Dreams, visions and prophecy

Throughout the Bible, there are numerous examples of men and women receiving messages they believe to be from God, either for themselves or to pass on to others. These messages sometimes came through the medium of a vision or dream, or as a prophecy, which are inspired utterances, sometimes predicting future events.

Some visions and prophecies are dramatically figurative and obscure, notably those in the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Daniel and the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament. These generally relate to the apocalypse and concern the judgement at the end of the world. When Jesus himself foretold his return to judge the world, his second coming, he said no-one except God himself knew when it would happen (Matthew 24:36). (See Big ideas: Apocalypse, Revelation, End Times,Second Coming.)

Dreams and visions

The Old Testament

Jacob's ladderThe first recorded dream in the Bible is that of Jacob. On the night he ran away from home, he dreamed he saw a stairway to heaven, usually referred to as Jacob's Ladder, with angels going up and down (Genesis 28:12).

Joseph (son of Jacob), is one of the best-known interpreters of dreams in the Old Testament. Joseph started interpreting dreams when he was quite young. He caused trouble with his eleven brothers when he told them that he had dreamed that he saw the sun, the moon and eleven stars (i.e. the members of his family) bowing down to him (Genesis 37:9). When his brothers subsequently sold him into slavery in Egypt, Joseph came into a position to be able to interpret dreams for the ruler, Pharaoh. These dreams foretold the coming of seven years of good harvest followed by seven years of famine, and therefore enabled the Egyptians to prepare for the coming emergency (Genesis 41:16-36).

Daniel is also well known as an interpreter of dreams. For him, the task was more challenging than for Joseph. King Nebuchadnezzar commanded the interpreters to tell him what he had dreamt, as well as what it meant! Daniel prayed, and God revealed the dream to him in a vision in the night (Daniel 2:19). The outcome was not only honour for Daniel, but the king's acknowledgement that ‘Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries' (Daniel 2:27-45).

Both Joseph and Daniel attributed to God their ability to interpret dreams.

The New Testament

Joseph warned in a dreamDreams feature a number of times in the stories relating to the birth of Jesus. An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph (the carpenter), who was engaged to be married to Mary. In a dream, the angel told Joseph not to reject Mary because she was pregnant, but to take her as his wife, since her child would be the prophesied Saviour (Matthew 1:20-21). Both Joseph and the wise men who came to visit the baby Jesus, were warned in dreams to escape to avoid the murderous intentions of King Herod Antipas (Matthew 2:12-13).

Luke recounts visions of angels appearing to speak to Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds, in each case bringing them important news. Zechariah was told to name his son John; Mary was told she would have a child who was God's son; the shepherds were told the news of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:11; Luke 1:26-28; Luke 2:9-14).


A prophet often brought words of warning and judgement. Some brought promises of salvation for the nation, many of them related to the coming of the Messiah (e.g. Isaiah 40:1-5). Other prophecies spoke of a new relationship between God and his people, and of peace in the world between men and nature (e.g. Micah 4:1-4). Prophecy as the foretelling of future events is recorded in Acts 21:8-11.

Prophecy is also listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Other gifts include the gifts of teaching and preaching. In this sense, prophesy means bringing a first-hand message from God for a particular situation (Ephesians 4:11).

The last seventeen books of the Old Testament are prophetic utterances, which claim to reveal the message or plans of God. Some, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are very long and complicated; others are very brief. Because they were called upon to act on the dire prophetic warnings that God gave them, these Old Testament prophets were often reluctant to obey God's command to speak out what he had shown them. For example, Jeremiah said, ‘Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak; I am only a child' (Jeremiah 1:6). He was to suffer greatly as a result of the messages he delivered. Jesus knew personally that prophets are often unpopular, acknowledging ruefully, ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own country' (Mark 6:4).

The Old Testament prophet Joel brought the message:

‘Afterwards, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions' (Joel 2:28).

Later, in the New Testament, on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in tongues of fire, with a rushing wind (Acts 2:1-21) Peter explained to the crowds that Joel's prophecy was being fulfilled. (See also Big ideas: Fire.)

Related topics

Big ideas: Fire; Apocalypse, Revelation,End Times, Second Coming

Other cultural references

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

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