What Is a Dream?

Today I’d like for us to think about dreams. A dream is defined as a succession of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur involuntarily in our minds as we sleep.

We all know what dreams are. We have them while we sleep. Some dreams are very vivid and seem real, and we wake up thinking how real it seemed. A dream can seem so real that it might take us a few moments to realize it was in fact a dream. Other dreams are fleeting impressions, and we wake up with a vague impression that we have dreamed about something.

Scientists tell us that all people dream, but some people remember their dreams more than others. Personally, I seldom remember my dreams unless they’re especially disturbing, but I know many people who remember their dreams often and very vividly.


Dreams as Messages from God

Although it’s something many Christians don’t talk about a lot, dreams play a very important role in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Bible, people receive messages from God, and especially messages about the future, in dreams. There’s a technical term for this. It’s called Onieromancy. That means using dreams to find something out about the future, receiving messages about the future through dreams. It’s predicting the future based on dreams, and instances of it are found throughout the Bible.


The Difference Between Dreams and Visions

The Bible talks a lot about dreams, and it also talks about something called visions. The difference between dreams and visions is that dreams happen while you are asleep, while visions happen while you are awake. Both dreams and visions play a big role in the Bible, but now we’re going to talk only about dreams. Looking at this in the Bible can be confusing, though, depending on which Bible translation you use, because in some translations, the word for “dream” is sometimes translated as “vision.”  If you use a translation that does that, you have to depend on the situation to tell you which is which. If the person is asleep, it should actually be “dream,” even though the translation might say “vision.” And, if it occurs at night, usually it’s actually a dream and not a vision.


Dreams in the New Testament

So let’s look at dreams in the Bible, starting with the New Testament. In the New Testament, dreams play an important role right at the beginning, in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. According to the account given in Matthew, Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married, and Mary turned up pregnant. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father, and he didn’t know what to do. Should he end the engagement, or what?

One night he was asleep, and he had a dream where an angel appeared to him and told him about Jesus and told him to go ahead and marry Mary.

And then later, Jesus was born. The wise men saw a star they interpreted as heralding the birth of a king, and they went looking for the baby. They went to Herod and asked Herod where the baby was. Herod consulted chief priests and scribes, who told him they should look in Bethlehem. Herod told the wise men that, and he also told them when they found this baby to let him know.

The wise men went to Bethlehem, found the baby Jesus, and presented Him their gifts. But they don’t go back and tell Herod where the baby was. Matthew says they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, and so they went home another way.

Of course, the reason Herod was looking for the baby was that he didn’t want any competition as king, and he intended to kill the baby. Joseph had another dream. This time the angel told him to take Mary and the baby and go to Egypt to get away from Herod. That’s what he did; he took Mary and the baby Jesus and went to Egypt. Then later, after Herod had died, Joseph had a dream where an angel told him it was OK to go back home.

On the way back, he found out that Herod’s son was now ruler of Judea, and he was afraid Herod’s son would try to kill Jesus, and so Joseph had yet another dream, where he was told to go to Galilee.

And so there are a number of dreams in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, and they played an important role.

Dreams also played a role in the events surrounding the death of Jesus.  Remember that Jesus was arrested by the Jews and brought before Pilate.  The Jews wanted Pilate to condemn Jesus to death, but Pilate could find nothing Jesus had done wrong. He wanted to release Jesus. Pilate’s wife sent word to him that he should release Jesus, because she had had a bad dream about it.

Moving on beyond the Gospels, in Acts chapter 16, Paul has a dream in which a man from Macedonia appears and requests him to come to Macedonia.


Dreams in the Old Testament

There are many dreams in the Old Testament. One of the best known is in Genesis, and it concerns Joseph. Remember Joseph was a son of Jacob, and he had 11 brothers. He was his father’s favorite, the one with the coat of many colors, the one his brothers were jealous of, so they sold him into slavery. Joseph had two dreams. He told them to his brothers, and the dreams really made them mad. In one dream, Joseph and his brothers were all out working wheat, and his sheaf stood straight up while their sheaves bowed down to his. In the other dream, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars all bowed down to him. The inference, of course, was that Joseph was dreaming his brothers would bow down to him. That made them mad, and it was the last straw. They decided to get rid of him. They sold him into slavery.

Joseph’s dreams did come true. Years later, Joseph had risen to be a high official in Egypt. His brothers went to Egypt to buy grain, and, not knowing it was Joseph, they bowed down to him.

In fact, Joseph’s skill in interpreting dreams was how he rose to be a high official in Egypt in the first place. Pharaoh had had a dream which no one could interpret. Joseph interpreted it for him, and because of that, Joseph gained favor with Pharaoh.

Another Old Testament figure associated with dreams is Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which no one could interpret, but Daniel interpreted it for him.

In the book of Judges, a dream figures prominently in the account of Gideon. Gideon was going to take an army out to try to defeat the Midianites. The Midianites had a vast army, and so at first, Gideon assembled 32,000 men to fight against them, but 22,000 of them got scared and went home. Then,  another 9700 men went home. Gideon had only 300 men left. What should he do? Surely he couldn’t defeat the huge Midianite army with only 300 men!

