by Randal Scott
A biblical understanding of dreams can facilitate a contextual approach to reaching Muslims (and those of other faiths) with the gospel.
When I first moved to the Middle East I found it fascinating how neighbors, merchants and friends would readily tell me their dreams, especially their dreams of Jesus. I would listen intently but was a bit lost as to how to proceed. Unfortunately, I had no training in this area and didn’t know anyone who did. And to be honest, I wasn’t alert enough to see the relationship between extraordinary dreams and evangelism. I was content to leave the practice of interpreting dreams to fortune tellers, New Agers and psychologists…and keep to more familiar and conventional opportunities to share the gospel with Muslims. I was unaware how a biblical understanding of dreams could facilitate a contextual approach to reaching Muslims (and those of other faiths) with the gospel.
In the years that followed I met more and more Muslim-background followers of Jesus. In hearing their testimonies, I noticed that at least fifty percent of them had an extraordinary dream as part of their pilgrimage of faith. By this time, I was also studying the dreams of the Bible and was beginning to see the connection between God-given1 dreams and evangelism. In response to what I sensed God was already doing, I tried to equip myself to help my Muslim friends respond to the God-given dreams they were receiving. Now, after living in the Middle East for twenty years, it seems to me that the prophetic words of Joel continue to be fulfilled in our day: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams” (Joel 2:28; see also Acts 2:17).
Today, we have more empirical data about dreaming than at any time in human history. We know, for example, that everyone dreams — even those who think they don’t. In fact, around ten percent of our lives are spent dreaming. By the time we are thirty, we will have spent three solid years dreaming. This article, however, is not about the clinical research done on dreaming; it is on how dream interpretation can facilitate evangelism.
CREDENTIALS AS AN INTERPRETER
Although dreams have a mysterious nature, those who believe in the inspiration, authority and sufficiency of the Bible can approach the subject of dream interpretation with presuppositions that others cannot. I make two presuppositions here.
1. The interpretation of God-given dreams (and visions2) is a ministry for followers of Jesus. I would argue that no one has the credentials to interpret God-given dreams to non-believers3 except followers of Jesus. Followers of Jesus have been appointed ambassadors of God and made members of his royal priesthood (2 Cor. 5:19-20, 1 Pet. 2:9). If the ambassadors and priests of God are not qualified to help people respond to their God-given dreams, then who is? As ambassadors of Christ, we can embrace this ministry with humble confidence. Indeed, a major reason God gives dreams to the unreached is to help facilitate the spread of the gospel. It is one of his many signs of love and mercy. God is in the business of revealing mysteries (Dan. 2:28) and it remains a mystery to the unreached that God is passionately in love with them.
2. God-given dreams are vehicles by which he communicates his personal love and mercy to the unreached. Fatma told me how she had seen Jesus in a dream. Before the dream, she was not particularly religious or interested in the things of God. The dream changed her life. Fatma’s dream took place at a time when her youngest daughter had an undiagnosed illness and was close to death. In Fatma’s dream, a figure dressed in white appeared to her and told her not to worry and that her daughter would be healed. She intuitively understood that the figure in her dream was Jesus. That week, her daughter mysteriously recovered from her illness and Fatma began to search for someone who could tell her more about Jesus. This dream required no interpretation, but it did require a believer to explain the gospel to Fatma. She asked my wife and me to tell her more about Jesus. A few months later Fatma and most of her family were baptized. Through the dream, Fatma began to realize God loved and cared for her. This theme is present in almost every God-given dream I have encountered. It is the key characteristic I look for when listening to an extraordinary dream.
Sometimes, the love-message of a God-given dream can be unclear to an unbeliever. It is true today and was true in biblical times. Meanings of dreams were often revealed to non-believers in two or three distinct phases.
A God-given dream is frequently a very personalized form of revelation. The dream is the deliver-vehicle for a message from God to the dreamer. There are often three phases to the revelation if the message of the dream is not immediately understandable: the mystery phase, the meaning phase and the response phase. If the meaning of the dream is understandable from the beginning, then only the second and third phases are part of the process.
