Dreams, Visions and Supernatural Signs
November 21, 1993 | Ray Pritchard
Whenever dreams, visions and supernatural signs are discussed, three questions immediately come to mind. Number one, are such things really possible today? Number two, if they are, what part do they have in determining God’s will for your life? Number three, if you think you have had a dream, a vision, or some kind of supernatural experience, what guidelines should you follow in evaluating that experience?
There are two extremes to which we can go to in this whole area. One is the extreme of saying that those things never happen today. Some Bible teachers argue that if you have a dream, a vision, or a supernatural sign, it should never be regarded as coming from God. The other extreme is believing that such things should be a normal and regular part of the Christian life. Certain TV evangelists talk so much about their dreams and visions that you may end up feeling inferior if the same thing doesn’t happen to you.
I want to suggest that the truth lies somewhere between the extremes of never and always. We need to find a biblical balance in our thinking about various supernatural signs.
Wishing For a Miracle
Perhaps the place to begin is with the very simple observation that all of us, no matter what our theology, would love to have a dream or a vision or a supernatural sign. No matter who we are or where we come from, we would like to have one of those defining moments in life when the eternal, almighty, transcendent God breaks through the natural laws of the universe to communicate directly with us.
We know for a fact that God is supernatural. We also know that God can set aside the laws of nature any time he wants to. All of us would love for God—at least once in our life—to break through and speak directly to us. We would love for God to speak directly to us and say, “Yes, I am paying attention to you. I know what you are going through. Here is a sign of my presence and a proof of my love for you.” I don’t think any of us would turn aside from such a thing if we knew that it came directly from God.
We all feel that way especially in the area of guidance. One point I have stressed over and over again is that discovering God’s will is a step by step process. Trying to discover what God wants you to do is not something that you do early in the morning while you are getting dressed. It’s a process. After all, most of life’s decisions are very difficult. Some of them are extremely complex. In those moments we wish that God would definitely break through, push aside the laws of nature, and speak directly to us.
Letters in the Grass
We dream of going upstairs in the morning to the second floor window, looking outside, and finding a message from God written in 4-foot tall letters in the grass below: “Go to China and be a missionary.” “Sell your house and move to Vermont.” “Enroll in medical school.” “Don’t worry about your grandmother. She’s going to be fine.” “Don’t marry Frank. Marry Ed instead.”
Many Christians claim to have experiences of that nature on a fairly regular basis. They may not attend this church, but they claim to have those kinds of supernatural experiences with God on a regular basis. They leave the impression that whenever they come to a point of decision God somehow miraculously speaks to them. Whereas once they were confused, suddenly God speaks in some unusual, mystical, visionary way. And they know exactly what God wants them to do.
Our problem is that for every person that fits into that category there are another hundred Christians who don’t. For every one person who gets the dreams and the visions and the supernatural signs, there are another hundred who go for years and even for a lifetime and never have anything mystical or seemingly supernatural happen at all.
It is possible for those of us who find ourselves in that second category to begin to feel like second-class citizens. If you hang around the people in that first group very long, you may begin to wonder: “Is something wrong with me? Am I not praying enough? Am I not godly enough? Am I not yielded to the Lord enough? Maybe there is something wrong with me because if I was a better Christian maybe God would speak to me the way he does to other people.” Even if you know that is wrong, you still think those thoughts because they have dreams and visions and you don’t.
I realize that most people reading this message are in the second category. If you are in the first category, you don’t need me to say anything to you because you get whatever kind of communication you think you need from God. This message is directed to those of us who rarely, if ever, hear supernaturally from God.
I. Five Undeniable Realities
I would like to begin by laying out five undeniable realities about dreams, visions, and supernatural signs.
Reality # 1: God occasionally revealed His will in the Bible through supernatural means.