But then, he overheard two men talking. One was telling another about a dream he had. The interpretation of that dream was that Gideon’s army would defeat the Midianites. And so from this dream, Gideon was encouraged, took his army of 300 men to fight the Midianites, and they defeated the Midianites.

There are many other instances of dreams in the Old Testament. Jacob, Abimelech, Laban, Saul, Solomon–all those figures of the Old Testament had dreams in which they received messages or information about the future.

Dreams were seen to be so important by people back in Old Testament times that sometimes people did things they believed would encourage dreams from God. For example, in the book of First Samuel, it says that Samuel would sometimes lie down and sleep in front of the Ark of the Covenant, in order to hopefully receive a message from God in his dreams.

That’s a look at the importance of dreams in the Bible.


Dreams in Ancient Christianity

In the time period after the Bible, in early Christianity, people saw the importance of dreams in the Bible and took dreams seriously.

One of the earliest surviving writings from an average early Christian is from a woman named Perpetua. The things she wrote about happened in the early 200’s. Perpetua was in jail, condemned to be executed for being a Christian. She wrote about her experiences awaiting execution, and she described having a number of dreams which assured her she should go to her death with her head held high because she would be rewarded in the afterlife.

A man named Tertullian was an early Christian leader who lived about the same time as Perpetua. Some of his writings have survived. He believed that dreams are a major source of insight about the divine world.

Another early Christian, a man named Athanasius, lived in the 300’s. He believed that dreams show that the soul is immortal; that is, the soul is the connection to the spiritual world. He believed the soul is that part of the human that is spiritual, and he believed that dreams provide a connection–a bridge–between the physical world and the spiritual world.

Another early Christian leader, a man named Clement, lived in the late 100’s.  He spoke of dreams as a form of light.  He wrote this about dreams, “Let us not, then, who are sons of the true light, close the door against this light, but turning in on ourselves, illumining the eyes of the hidden man, and gazing on the truth itself, and receiving its streams, let us clearly and intelligibly reveal such dreams as are true. Thus also such dreams as are true, in the view of him who reflects rightly, are the thoughts of a sober soul, undistracted for the time by the affections of the body, and counseling with itself in the best manner. Wherefore always contemplating God, and by perpetual converse with Him inoculating the body with wakefulness, it raises man to equality with angelic grace, and from the practice of wakefulness it grasps the eternity of life.”

He is saying that dreams are a way God illumines our minds. To put it in simple terms, dreams are a way that God speaks to us. Dreams take us away from the confines of earthly existence and give us a glimpse of the eternal.

Another early Christian leader, a man named Origen, lived in the early 200’s.  He wrote this, “We shall support our position, maintaining that, as it is a matter of belief that in a dream impressions have been brought before the minds of many, some relating to divine things, and others to future events of this life.”

In other words, Origen believed that in dreams we receive messages from God and also messages about the future.

A Christian leader named Cyprian, who lived in the mid-200’s claimed that his conversion to Christianity had come about because of a dream. This was very common in early Christianity. Many people claimed to have converted to Christianity because of a dream they had.

Many early Christians believed that the correct interpretation of Scripture was revealed in dreams. This is how many of them interpreted a passage from Psalm 16, which says, “I will bless the Lord who has given me counsel, my heart also instructs me in the night seasons.” The phrase “my heart also instructs me in the night seasons” was interpreted to mean that God works in our heart through dreams, making things clear to us.

All these people we just talked about–Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Cyprian, Athanasius–were major figures in early Christianity, and so what we have seen illustrates that these major figures in early Christianity took dreams seriously, both as a way to receive messages from God and as a way to receive information about the future.

The bottom line is that dreams were important in early Christianity because the early Christians took seriously the importance of dreams in the Bible. And, just like happened in the Bible, they believed that in our dreams we receive communications from the spiritual world, and that dreams provide a window into the future.

It’s important to note, however, that neither the Bible nor these early Christians believed every dream is a communication from God. They didn’t believe every dream tells us something about the future. The belief was that sometimes they do.


Different Types of Dreams in the Bible

In connection with this, it’s interesting to note that there appear to be two kinds of dreams in the Bible. One kind is the straightforward dream where someone receives a straightforward message. This is like the dreams the New Testament Joseph had about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. He received a clear-cut message.

The other kind of dream is a dream in symbols that must be interpreted.  An example of this is the dream of the Old Testament Joseph, where the sheaves of wheat bowed down to his.

So, sometimes dreams are in symbols that must be interpreted, but sometimes the dreams are straight-forward and clear-cut messages.


The Importance of Dreams in Ancient Christianity

And so, from both the Bible and from early Christianity, we’ve seen that while not all dreams were seen as communications from God or revealing something about the future, some were. Sometimes these dreams were straightforward, but sometimes they needed interpreting. We’ve also seen how the major figures in early Christianity emphasized dreams for these purposes. Dreams were very important in early Christianity.