Phase 1: The mystery phase. In this phase, the message of the dream remains a mystery until the meaning of the dream is revealed. If the dream remains a mystery to the dreamer, it is like receiving a letter but not opening the envelope or like hearing a parable without knowing the meaning. In most cases, the dreamer will stay in phase 1 unless he or she proactively seeks the meaning of the dream. Interpretation can bring a dream from the mystery phase to the meaning phase. Interpretation answers the question “What does this dream mean?”
Phase 2: The meaning phase. In this phase, there is a good or complete understanding of what the dream means. In some way, the message “God cares for me” is being revealed. In Fatma’s dream, the meaning was not veiled in symbolic language or metaphor—and required no interpretation. It launched Fatma on a search to learn more about Jesus. But the dream was personal. It touched her personal situation. In the meaning phase, we see God tangibly revealing his love in a way the dreamer can receive it. The personalized nature of the dream makes it a powerful communicator of God’s love.
Phase 3: The response phase. In this phase, the dreamer is called to take action. This phase answers the question of how to respond to God’s love revealed in phase 2. It typically requires a conscious act of the will or an observable proactive step of faith. In my experience, more often than not, the response asked of the dreamer has something to do with following Jesus. In other words, the dreamer is invited through his or her dream to take a step of faith toward Jesus. This might be to believe something else about themselves, others or God. It might be to forgive, reconcile or help someone. It might be to change the person’s mind or overcome a prejudice that is keeping him or her from obeying God. Sadly, it is not uncommon for the non-believer to ignore or disobey the dream even though he or she understands the meaning.
BIBLICAL PRECEDENCE OF THE THREE-PHASE PROCESS
We know from scripture and other ancient literature that dream interpretation was commonly practiced in many cultures throughout history. Each society seemed to have had its own dream lore and interpretation specialists. In ancient Egypt and Babylon, for example, magicians, diviners, astrologers and wise men practiced the art. In the biblical record, the interpretation of God-given dreams seems to have been the domain of God’s people. This is most clearly seen in the account of Pharaoh’s dream in Genesis 41 and in Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams in Daniel 2 and 4. Neither the magicians of Pharaoh’s court nor the diviners of Nebuchadnezzar’s court were able to interpret their masters’ dreams. Certainly these astrologers and diviners of the royal courts were the most gifted and highly esteemed dream interpreters of their day. They knew the symbolic language of dreams and were masters of their craft. Yet for these mysterious God-given dreams, their interpretation skills were ineffective. Why?
In each of these scenes God orchestrated events in such a way so as to introduce followers of Yahweh onto the stage. These believers were brought in to interpret the God-given dreams and/or tell how to respond to them. This happened no less than four times in the Old Testament (see chart in pdf format). The same pattern was also found in the New Testament where Ananias was sent to Saul in Damascus and Peter was sent to Cornelius in Caesarea. In both cases, God sent visions to people and then orchestrated events to allow followers of Jesus to explain the gospel. Notice that in the NT examples, the believers were not needed to interpret the God-given visions but rather to explain how to respond to them.
APPLYING THE THREE-PHASE PROCESS IN MINISTRY
This process has also been present in most of the God-given dreams I have encountered or heard about over the years. By understanding that God-given dreams often have three phases, we can be better prepared to know our role in helping the dreamer respond correctly. Being equipped to help people correctly respond to their God-given dreams is a function of at least three factors:
1. Our foreknowledge of God’s predisposition toward people (particularly the unreached).
2. Our ability to discern how the Kingdom of God is being revealed to the dreamer.
3. Our ability to discern an appropriate response (through a working understanding of the Bible).
Let’s start with the first factor, our foreknowledge of God’s predisposition toward people (particularly the unreached). We know God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9b). The Bible has given us the foreknowledge of God’s loving and compassionate heart for the unbeliever. We know God is eager to reveal his love for the dreamer in a way the dreamer will receive. Correctly understanding God’s predisposition toward unbelievers is foundational in being able to correctly help them understand and respond to their God-given dreams. Knowing that God is lovingly predisposed to the unreached is always a fundamental presupposition when helping non-believers understand and respond to their dreams. We are not starting with a blank slate but with definite presuppositions that point us to possible meanings and responses.
