By AM correspondent Daniel Neades of Better Than Sacrifice

Much of modern evangelicalism seems to be fixated upon the idea that we can only progress as individual Christians and the church if we are pursing a dream or vision. This tendency is epitomized in these two claims:

Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming. What we need today are great dreamers.

Those words occur not on the website of some ‘best-life-now’ life coach, but, rather surprisingly, in a post over at the Desiring God website:

There we are given the command to ‘Let God stretch your imagination’ and told that ‘Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming. What we need today are great dreamers.’

Now, where exactly does the Bible teach any of this? 

Ah, I see we are helpfully given two Scriptures. Let’s look at those.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. (Proverbs 29:8)

Actually, that’s Proverbs 29:18, not 29:8. But, no matter. It’s easy to make a harmless mistake like that.

But there’s another, more serious, problem.

Proverbs 29:18 does not teach that ‘what we need today are great dreamers’.

Here’s a more accurate translation, with the second half of the verse included:

Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint;
But happy is he who keeps the law.’ (Proverbs 29:18, NKJV)

That’s better. It is now plain that this verse talks neither about our dreams and hopes for the future, nor of some leader’s ‘vision’ for a better tomorrow.

No. Rather, it refers to prophetic revelation from God.

And specifically, as is made clear by the second half of the verse, it is referring to the revelation of God’s Law (torah), which of course we have in the Scriptures by the prophets.

Here’s a tiny snippet about this verse from a reputable commentary:

[Janzen] adds: “The conviction in Prov. 29:18a semantically and syntactically parallels that in Prov. 11:14a, ‘Where there is no guidance (tahbūlôt), a people falls.’ There can be no doubt that tahbūlôt refers to the guiding power of wisdom received from God (cp. Prov. 1:1–7), and as such is generically synonymous with tôrâ (“teaching”). Anyone capable of holding the conviction expressed in xi 14a is capable of holding that ‘where there is no vision the people fall into anarchy.’ ” In sum, hāzôn [‘revelation’] refers here to the sage’s inspired revelation of wisdom.

Waltke, B. K. (2005). The Book of Proverbs. Chapters 15-31. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (p. 446).

What Proverbs 29:18 says about this revealed Law is that, without it, people will ‘run wild’ (as HALOT succinctly puts it).

In other words, this verse teaches us that God’s Law acts as a curb on the base instincts and desires of our sinful nature.

This understanding is exactly in keeping with orthodox Christian doctrine, and is what Lutherans call the ‘first use of the Law’:

…the Law was given to men for three reasons:

  • first, that thereby outward discipline might be maintained against wild, disobedient men [and that wild and intractable men might be restrained, as though by certain bars];
  • secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins;
  • thirdly, that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life…

Epitome of the Formula of Concord, Article VI

Proverbs 29:18 thus has nothing to do with letting ‘God stretch your imagination’, or our need for ‘great dreamers’, but rather with one beneficial use of the revelation given by God through His prophets.

The second Scripture mentioned is this:

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, and your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:17, NIV)

Now, remember, this Scripture is being cited in support of our need to let God to ‘stretch [our] imagination’ and the claim that ‘nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming’. But, again, it is immediately clear (even in the translation quoted) that this verse teaches nothing of the sort.

Rather, what it does teach is that in the last days, God will pour out His Holy Spirit on ‘all people’ with the effect that sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will ‘see visions’, and old men will ‘dream dreams’.

The talk of visions and dreams is really an elaboration and repetition of the prior reference to prophecy, as is clear when we remember God’s rebuke of Aaron and Miriam for their criticism of Moses:

Then the LORD came down in the pillar of cloud and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam. And they both went forward. Then He said,

“Hear now My words:
If there is a prophet among you,
I, the LORD, make Myself known to him in a vision;
I speak to him in a dream.

Not so with My servant Moses;
He is faithful in all My house.
I speak with him face to face,
Even plainly, and not in dark sayings;
And he sees the form of the LORD.
Why then were you not afraid
To speak against My servant Moses?”

So the anger of the LORD was aroused against them, and He departed.

Numbers 12:5–9, NKJV

We see from this encounter that the normal way for God to communicate with his prophets was in a vision and a dream. Moses was an exception, since God spoke with Him face to face.

R. C. H. Lenski summarizes the meaning of Acts 2:17 very well in his commentary, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles (pp. 74–75):

The chief effect of the Spirit’s activity is always prophesying, not in the narrow sense of foretelling future events, but in the broad and far more important sense of voicing the saving and blessed will of God to men everywhere. In 1 Cor. 14 Paul speaks of this as the best and highest gift of the Spirit; and Luther writes: “What are all other gifts together compared to this gift, that the Spirit of God himself, the eternal God, comes down into our hearts, yea, into our bodies and dwells in us, rules, guides, leads us! Thus now, as concerning this passage of the prophet, prophesying, visions, dreams are all one thing, namely the knowledge of God through Christ, which the Holy Spirit kindles and makes to burn through the Word of the gospel.” The fact that Luther is correct is shown by Peter when in v. 18 he adds to both the Hebrew and the LXX texts: “and they shall prophesy.” This is interpretative and repeats “they shall prophesy” from v. 17.