The key word is “occasionally.” There are many examples of God speaking supernaturally at certain points in biblical history. God’s call to Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees, Moses and the burning bush, Jacob’s ladder, Joseph’s dream, Samuel hearing the voice of the Lord, Daniel’s vision of the four creatures, Joseph being warned in a dream to take the baby Jesus to Egypt, Peter’s vision of the animals being lowered out of heaven, Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia. In this category we ought to put John’s vision on the Isle of Patmos that makes up most of the Book of Revelation. Even a casual reading of the Bible confirms that God occasionally communicated using supernatural means.
Reality # 2: Evidently God did not communicate this way very often, nor did he do it for all the people in the Bible.
If you look at the whole sweep of biblical history, it seems that most of the supernatural events were bunched around three major periods: Moses and the exodus from Egypt, the days of Elijah and Elisha, the life of Christ and the first few years of the Christian church. A fair reading of the Bible would lead to some conclusion like this: that the average Israelite of the Old Testament and the average early Christian of the New Testament rarely, if ever, saw any unusual manifestations.
Reality # 3: God spoke supernaturally at critical moments of history.
He spoke to Moses supernaturally when he was calling Moses to come and lead his people out of Israel. He spoke to Joseph supernaturally when he wanted to reveal his plan for the nation of Israel. He spoke to Peter supernaturally when he wanted Peter to understand that the gospel was not just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. He spoke to Paul supernaturally when he wanted Paul to understand that he wasn’t to stay in Asia Minor but that he was to move west into Greece and eventually on to Rome.
I think there is a subpoint off that. We find in the Bible that God tended to speak supernaturally at moments when his will could not normally be understood any other way. How would Moses ever be convinced that God had called him to such an impossible task? How could Peter ever believe that the gospel was not just for the Jews? How could Paul be convinced that God wanted him to go to Greece?
Reality # 4: There are some dangers associated with focusing on dreams and visions and the supernatural.
I think there are at least three dangers of focusing on supernatural events in your Christian life. First, there is the danger of elevating the unusual over the ordinary. Second, there is the danger of elevating your personal experience over the Word of God. You begin to value some mystical experience you had more than what God has said in the Bible. Third, there is a very great possibility that you will actually miss God’s guidance because you are focusing on the spectacular and on the unusual when God normally leads us to the ordinary circumstances of life.
Reality # 5: God can and sometimes does lead His people supernaturally.
I do believe that God can and sometimes does speak through dreams and visions and supernatural signs. Throughout church history there are stories of greatly respected men and women to whom God spoke in supernatural ways.
John Calvin stands out as a good example. When one thinks of John Calvin, words like sane, sober, rational, level-headed come to mind. He was the great systematizer of the Protestant Reformation. His “Institutes of the Christian Religion” and his Bible commentaries are still in print after 300 years. Call him what you will, but he is far from a wild-eyed enthusiast. Yet by his own testimony when he was invited to return to Geneva, he intended to refuse the invitation. But he changed his mind when he said he felt the hand of Christ on his shoulder pushing him toward Geneva. He means that he actually felt the hand of Jesus Christ on his shoulder. He was no wild man. Yet he had an experience that he believed to be the supernatural hand of Christ on his shoulder.
The Roof Hangs Over the Edge
Several times in my own life I have felt that God spoke directly to me. During my first visit to Belize one year ago I had an experience that I took to be a message from God received in a group prayer meeting. It happened during a period when I was going through a personally discouraging experience. Something had happened just before my trip that nearly destroyed me. Instead of going to Belize in great confidence, I was filled with fear.
All that week I tried to put my fear behind me but I couldn’t. Each night I would lay awake listening to the jungle sounds, my heart racing, my mind imagining one scenario after another. I tried to pray but found it incredibly difficult.
On Thursday morning I joined the staff prayer meeting on the YWAM base. There were perhaps 5 or 6 people there. We began by listening quietly to what the Lord was saying to each of us individually. Glen told us that we should wait for the Lord to instruct us what we should be praying about. That was a new thought to me. As we went around the table sharing what God had shown us, I didn’t expect God to say anything to me. But when we came to Max Wooding, a missionary from New Zealand, he said that as an engineer, the Lord usually spoke to him in visual images, not in specific words. He said that the Lord had told him to meditate on small cabins where the workers lived. At first that puzzled him but then he felt the Lord saying, “Look at the roofs on those cabins.” The cabins are built with overhanging roofs because of the large amount of rainfall in that area. Then the Lord says, “The cabin represents my people. The roof represents my protection. My people are worried that my protection won’t stretch to the edges of their need. But they needn’t worry. My protection is so vast, it goes far beyond their needs.”
