Dreams are one of the many mediums of special revelation. God used dreams in the Old and New Testament eras in order to reveal his truth to his prophets and others.
In the ancient world dreams were frequently seen as being a medium by which the gods communicated with humans. They were also viewed as being predictive of the future. For example, both the Greeks of the Hellenistic period and the ancient Egyptians had elaborate literature expounding the divine meaning and predictive power of dreams. Although ancient Israel does not seem to have held that all dreams were necessarily revelatory in themselves, the Bible nevertheless teaches that dreams are a means that God might use to communicate special revelation.
This revelatory potential of dreams is evident in a number of passages throughout the early books of the Bible. In Genesis 20, Abimelech is informed by God in a dream that Sarah is Abraham’s wife and that he is in mortal danger because he has taken her into his household (Gen 20:3). Later, Joseph receives a dream in which his sheaf of wheat is bowed down to by sheaves of wheat held by his brothers; likewise, he has a dream that the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down before him (Gen 37:5–11). Later, it is revealed that these dreams are allegories of Joseph’s future dominion over his family in Egypt. There are similar events in the New Testament. For example, in the infancy narratives of Matthew, Joseph is warned by an angel in his dreams that he must not divorce Mary because she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matt 1:20–21). On another occasion he is told to flee Bethlehem to avoid Herod’s soldiers (Matt 2:13).
In the later books of the Old Testament, “dreams” frequently become synonymous with prophecy. Deuteronomy 13 speaks of those who “have dreams” as being potentially true or false prophets. Daniel 7 also speaks of the prophet of the same name having a dream of the coming of the kingdom of God (Dan 7:1). Joel 2 describes the end times, when God’s Spirit will be poured out on all flesh. The effect of this outpouring will be that Israel’s young people will prophesy and their old men will dream dreams (Joel 2:28). In Acts 2 this same prophecy is explicated by Peter in his sermon on the first Pentecost and applied to the apostolic assembly’s public reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:17).
Ge 20:3; Ge 37:5–11; Dt 13:1; Joe 2:28; Da 7:1; Mt 1:20–21; Ac 2:17
Nu 12:6; Mt 2:12–13
Kilcrease, J. (2018). Special Revelation through Dreams. In M. Ward, J. Parks, B. Ellis, & T. Hains (Eds.), Lexham Survey of Theology. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.