, an angel of the Lord appears once more in a dream to Joseph to tell him to return to Israel (Matt. 2:19-21).
The eighth and final revelation also occurs in a dream. We aren’t told whether or not an angel appeared to Joseph or if the Holy Spirit simply revealed this important warning to him while he was asleep. In any case, there is unmistakable information communicated via the dream as Joseph is warned about Archelaus, the son of Herod, and so returns to live in Nazareth where the family would be safe (Matt. 2:22-23).
Thus we see no fewer than eight instances of revelatory activity in conjunction with the birth of Jesus. There may well have been a ninth, if the Wise Men were somehow told by God or an angel that the “star” they saw was “his” star (Matt. 2:2). If not, how else could they have known that? Furthermore, we see from this that on occasion God also communicates directly with unbelievers, as the Wise Men were likely Persian astrologers and practitioners in the magical arts before their encounter with the Christ child.
Of course, we know that in recent years (and perhaps, as well, over the centuries) God has communicated to Muslims via their dream life. Thousands have provided credible testimony of the appearance of Jesus to them in their dreams, and on occasion by means of a vision, and his appeal that they believe him and follow him.
Many Christians read these stories and conclude that they were anomalies, out of the ordinary incidents that are not to be taken as indicative of the normal way God communicates with his people. In one sense, I agree. We are to make our decisions on a daily basis in the light of Scripture, making use of wisdom and common sense as well as the counsel of others.
But this does not mean we should be surprised when God chooses to communicate through dreams, visions, angelic visitations, or other revelatory media, aside from but never in conflict with Scripture. After all, in describing what is to be characteristic of the New Covenant age of the Spirit, Peter, citing Joel 2, makes clear what God’s people will experience:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).
We see this sort of scenario play itself out on several occasions in the book of Acts, and nothing in the biblical narrative suggests that this was restricted to the early church. Just to mention a couple of examples: Stephen has a vision of the risen Christ (Acts 7:54-56); an angel speaks to Philip and instructs him to “go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26) where the Holy Spirit then tells him to join the Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot (Acts 8:29); an angel of God appears to the Gentile Cornelius with instructions on how he should connect with Peter (Acts 10:3-8); an angel secures Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:1-11); an angel strikes down Herod (Acts 12:20-23); Paul has a vision in which “a man of Macedonia” (an angel?) entreats him to into Macedonia (Acts 16:9); Paul hears the Lord speak to him in a vision regarding ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:9-11). And this does not include the many instances in which the Holy Spirit speaks directly to his people on a variety of occasions.
God does not want us to respond to this with either naïve gullibility or cynicism. Not every dream is from God. But some are. Do not close off your heart to the revelatory work of the Spirit through these various media. If you are the recipient of what you believe is a dream or vision from the Holy Spirit, rest assured that it will be in perfect conformity to the infallible written Word of God. May God grant us all the humility and discernment to know when he has spoken and when he is silent.