The Church Declares Dreams Come From the Devil

But by about 400 years after the time of Jesus, the official Christian attitude toward dreams began to change. By this time, the institutional church had developed and had consolidated its power. The church came up with the belief that it was the one and only vehicle through which messages from God were received. They had to come up with that belief to protect their authority. Remember how the early Christians believed that a person could receive messages from God through dreams. This was dangerous to the church, because the church had set itself up as the only vehicle through which messages from God were received. What if someone received a message from God in a dream that was contrary to what the church taught?

Well, many people claimed to have dreams just like that—messages from God that were contrary to what the church taught. This was a challenge to the authority and position of the church.

In response to that, the church began to teach that dreams come from the devil. Allowances were made for a few dreams to come from God, but only if they were dreams had by a church official and if they agreed with what the church said. These, as you can imagine, were few and far between. The position of the church was that dreams, in general, originate with the devil.  The church allowed for the possibility that a few dreams might come from God, but those dreams were only had by church officials, and they always reinforced what the church was saying. The dreams of people who were not church officials were from Satan.

Whether that is a biblical position or not is a matter of interpretation. There are places in the Old Testament where God says not to trust some people who say they have dreamed certain things. But what is not clear in those instances is if those people actually had dreams, or if they were just lying and said they had dreams. The text in those instances is not clear about that. If those people didn’t have dreams and were just lying and said they did, then you can’t use that to say dreams are of the devil. My opinion is that in those passages God was talking about people who lied about what they had dreamed, or twisted it around, or made the whole thing up. I don’t see that those passages provide a clear scriptural basis for saying that dreams originate with the devil.

But you can see how it would be to the church’s benefit to say dreams do come from the devil, because if someone had a dream contrary to what the church was saying, the church could dismiss it and blame it on the devil. The effect of this idea that dreams come from the devil was that people began to distrust their dreams, to see them as the devil trying to lead them astray. Gradually the importance of dreams declined in Christianity.


Dreams and Modern Christianity

Today the attitude of most Christians toward dreams has moved completely out of the religious realm and into the psychological realm. Most
Christians today don’t think dreams come from either God or the devil.  Most people today believe that dreams originate completely within our own minds. Today, most Christians see dreams as a psychological phenomenon totally unconnected with religion at all.

The reason for that is simple. Today, most people, even within Christianity, accept the scientific worldview. Science tells us there is no spiritual power, from either God or the devil, that influences anything in the physical world, and Christians, for the most part, have bought into that. And so dreams in Christianity today, instead of having spiritual significance, are seen as a purely psychological phenomenon.

Today, dreams are believed to reflect our past; dreams are the result of our minds processing things that happened to us in the past. Dreams are said to reflect our fears, pent-up emotions, unconscious needs, or whatever, and they are seen as figments of our imagination, totally contained in our own minds. They are just a product of our brains firing electrical impulses as we sleep. And so today, Christians look at the importance of dreams in the Bible as the wanderings of pre-scientific minds.

However, there are a few scattered Christians who believe God sends messages through dreams. There are a few scattered Christians who believe dreams can predict the future.  But these Christians are few and far between, and the ones who will admit their interest in dreams, even if they do privately believe it, are really few and far between. People who attach significance to dreams are generally seen as being “New Age”-type people rather than mainstream Christians.

What do I think? I don’t know. I remember so few of my dreams that I’m not really the one to give an opinion based on personal experience.

I will tell you, though, an experience I had recently. My wife and I had watched a show on TV about ancient mysteries before we went to bed. In the middle of the night, I got up to use the bathroom. When I do that, I normally don’t fully wake up, and that night, I guess I was still half asleep. My wife told me the next morning that when I got back in bed, half asleep, I said to her, “For the answer to the secret, look at the ancient civilization of (some word she couldn’t understand or didn’t recognize).” Where I came up with the name of that civilization, I don’t know, and she couldn’t remember what it was.

Psychologists would tell me that my imagination was activated by seeing that show on TV, and maybe that’s true. Nowhere in the Bible or in early Christianity is it said that all dreams are significant, and so for some of our dreams, maybe the psychological explanation is right. But if we take what the Bible says seriously, then we do have to consider the possibility that at least some of our dreams have significance.

I see the importance of dreams in the Bible. I see the importance of dreams in early Christianity. I definitely do not go along with the consensus of Christianity today and believe that what’s in the Bible is the ramblings of pre-scientific minds. I also do not believe that what’s in the Bible is fables and stories. I also keep in mind that dreams were taken out of Christianity for two reasons, neither of which were done with the of best intentions. Remember, the first reason dreams were taken out was to protect the authority and power of the institutional church. The other reason dreams were taken out was to conform Christianity to science.

I don’t think either one of those reasons is justification to throw dreams out. If you’re going to throw dreams out, you need more than either one of those.

Do we receive messages from God, and messages about the future, in our dreams? We need to seriously consider that possibility.