After sharing that, Max looked around and said, “I don’t know why God gave me that. There must be someone else who needs that message.” The moment he said that, God spoke to me and said, “Ray, that was for you.” Tears filled my eyes as I realized that God had brought me from Chicago and Max from New Zealand so that we could meet in Belize at exactly the right moment when I needed to hear a message from God.
Does that qualify as a supernatural experience? It does in my mind. I can’t prove it in a court of law, but I have no doubt that God spoke directly to me through Max Wooding at a moment of great personal need.
One Night In June
I have had similar things happen a few other times in my life. None of them have been spectacular experiences—nothing on a par with a burning bush or a vision from heaven. Yet I am aware of a few times when I have felt that God has spoken directly to me.
I don’t know that I have had a truly supernatural vision. As I was preparing this chapter, my mind went back the year I graduated from high school. I was bound for the University of Missouri where I intended to study journalism. In those days Walter Cronkite was my hero. I wanted to be just like him.
God had been speaking to my heart for months. I had a feeling that God had wanted me to do something else with my life. During the month after graduating from high school, I would pace around my bedroom late at night after everybody in our family had gone to bed. I was 17 years old, just graduated from high school, thinking about my life and wondering what God wanted me to do. I would pace and I would sleep. And I would pace and I would sleep. Night after night that went on. The conviction grew in my heart that God wanted me in the ministry. One night after going to sleep I had a dream in which I was preaching to a great multitude of people. I woke up and felt as if God was speaking directly to me. So I said, “All right, Lord. If you want me, I will be a preacher.” No lights, no angelic voices, no music playing in the background. But that night changed my life. From that moment until now, I have always believed that God called me to be a preacher of the gospel.
Let me be clear at this point. That dream was not in the same category as Joseph’s dream or Peter’s vision. It may have been simply the logical result of all the days and weeks of pondering my future. Others may dismiss the whole thing as the product of adolescent imagination. I don’t know how to slice that or dice that. But I can only tell you that it actually happened to me. And it was a turning point in my life.
But I am not alone in believing that God sometimes speaks in unusual ways to his people. A host of other Christian leaders have had similar experiences.
II. Five Crucial Biblical Texts
With that as background let’s look at five passages which will help us think biblically about this whole subject.
1. Numbers 12:6-8
“When a prophet of the Lord is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles.” Notice the contrast in these verses. Prophets receive visions and dreams, but God speaks to Moses “clearly and not in riddles.” Don’t miss the point: Dreams and visions are inherently ambiguous and difficult to understand. When you have a dream, how do you know what it means? When you have a vision, you still have to interpret it. A dream or a vision is like a riddle. Dreams and visions are hard to understand. What we need is the clear word of the Lord.
Here’s a boy who thinks he’s in love with a girl, so he looks up one day, and he see a white bird and a black bird flying together in the sky. He thinks to himself, “Wow! that’s a sign from God. We’re supposed to be married.” Or he’s walking by a stream and sees two fish swimming together. As he watches, they seem to kiss each other so he turns to his girl says, “God wants me to kiss you.”
Or a college student is praying for guidance about being a foreign missionary. That afternoon he sees a cloud float overhead, and the cloud appears to be in the shape of Japan. So he concludes that God wants him to go to Japan. How do you know it’s Japan? How do you know it wasn’t Vietnam? Or Argentina? It didn’t say Japan. It just looked like Japan. Clouds change shape every few seconds. If he had looked two minutes later, he would have gone to Greenland. That’s the point in Numbers 12:6-8. Even if you have a dream or a vision or a sign, it’s ambiguous in and of yourself. You can make it mean almost anything you want it to mean.
