Friday, 19 December 2014

Is 'dream interpretation ministry' a prophetic gift?

            Recently I have come across a number of ministries that claim that they can teach people, by the Holy Spirit, to interpret their dreams to see what God is telling them about themselves and the future.  Different things mean various truths - waterfalls, teeth, falling, animals - they all have unique interpretations and hold a message from God for your blessing and life.  But is this a charismatic dream or an unbiblical nightmare? 

            To start off I must confess to being unashamedly charismatic - not only do I believe that the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture are active today but I believe we should actively pursue them.  I see not a single biblical reason to think the gifts ceased and to claim such to my mind seems to require one to leave the Bible and rely on personal testimony, reason, and a patchy, far from clear reading of church history.   Do people miraculously speak in foreign languages today?  Yes.  Do people speak to God in 'tongues' and can some people interpret these?  Sure.  Have some people been gifted to be channels of miracles and healings?  Certainly.  Do some prophecy?  I believe so.  Does or should or even can every Christian do all of these things?  Absolutely not!  Can any, and I mean any, of the gifts of the Spirit be learnt like a skill?  I reject this idea utterly - they are by their very nature loving gifts we neither deserve nor naturally could conceive of.  God can give and take away gifts at a whim, and He does.  Anyone who has been blessed with a spiritual gift should always humbly recognise that it never has anything to do with their merit or skill or ability.   The question to be answered here though is: are dreams and dream interpretation a gift of the Holy Spirit? 

            The passage appealed to by proponents is Acts 2.16-18 where Peter declares the miracle of Pentecost to be the fulfilment of Joel 2.28-29.  The passage from Joel reads thus:

"After this
I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;
then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
your old men will have dreams,
and your young men will see visions.
I will even pour out My Spirit
on the male and female slaves in those days."

God promises to pour out the Holy Spirit upon all humanity and this will lead to people prophesying, dreaming, and seeing visions.  What does Joel mean by this?  Firstly this prophecy predicts a time of great change in the way God interacts with His people.  Throughout the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was rarely given to people, He was not poured out but rather dripped and trickled upon specific chosen leaders who were anointed to a special work - the prophets, some of the judges and kings etc.   In the New Covenant the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all humanity - that is all those who believe regardless of whether they are Jews or not.  This will lead to all kinds of people being able to 'prophesy...dream...see visions' regardless of whether they are male or female, old or young, slave or free.   What an amazing grace and goodness to receive!

            We see this fulfilled in Acts in many places.  Agabus is a male prophet, and there are four sisters who are prophetesses in Acts 21.9.  Many receive visions including Stephen, Peter, and Paul.   Stephen in Acts 7.55-56 gazes into heaven and sees God's glory with Jesus standing at His right hand - importantly verse 55 explicitly tells us this vision was because Stephen was "filled with the Holy Spirit".  in Acts 10 both the Jew Peter (vs10-16) and Cornelius a non Jew (vs3-7) receive visions.  Paul receives 'night visions' in Acts 16 and 18 and it was possibly a vision of the heavens that Paul recounts in 2 Corinthians 12 (but possibly instead a very real and physical experience).  Jesus also speaks to Ananias in the vision in Acts 9.10-16.  Elsewhere in the New Testament Joseph has dreams of an angel firstly telling him not to abandon Mary (Matthew 1.20-23) then warning him to flee to Egypt (2.13 ) and later again in a yet another dream to return back home (2.19-20).

Paul would later speak of prophecy being the most excellent of the gifts in 1 Corinthians but does not mention visions or dreams in any of his lists of gifts of the Spirit - a glaring omission if he thought they were common or important.  Scholars generally agree that the prophecy in Joel is structured purposefully to describe the extent of the gifts of the Spirit.  This prophecy begins and ends with the Spirit being poured firstly on both Jew and non-Jew and finally on both slave and free.  Between these general statements we have two couplets - the 'sons and daughters' who prophecy and the 'old and young' who have dreams and/or visions (dreams and visions are often equated with one another in Scripture e.g. Daniel 2.28).  Are the dreams and visions the same as the prophecies?  This is certainly possible as many biblical prophecies came in an ecstatic visionary state - Genesis 31.10-13, 37.5-11; Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 12.27; Daniel 9.24; Acts 10.9-16).  Perhaps the best explanation of what Paul meant when he spoke of the gift of prophecy is found in Matthew Poole's commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:

"[the gift of prophecy] in general signifies the revelation of the will of God, whether by foretelling future contingencies, or opening the Scriptures by teaching or preaching."

Visions and dreams, given the accounts in Acts could certainly be part of the former.

But what is the content of these dream that people in the Bible have?  Are they normal dreams or unusual, do they need specific interpretation or is it clear what they mean?  It has to be said that the normal way of biblical visionary dreams would be the latter - in almost all divinely given dreams (and they are comparatively rare, only ever seeming to be given to specific people for a specific purpose) the meaning is either apparent or they are told what God wants up front by God or an angel.  Let us investigate the dreams or 'night visions' of the Bible and see if this is true.