The other two factors are forms of discernment. Discernment is informed and developed by a working understanding of scripture. While God’s love for the non-believer is perfectly clear, the manner (or technique) in which God communicates or personalizes his love may not be. Somehow in the mystery of the dream, God is personalizing a message to the dreamer that will speak to his or her soul, catch his or her attention, warn the person of danger, turn the individual from sin, etc. As ambassadors and priests, we should have a humble confidence that we can discern God’s voice in the dream on behalf of the non-believer. In this way, the follower of Jesus is validated as God’s spokesperson in the eyes of the dreamer. But how God is personalizing his love through the dream can often only be known if God reveals it. In my experience, sometimes God reveals it through intuition (or by a thought coming to mind). Frequently, it is a cognitive (non-mystical) process of connecting aspects of the dream with my knowledge of scripture. And sometimes I draw a blank… as if God isn’t revealing anything.
If no interpretation is readily apparent to me, I might find myself prayerfully in a “reverse engineering” mode—starting from my presuppositions and working backward to bring greater clarity to the dream. I ask myself, “How is God revealing his love for this person through this dream?” I may also ask myself, “How is God inviting this person to follow Jesus?” There are many possibilities to both these questions and therefore we must have discernment and God’s grace. I am NOT asking myself, “How can I get this person to pray and ask Jesus into his or her life?” Rather, I am trying to interpret (discern) how the Kingdom of God is being revealed to the dreamer. It typically requires me to ask many questions of the dreamer, listen carefully, and pray. All the while, I am looking to partner with God in facilitating the proper response.4 If, after following this process, I still have no clarity, I have several options: (1) assume that I am not the right person to help the dreamer respond to the dream and recommend/introduce someone else I know, (2) assume the dream was not God-given or (3) be discouraged and/or ashamed that God did not use me.5 Even if I cannot offer the dreamer an interpretation of the dream, I will ask to pray for the dreamer. I have never been refused. Among other things, I will pray for the blessings of Jesus upon the dreamer and his or her family. I will also ask the dreamer if he or she wants to hear more about the person and teachings of Jesus.
The process I use for interpreting God-given dreams has little to do with understanding the symbols and imagery of dreams and more to do with discerning how the Kingdom of God is being revealed to the dreamer (and what he or she should do about it). I am not an advocate of the practice of interpreting dreams through a “knowledge” of symbols and metaphors. This goes beyond my comfort zone. I do not see that the Bible commands or encourages that practice. Interpretations come from God—not by studying dream interpretation dictionaries. In scripture, it appears that the meanings of dreams were “revealed” and not translated or decoded.
Therefore, I see no biblical precedence for trying to decode or interpret symbolic images in dreams. In my experience, mature followers of Jesus who know their Bible (it also doesn’t hurt to have a spiritual gift of discernment, wisdom or evangelism6) have the God-given equipment to help non-believers interpret God-given dreams.
Finally, I want to remind the reader that faith comes from hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17)—not by dreams. Dreams prepare people to believe and repent; however, they never (in my experience) contain a clear gospel message. God uses followers of Jesus to explain the gospel so that dreamers can believe and repent. It will always take people equipped with the gospel to help a dreamer become a follower of Jesus. It becomes a divine partnership. God-given dreams (or visions) are only one part of the evangelism process. Human agents (like you and I) are necessary to consummate the process.
SEE ARTICLE BELOW ON SUGGESTIONS FOR INTERPRETING GOD-GIVEN DREAMS
1. I use the term God-given dreams throughout this article but never define the term because, frankly, I am not sure how to…nor do I think it is prudent to try. In essence, a God-given dream is a dream sent to a person by God and not sourced from somewhere else. We can say with certainty that all dreams are not from God. Scripture clearly recognizes there are many sources of dreams and visions. Some of these include: anxiety (Ecc. 5:11), chemical imbalances (Prov. 23:31-33), delusions of the mind (Jer. 23:23) and evil spirits (Matt. 4:1-11;
2 Cor. 11:14). There are also false dreams (Jer. 23:32). A God-given dream will not conflict with the teachings of the Bible.