2. Psalm 119:105
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” We’ve talked about that a number of times in this sermon series. What is the light that we need? Where do we find it? We find it in God’s Word, the Bible. God’s Word is our light. The Book is filled with light. The Bible is filled with guidance from God. God’s Word reveals God’s will to us.
3. Jeremiah 23:25-29
“I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ’I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds? They think the dreams they tell one another will make my people forget my name, just as their fathers forgot my name through Baal worship. Let the prophet who has a dream tell his dream, but let the one who has my word speak it faithfully. For what has straw to do with grain? declares the Lord. ’Is not my word like fire,’ declares the Lord, ’and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?’”
Do you see the comparison here? A dream or a vision is like straw compared to the good grain of the Word of God. It is like chaff blowing in the wind compared to the solid truth that is in God’s Word. People can lie, claiming to have amazing revelations from God that God has nothing to do with. The warning is clear: Don’t trust in dreams but in the written Word of God.
4. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Why is the Word of God given to us? It is given to teach us, to correct us, to rebuke us, to instruct us. Why? So that we may be thoroughly equipped for everything God has for us to do.
The teaching is this: God’s Word is sufficient. Nobody can add anything to it. Nobody can take anything away from it. Build your life on the Word of God. Get your roots down in the Word of God. Find out what God has said in his Word, and you will discover his will for your life.
Here’s a good test for those who think they have a vision from God. Check it out by the Bible. If it contradicts or conflicts with the Word of God in any way, shape, or form whatsoever, it is not from God because God will not contradict himself. He has already spoken in his Word. So check it out by the Word of God. Is it compatible with the Word of God? Does it reflect the character of God? Does it reflect the character of Jesus Christ? God’s Word is the supreme standard for judging any so-called revelation from God.
5. 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22
“Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” Test everything that claims to be supernatural. Suppose you watch some TV preacher who claims to have a message from God. Test it. Somebody comes to you and says, “I’ve got a word from God.” Test it. Somebody says, “I had a vision and this is what I think God wants us to do.” Test it. That is what the Bible says. Test it. Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire. Don’t despise what the prophets say. But test everything. Hold onto the good. Reject that which is evil.
Let me share a piece of advice with you. I believe that God can and does speak supernaturally today. Having said that, I offer this important caution: Do not ever make a major decision in your life solely on the basis of what you believe to be a supernatural experience. That almost always is a mistake. Don’t get married because you had a vision. Don’t go to college just because you had a dream. Don’t move to Cambodia because you saw it floating overhead in the clouds. Don’t kiss her just because the fish were kissing each other. You get in trouble that way. Don’t make a major decision in your life solely on the basis of that which appears to you to be supernatural.
The Four-Way Test
Here’s a four-way test for anything that appears to be a supernatural message from God to you:
1. The Test of Scripture. Test it by the Word of God. Is it consistent with what God has said in his Word? Does it reflect the character of Jesus Christ? Will it lead me to a closer walk with God?
2. The Test of Time. Let’s suppose you get a supernatural sign of some kind. Wait before you make a major decision. Wait a day. Wait a week. Wait a month. If it’s from God, it will still be from God next week. If it’s from God, it will still be from God a month from now. People get emotionally riled up because they think they’ve received a message from God. So they run out and do crazy things and ruin their lives. If it had been from God, it still would have been from God if you had waited.
3. The Test of Counsel. In the multitude of counselors, the Bible says, there is safety. God will rarely speak to you in such a way that no one else around you recognizes it as the voice of God. If it is truly of God, spiritual men and women normally will recognize it as well. That’s the test of counsel.
4. The Test of Confirmation. If you have a dream or a vision or some other unusual event that seems like a message from God, ask him to confirm it by non-supernatural means. If it is from God, he will be glad to do that for you. And don’t make a major decision until you have received that confirmation from other sources.
III. Five Practical Conclusions
Let’s wrap this message up then with five practical conclusions. What are we going to do about dreams, visions, and supernatural signs? Here are five pieces of advice for you.
