How should Christians in his dispensation treat unsettling dreams?
Only fifteen dreams are recorded as being received by eleven people during four thousand years of Old Testament history. Only two people received definite guidance for immediate matters that could not be easily determined otherwise: Abimelech, that Sarah was Abraham’s wife (Genesis 20:3); Pharaoh, that there would be years of plenty followed by famine (Genesis 41:29, 30).
Of the six dreams in the New Testament, Joseph received four dreams for immediate needs and the wise men received one. The dream of Pilate’s wife may have been a warning, but Pilate knew what he ought to do. In the Scriptures, therefore, only four people (or groups of people) received clear, personal guidance through dreams. These were very rare occurrences. Furthermore, there is no record of dreams after Pentecost, though there were still supernatural manifestations. It is significant that no gift of dreams or interpreters of dreams were given, although supernatural communication was needed at that time. We thus judge that God does not communicate through dreams at the present.
Troubling dreams may be generated by our own anxieties. But James indicates that the devil does trouble believers (James 4:7). The fiery darts of the wicked one (Ephesians 6:16) create distrust that only the shield of faith can quench. There is no reason to doubt that the devil would try to unsettle us whether we are awake or asleep. Thus a Christian should disregard dreams and be neither guided nor troubled by them.
Are there consistent principles for understanding our dreams?
Dreams are one of ways in which God speaks to His servants, through His servants, and also to the unconverted.
God speaks in dreams consistent with His purposes and plans. We have three principles: interpretation; confirmation; and prevention by warning.
We observe that in the Biblical revelation He spoke in dreams when the Word of God was incomplete.
God revealed His purposes through dreams to Joseph, Jacob, and Gideon.
God warns in dreams as He did with the Magi and Joseph in the New Testament.
God uses dreams to awaken realities in the unregenerate. The butler and the baker (Genesis 40), and Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2) are classic examples. Job 33:14, 15 confirms this. To the unregenerate, the principle of interpretation is needed.
It is interesting to note that Job, in his dilemma, speaks of being “scared” by dreams (Job 7:14) and the wise king in Ecclesiastes 5:7 contrasts the vanities of dreams with the fear of God.
In His sovereignty, God can still speak by dreams in order to reach sinners; however, wisdom is needed since we have the completed Word of God! A believer could get upset by dreams and have doubts. Let such rest assured that the Scriptures are our ONLY foundation for spiritual and eternal matters; put no confidence in dreams!
We can be sure that God does not save in dreams. It would be the exception when God uses dreams to awaken eternal realities in the subconscious mind. We must be absolutely clear that our faith rests in nothing outside the written Word of God.
Why has God communicated His message through dreams?
In general, God communicated truth through dreams when the Scriptures were not completed. In the future, He will also communicate through dreams to Israel, a nation which seeks signs (Matthew 12:39; 1 Corinthians 1:22) and whose language is like Thomas’, “Except I shall see…, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Perhaps all recorded dreams relate to God’s earthly purposes for Israel and unfold His immediate plans. This may suggest another reason for God’s instantaneous communication by dreams to a completely passive (sleeping) individual.
God links dreams with prophecy: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28). This will have its fulfillment during Daniel’s seventieth week (“the Tribulation”), when events in the prophetic Scriptures will unfold. No additional truth will be revealed, because the canon of Scripture is complete (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; Revelation 22:18); instead, with prophetic authority, these “dreamers” will use language similar to Peter’s in Acts 2:16, “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” These dreams will not reveal new truth, but the fulfillment of what was previously revealed.
Solomon explains the normal source of dreams, “A dream cometh through the multitude of business,” or, as a less literal translation (TCV) says, “Bad dreams come from too much worrying” (Ecclesiastes 5:3). Most dreams, then, are an expression of the individual’s thoughts, happy or sad, optimistic or pessimistic, worrisome or encouraging. Dreams tell us more about ourselves than about God. Even dreams in which God speaks to the unconverted (Job 33:15) may result from thoughts stirred by the Spirit during waking hours. Such dreams do not reveal truth, but impress it on the sinner.