2. Visions are extraordinary dreams that happen when we are awake. Visions share the same characteristics as dreams and for this discussion are treated as virtually identical to dreams.
3. The terms non-believer or unbeliever are admittedly awkward. They do not mean that the person has no faith in God. In this article, as in the New Testament, these terms can refer to a religious person whose faith is incomplete and/or misinformed. It can also refer to both seekers and to those estranged from God. In one sense, it refers to any person who does not yet believe in God’s passionate love for him or her as demonstrated by sending Jesus to die for his or her sins.
4. A proper response answers the following two questions: (1) How is God revealing the Kingdom of God to the dreamer? and (2) What does God want the dreamer to do about it?
5. I suggest that those who most clearly identify with option 3 are not ready to start this ministry until they overcome the personal insecurity, misunderstandings and issues of faith that are at the root of such thinking.
6. I propose that the gift of evangelism is best measured by fruitfulness rather than boldness. We too often mistake the prophet (who boldly shares the same message to all audiences) with the gifted evangelist (who skillfully tailors each message for each audience).
SUGGESTIONS FOR INTERPRETING GOD-GIVEN DREAMS
Practically all the dream literature on the market is written from a non-biblical worldview. Even books authored by Christians can tend to go beyond what the scripture teaches or promotes. So be cautious…but not timid. Never seek guidance through dreams. Never try to induce dreams. Always filter what you read through your knowledge of scripture. Below are four suggestions for those who want to be better equipped to interpret God-given dreams in evangelism.
1. Recruit a group (a dream team) of people who are interested in this topic. Together study scripture (see #2 below) and read books (see #3 below) on the topic. Do evangelism together (see #4). Journal your dreams and discuss them to help make you alert to your own dream life. To do this, keep a pen, notebook and flashlight next to your bed.
2. Study and take notes of all OT and NT references regarding dreams and visions. Be very familiar with what the Bible says about dreams. Discuss what you are learning with your study group.
3. Study other books and resources about dreams. Unfortunately, evangelicals have written very little on this subject. However, below are three places to begin:
• Understanding Dreams from God by Scott Breslin and Mike Jones. 2004. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library. This is the English edition of an evangelistic tract for Muslims who are having extraordinary dreams. It introduces people to dreams of the Bible and points them to Jesus as God’s most complete and important revelation. This booklet demonstrates an approach to evangelism using dreams.
• More Than Dreams is a DVD that dramatizes the true story of how five people (an Egyptian, Turk, Indonesian, Nigerian and Iranian) came to faith in Jesus through dreams. It is designed to be used as an outreach tool for Muslims, but it also testifies to what God is doing throughout the world with dreams. It can be ordered at www.morethandreams.org.
• God, Dreams and Revelation by Morton Kelsey. 1991. Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Fortress. This is a scholarly study of a Christian worldview of the importance of dreams. Kelsey was a scholar and Episcopal clergyman with a high view of scripture. Be aware of a Jungian psychological perspective that is also present in parts of his book. Nonetheless, I believe the discerning reader can gain many useful insights from God, Dreams and Revelation. Kelsey documents how dreams have been a highly valued aspect of church life from the days of Polycarp through the 1600s. He also presents a compelling argument as to why dreams have been neglected in the church today.
4. Experiment. You have nothing to lose—and the dreamers have much to gain. If possible, bring a co-worker with you and work as a team in the interpretation process. Listen thoughtfully and prayerfully to the extraordinary dreams of non-believing friends and neighbors. Ask God to give you wisdom and discernment. Does it strike you as a possible God-given dream? If so, try and to get a sense of how the Kingdom of God is being revealed to the dreamer and what the dreamer is supposed to do about it. If you cannot (in good conscience) suggest how the dreamer should respond to the dream, don’t worry or be perplexed. Simply pray aloud for the dreamer. Ask the dreamer if he or she would like to hear more about Jesus. Later, when you are alone with your co-worker, debrief together. Discuss what happened, what went right, how it could have gone better and what you would do differently.
Randal Scott (a pseudonym) serves as a field director with Frontiers where he oversees teams doing church planting in pioneer settings among unreached people groups. He is a native of Fairfax, Virginia.
Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.