1. Don’t rule it out.
Although I tend to be very skeptical about many supposed supernatural revelations, I don’t think we should go to the opposite extreme and rule them out altogether. I would hate for us to become so rationalistic in our faith that we said, “God, you can only speak to us this way. You can’t speak to us that way.” He’s God. He can speak to us anyway he wants. So don’t rule it out.
2. Don’t seek it.
Don’t seek supernatural signs. This is where people get in trouble. They attempt to make common that which is by definition very rare. Many Christians never have a supernatural experience of any kind. It doesn’t matter. You are not a less spiritual Christian if those things don’t happen to you. And God does not love you any less. He loves you just as much as he loves anyone else.
3. Don’t try to force God’s hand.
Some people try to force God to give them a miracle. They think that by doing certain things they can cause God to respond in certain ways. “Lord, I’m going to fast until you send me a sign.” It’s always a mistake to try something like that. You may end up starving to death.
4. Stay open to the Spirit.
By that I mean, stay open to the Spirit’s working in your life. He wants to guide your life moment by moment. Stay open to the Holy Spirit and let him guide you in any way he sees fit.
5. Build your life on the Word of God.
Don’t make the mistake of building your spiritual life on signs and wonders. God never meant for you to be a “miracle junkie,” rushing from one emotional high to another. What will you do when the miracles stop coming? Or your dreams become ordinary? Or the clouds stop looking like Japan? Or the fish stop kissing each other? Or the roofs no longer overhang the cabin walls?
There is only one solid foundation for you and that is the Word of God. “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word.” “My heart is leaning on the Word, the written Word of God. Salvation by my Savior’s name, salvation through his blood.”
The year was 1923. A young man had come from Switzerland to America to study at the Moody Bible Institute. When he arrived in America he barely spoke any English. Somehow he found his way to an eight-year-old church in Oak Park, located at the corner of Madison and Wisconsin. When he needed a place to stay, the people in the little church offered to let him stay in the balcony. And that’s where he lived until until he graduated in 1925. And so began a 70-year association between Fred Stettler and Calvary Memorial Church.
In January of 1926 he left for the mission field. He went to Romania for one year. After his year in Romania, he went to Poland. From 1927 until 1939, he was in a “great and blessed work” of preaching the gospel. With the winds of war sweeping across Europe, Fred Stettler moved from Poland into Switzerland where he worked with the Open Brethren for six or seven years. As soon as the war was over, he ministered to the millions of homeless people. That relief work continued for a number of years. In the early 1950’s he started a ministry he always regarded as the crowning work of his life, the work of literature distribution. From a small center in Switzerland he and his co-workers sent gospel literature in 25 different languages to 40 countries around the world, never charging a cent, raising the money by faith, sending the literature out by the ton.
Fred Stettler died October 26, 1993. He was 91 years old when he died. He finally retired from his missionary ministry four months before his death. He had served on the mission field for 67 years. And for 67 years Calvary Memorial Church supported—through the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II, the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and on up to the present day.
On his 85th birthday he wrote a letter to the church. “Yes, my 85th birthday has passed. A number of congratulations from dear friends have come, and my own family has in mind to have a gathering of the family as soon as all are free to attend. I would say February 20, 1920, the word of Psalm 23, ’He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake,’ has been a dominant note through all my life. And the word given me when I left for the mission field in 1926 by Miss Martha Grosser was, ’He shall bring it to pass,’ commit thy way unto the Lord.’ The Lord has done great things for me and my family and unto the ends of the world.”
We sent him out 67 years ago with our prayers and one verse of Scripture-“Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust in him, and he will bring it to pass.” (Psalm 37:5)
What’s the secret of Fred Stettler? He went overseas 67 years ago with one verse of Scripture. And 67 years later he entered heaven with a testimony to the very end that God had been faithful to him.
You may have dreams, visions and supernatural signs or you may not. It doesn’t matter one way or the other. Build your life upon the Word of God. And like Fred Stettler, when you come to the end, you will not be disappointed, but you will be delighted to discover that God has kept his Word to you.