“Your sons and your daughters” is amplified by “your young men” and “your old men,” the possessives referring to the Jews to whom the Spirit first came through the apostles. The three lines of Hebrew poetry are parallel and synonymous statements, which means that all the predicates belong to all the subjects, sons, daughters, young men, old men. So the three predicates form a unit, each predicate saying the same thing with variation, as each subject is only a variation. All shall prophesy, confess, and tell the gospel, and thus the young men shall see glorious visions of its progress and its victories, and the old men shall dream dreams of its blessedness and its power, literally: “dream with dreams,” a Hebraism in the translation and not a case of a Greek cognate object.

Thus, the prophecy, visions and dreams of Acts 2:17 are all referring to, as Luther puts it, ‘the knowledge of God through Christ, which the Holy Spirit kindles and makes to burn through the Word of the gospel’. Yet this verse is cited in support of a very different kind of vision and dream, namely our hopes and plans for the future. Were those hopes and dreams tied specifically to the outworking of the Word of the Gospel, we might yet have accepted this as a valid interpretation. But no, the application is universal: ‘Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming’.

Can you see what a terrible and Satanic twisting of Scripture has occurred in the way that both Proverbs 29:18 and Acts 2:17 have been abused?

We use the same English word ‘dream’ for the thoughts, images and sensations we have when we are asleep, and also for our own hopes and aspirations for the future. Yet the two are entirely distinct concepts. Likewise, we use the word ‘vision’ to refer both to a direct revelatory encounter with God, and also for our ideas of what the future could be like and our plans for achieving our goals. Again, these two meanings are totally different.

Passages referring to prophetic revelation given directly by God, and to the knowledge of God through Christ, have thus been misused and misapplied as if they were about our own hopes, ideas and plans for the future. Two completely unrelated concepts – ‘revelation from God’ and ‘our hopes for the future’ – have been exchanged by a sleight of hand, and an entire doctrine concerning the latter built upon a demonstrably false reading of the Scriptures.

Notice too that the revelation of Proverbs 29:18 and prophecy of Acts 2:17 both have their origin in God and His Word. They are given at His initiative, and their content is from Him. Yet the assertion that ‘Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming’ leaves the initiative entirely in human hands. We are further instructed that ‘What we need today are great dreamers.’ The direct implication is that unless we busy ourselves with conjuring up some grand dreams, God is unable to act. Thus a Sovereign God is made subject to the actions of mortal man. ‘Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming’ is therefore merely the expression of an aggrandizing self-idolatry – an idolatry made more egregious by its attempted justification from Scripture.

And so we have (at best) an utterly irresponsible handling of the Word of God. There is no excuse for this, as the briefest reference to any reputable commentary would dispel the notion that either of these passages is about our hopes and dreams for the future (at least, other than in so far as they are concerned with the Word of the Gospel). Nowhere does the Bible teach that ‘Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming’, and that doctrine certainly cannot be found in either Proverbs 29:18 or Acts 2:17.

I am therefore immensely disheartened to see this dross on the Desiring God website. This is not ‘doctrinal and sound’. My disappointment is heightened especially because I have favourably linked to Desiring God content in the past.

Now, in case you think these things are of no great consequence in the church, please take the time to listen to Chris Rosebrough’s review of Mark Burchell’s ‘Dream Killers’ sermon. The review starts about 59:30 into the podcast, and shows exactly the serious consequences of this kind of teaching.

Going back now and reading more carefully the The Battle for Your Mind notes, it is striking how every single point involves something we must or must not do. There is nothing about what Christ has done for us. It is pure law. There is no Gospel here at all. No Christ crucified for our sins. No Christ raised for our justification. Just things we must do. How incredibly depressing.

As an antidote to this, let me come back to a point that I made above concerning God’s rebuke of Aaron and Miriam. I wrote:

We see from this encounter that the normal way for God to communicate with his prophets was in a vision and a dream. Moses was an exception, since God spoke with Him face to face.

God’s speaking ‘face to face’ with Moses immediately reminds us of Christ, the ‘prophet like you’ that God promised Moses would one day come:

And the LORD said to me: ‘What they have spoken is good. I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words, which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?’—when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:17–22, NKJV)

(The prophet who presumes to speak in the name of God something that God has not command him to speak should take heed of the penalty for this sin. There are many false prophets speaking this way in the visible church today.)

Christ, of course, testified that He had seen God (face-to-face, as it were), thus declaring Himself to be the ‘prophet like you’ that God promised to Moses. But look at the context of that claim:

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws [drags] him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me. Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.

The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”

Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”

These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.

Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?”

John 6:44–60, NKJV

Jesus is saying here not only that He has seen the Father, and that He was sent from God, but also that He is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘they shall all be taught by God’ (Is. 54:13). Jesus thus asserts Himself to be the very God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The God who once spoke by His prophets now speaks directly to His people.

The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. (Heb. 1:1–4, NKJV)

And what does the Son of God say?

This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world. (John 6:50–51, NKJV)

Christ says of Himself that He is the bread that comes down from heaven, that we may eat of Him and not die, but live forever!

All mankind was cursed in Adam on account of his sin, locked out from Eden and kept away from the tree of life, lest he ‘eat, and live forever’:

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Gen. 3:22–24, NKJV)

But now, we see that the terrible curse upon us in Adam is undone in Christ. For Christ is our Tree of Life, and He tenderly invites us to eat of Him and live forever. Christ says: ‘If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’

This, then, is the Gospel: Christ’s body broken for the life of the world and His blood poured out for the remission of sins. The message of Scripture is not ‘Nothing happens till somebody starts dreaming’, but Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification. Repent, therefore, and believe this Good News.


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