In Genesis 20 the pagan king Abimelech has a dream sent from God in which God plainly speaks to him as God to explain the situation with Sarah and Abraham's deception.  The Lord appears to Isaac at night, possibly in a dream in Genesis 28.22-25 and speaks plainly.  Jacob's famous dream of a stairway to heaven in Genesis 28 is not actually supposed to be interpreted as a message, the message is what God - who is standing right next to him - speaks, the staircase is merely a vision of the heavens opening much as other prophets saw.  In Genesis 31 Jacob has a dream in which he sees, rather puzzlingly, sheep of different markings mating but here again God (The Angel of the Lord) speaks to Jacob and directly tells him the message as the Lord does again in the dream given to Laban in verse 24.  The meaning of Joseph's dreams in Genesis 37 are obvious even to his brothers and needed no real interpretation.  God tells the Israelites in Numbers 12 that when God wants to speak to someone He does so in a vision or a dream - with the implication in verse 8 being that God sometimes speaks in riddles to prophets (except Moses) but the phrase 'speak with him in a dream' implies not a visual riddle to be solved by interpretation of symbols but a riddle more akin to the parables of Jesus and the vocal prophesies in parts of Isaiah.  The Lord refuses to speak to Saul in dreams about a specific question he needs answering leading him to seek out the witch of En-dor (1 Samuel 28).  In 1 Kings 3 the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and plainly speaks to him.  In Acts all of the dreams are either self-explanatory or have an auditory element through which the message is plainly given or the image interpreted either in the dream or immediately afterwards by an outside event (not by some kind of gift of interpretation).

There are, however, two sets of dreams in Scripture where a Spirit led interpretation is needed.  These are Joseph with the baker, cupbearer, and then Pharaoh, and Daniel twice with  Nebuchadnezzar. All of these dreams are visions of bizarre things which disturb the viewer deeply and trouble them - they are clearly not just normal dreams which people have all the time!  In all of these cases the people in question were not believers, God gave them these obscure dreams not so much to give them a message (though that happens) but rather to bring his servants into positions of influence and power that would turn out in time to be vital to the salvation of His people.  That is to say that these remarkable occurrences of dreams needing special God-given interpretation are first and foremost unique acts in salvation history necessary to bring about the birth of the Messiah in due course.  Nothing in Scripture implies such dreams are common, normal, or frequent but rather unique, special, and limited.  Indeed, neither Joseph nor Daniel seemed to have used their 'gifts' again outside of these important promotion-relevant occurrences and the Bible paints their interpretation as mainly a response to humble prayer:

"I am not able to,” Joseph answered Pharaoh. “It is God who will give Pharaoh a favourable answer.” Genesis 41.16

"Then Daniel went to his house and told his friends Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah about the matter, urging them to ask the God of heaven for mercy concerning this mystery... The mystery was then revealed to Daniel in a vision at night, and Daniel praised the God of heaven..."  Daniel 2.17-19

In general the Bible takes a very negative stance on alleged prophetic dreams - known as oneiromancy.   In Deuteronomy 13 God makes clear that if someone were to correctly predict future events through prophetic dreams yet encourage people, regardless of how slightly, to move away from the Biblical God and reliance upon Him then that person is to be put to death.  These people are allowed to predict the future and such other wonders only because God wants to test the people.  In Jeremiah 27.9 God compares those who claim to have prophetic dreams to be akin to diviners, sorcerers, fortune-tellers and liars - see also Jeremiah 23.32. Through Zechariah God rebukes such dreamers for their false words and empty comforts (10.2).  These texts warn God's people to be inherently suspicious of prophetic dreams even when they seem to come true because their veracity is no indication God is blessing the dreamer.  Importantly, these texts do not refer to the notion of being able to interpret dreams which outside of Joseph and Daniel is never mentioned in the Bible. 

So what are we to conclude, biblically, about ministries of 'dream interpretation' which claim to be a gift of the Holy Spirit.  God did indeed promise that He would pour out the Holy Spirit upon His people and that this would lead to people 'dreaming dreams' which is seen as akin seeing visions and prophecies.  But this is only a promise that people would  have dreams not that they would need to be interpreted.  Almost every single dream or night-time vision in Scripture is auditory: God speaks plainly a message to the person concerned, often times God appears as well.  On rare occasions there is an originally puzzling visionary aspect  but God always interprets this plainly either within the dream itself or by an outside event immediately afterwards.  In all these dreams there is no symbolism which requires interpretation.  Biblically speaking on very rare occasions God has given a deeply troubling symbolic dream to pagans for the purpose of promoting a child of God to a seat of power that His people might be saved.  Even in these instances there is no hint of a 'gift of interpretation' but rather humble people praying mightily to God for an insight.  The Bible doesn't mention the idea of interpreting dreams outside of these unique events and its silence should be indicative that we are not to go seeking interpretations for our dreams from Him or anywhere else.  Nearly all our dreams are exactly that - dreams - a natural and meaningless phenomena which even dogs have.  People often wake from dreams as a course of nature (Psalm 73.20) and God's enemies are to be considered as immaterial and worthless as dreams:

" All the many nations
going out to battle against Ariel—
all the attackers, the siege works against her,
and those who oppress her—
will then be like a dream, a vision in the night.
It will be like a hungry one who dreams he is eating,
then wakes and is still hungry;
and like a thirsty one who dreams he is drinking,
then wakes and is still thirsty, longing for water.
So it will be for all the many nations
who go to battle against Mount Zion."  
Isaiah 29.7-8

Ultimately, if God wants to speak to His children in a dream He does so plainly and simply.  There is no biblical or historical accounts that support the idea of dream interpretation as a spiritual gift that can be learnt or sought after.  Such ministries, in truth, seem to be little more than a syncretistic mish-mash of pious aspirations, genuine desire, and Freudian Dream Analysis which is itself, to put it as politely as possible, absolute nonsense.  Whilst God may of course use symbolic dreams to speak to His people and obviously could give someone a measure of insight into its interpretation the biblical witness is such that we should be at best most wary and very questioning if we come across such a ministry.

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