When you read the Bible, you quickly discover that one of the main ways God speaks to people is through dreams. In Genesis, God speaks to Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph in dreams. The book of Daniel is replete with dreams – the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar receives dreams foretelling the coming Kingdom of God, and Daniel is given the wisdom to interpret it. And in the New Testament, Joseph receives a dream instructing him to flee with Mary and Joseph to Egypt.
In the last couple decades, the Lord has been restoring the art of dream interpretation to the church. John Paul Jackson in particular, was used to make dream interpretation mainstream and relatable to the Body of Christ. Although he has gone on to be with the Lord, his ministry, Streams Ministries continues to make his materials available. After JPJ, many followed in his footsteps. Mark Virkler is another leading charismatic who has good teachings on dream interpretation. My book School of the Spirit also discusses dreams and other ways to hear God.
One of the reasons that the language of dreams was largely neglected in the Protestant Church for so long is that Reformers placed more emphasis on reason than on the supernatural. Over time, this led to cessationist trends, where people believe that now that we have the Bible, God no longer needs to speak through any other method, such as in dreams and visions.
In addition, in reaction to liberalizing academics many Bible-believers insisted on a hyper-literal interpretation of the Bible leaving no room for language of dreams, which is symbolic. Dreams are by nature symbolic, and without an understanding of the symbolic elements in Scripture, it is impossible to have a vocabulary with which to interpret dreams. Consider the dreams of Joseph. He dreamed that the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed down to him. The sun and moon represented his parents, and the stars represented his brothers. Similarly, in Pharaoh’s dream of the seven skinny cows eating the seven fat cows, the cows symbolized years. It’s impossible to interpret these kinds of dreams without an understanding of symbols and types.
Fortunately, these trends have been reversing. The Pentecostal/Charismatic brought back the active belief in the supernatural, and new streams have arisen among Bible-believers which make proper room for symbols. And the Biblical Theology movement has arisen that looks at the Bible as a whole and connects all the dots together, using words, phrases, concepts, and echoes. It recognizes that there are Biblical symbols, and that they are not inflexible and monolithic, but are flexible. Reading the symbols in the Bible properly is a starting point to understanding the symbols that we encounter in dreams. Broadening your reading of Scripture is an important part of interpreting dreams well.
This is important because the appearance of symbols in a dream usually has continuity with the Scripture, which itself has continuity with creation itself. This is because they all have the same author and designer! For example, a lion could represent the Lion of Judah. Or, it could represent the devil who “prowls like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.” Or take blood. Blood could represent killing, as in the blood of Abel that cried out against his murderer. Or it could represent sacrifice, like the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from sin. Gaining a familiarity with Biblical symbols gives you a map with which to locate symbols that may appear in your dreams, but as you can see, context and the Spirit of God will be needed for interpretation.
Consider the Source
If you have a dream, how can you interpret it? The first thing I like to look at is the source: is the dream from God, the devil, or my soul? Dreams from God have a particular feel. They are often intense and vivid, as if you are really there. They will often have an element of insightfulness, bringing up an angle that you would not have considered on your own. A dream from God can be a warning (like the dream in which Joseph was warned to flee to Egypt), but it is always intended to help you or someone else. If you think you are being told the thing that you fear most, then you may have had a dream from God that the enemy is trying to interpret from God.
Dreams from the devil can also be very vivid, but in a nightmare way. If I have a fearful dream from the enemy, I usually dismiss it, unless the Lord specifically prompts me to pray. Most of the dreams that many of us have are from our soul – they are our subconscious processing our desires, worries, and experiences from the day. They will also not have the distinct quality that dreams from God do. If I have a confusing dream from my soul, I just ignore it, but when I have a God dream, I bring it to before Him and try to act on whatever I can understand. I’ve found that when I take my dreams before the Lord, they begin to come clear. He may remind me of what was important about the person in the dream, or he may show me something about the image that I was missing.
Find the Main Idea
Dreams can be highly detailed, and some of the details may be hard to decode. Don’t get bogged down in them. If you can get the main idea, you may be able to figure out the rest or just live with some of the unsolved mysteries. Just like solving a puzzle, if you can find one piece, the others become easier. Part of what you are doing in this entire process is matching up the symbols to real life just like matching the puzzle to the box. When you find right place for a piece it will fit into context: It makes sense in the dream, and it makes sense in your life.
Identify the Symbols
Almost every dream has symbols, but some have a mix of symbols and literal components. A good place to start is to sort that out. I had a very important dream that led to me taking the job I currently have. In that dream, I was with a guy I used to work with named Eric, and we were having incredible success at my job. Then I heard my name called on the airport loudspeaker and I had to decide if I would leave this success to catch the plane. When I did, the scene switched. I was running through security at an airport to catch a plane and if I didn’t, I would be stuck in the Detroit airport.
When I woke up, I knew it was from the Lord, and that I was being offered a choice to either stay at my job or take a new unknown job that was waiting for me. What is fascinating about this dream is that there were symbols like the airport and the airplane, which represented my career path, mixed with literal details like my former co-worker Eric. To make it even more fascinating, I actually did get stuck in the Detroit airport before leaving my job!
Interpreting the Symbols
While the Bible’s use of symbols gives us clues about how to interpret them, most dreams use symbols that are contemporary to us, so we have to extrapolate principles on how to approach them. My friend had a dream in which he was on an aircraft carrier. You can’t look that up in a dream dictionary. What you can do, however, is use the principles of hermeneutics (interpretation).
- First, ask what is this fundamentally? Fundamentally it’s a boat. What does a boat do? It takes you places. Vehicles often deal with ministries or companies – things that are taking you places in life.
- Now what is it specifically? He could have seen any boat, but he saw an aircraft carrier. Why? What makes this a special kind of boat? Well it’s a vessel of war. It’s the largest kind of boat. It has many thousands of people on it. Any one of these could be what is significant in the dream.
- How do you know what is important? One of the biggest mistakes in dealing with types is to try to make every aspect of something match something else. You need to ask: What did you see in the dream? What was important about it in the dream? What you saw is the reason for the usage of that image instead of another one.
- Does it have any specific significance to you? For example, if you are in the Navy an aircraft carrier would signify something quite different than if you were not.
See? It’s not spooky. It is an extension of the same principles used to decode symbols in the Bible.
Some elements of a dream could be quite difficult, though. The process of interpretation can be both frustrating and fun, like decoding a puzzle. For example, in one of my dreams I was in a plane and we were trying to get to runway 50. Well comparing and contrasting are not going to help you figure out what 50 is. Unless 50 has some personal significance, it’s good to look in the Scripture (or a Biblically-based dictionary). In this case, I was reminded that 50 was the year of Jubilee. In my case this meaning fit perfectly with our situation. When interpreting a dream, you can try out different possibilities until they fit. Now notice, I’m not saying you can make just anything fit. If the year of Jubilee didn’t fit my real life, I wouldn’t have tried to make it. I would have left it a mystery.
An Invitation to Relationship
An important point to consider is that when God sends you a dream, it’s because He loves you. Reaching out to communicate with you is a significant act of love (the wives all said Amen). Getting the correct interpretation of a dream has to be premised on this fact. The more you develop a real relationship with God and know Him as the kind, loving, and wise Father He is, the more you will naturally hear His voice not only during the day, but also in your sleep. And as you learn how He communicates with you, you will be better able to decode the symbols that He uses in your dreams.
If you would like to learn more about God’s symbolic language, and ways of hearing from God and moving in the supernatural, check out my book School of the Spirit.