The fastest growing religion in my neck of Africa was founded on the belief that a specific angel in (of all places) North America appeared to a young man named Joseph Smith and unveiled a new “Testament of Jesus Christ.” Travel just a little north of here and you’ll quickly find another predominant religion—this one based on a similar angelic revelation to “the prophet” in a cave near Mecca. Add to this the reality that the most popular enterprise masquerading as Christianity throughout the African continent is the Neo-Pentecostal movement—a movement that gains influence by relating visions, dreams, and other signs of power—and it soon becomes clear that supernatural manifestations, such as dreams and visions, carry significant weight among African cultures.
Of course, the value placed on dreams and visions isn’t shocking when one understands that the basic structure of African Traditional Religion (ATR) is built on channeling revelations from ancestors and other types of spirits. So with ATR as a canvas, other movements such as Mormonism, Islam, and Neo-Pentecostalism can slip in and fill out the details with their own beliefs quite naturally.
A Surprising Encounter
One should expect to encounter syncretism—the blending of more than one religion—in the missionary task. But I must admit that the last place I expected to see this issue cropping up was in a Baptist seminary classroom. After all, Baptists have always been known as a people of the book. In fact, one of the central tenets or “distinctives” of the Baptist tradition is that of biblical authority. So I had assumed that if any group would remain unswayed by the ideologies of dreamers and mystics, it would be Baptist theology students. I was wrong.
The course was “Biblical Preaching” and the lecture for the day was on expository preaching, a type of preaching that proclaims the truth of a particular text of Scripture in light of its various contexts thereby exposing its meaning for the purpose of application. We discussed the fact that expository preaching is the logical outworking of an inerrant view of the Bible. For if we truly believe that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16), then the goal of our preaching should be to “expose” what Scripture says. To put it plainly, biblical preaching should amplify the voice of God, not that of the preacher or anyone else.
It was at this point that a young, particularly bright student raised his hand and, with all sincerity and earnestness, asked, “What do we do about dreams and visions?”
As a new and inexperienced missionary and professor, the thought entered my mind that maybe he had wandered into the wrong classroom that hour. Systematic Theology was being taught two doors down, and that would normally be the course to discuss issues of continuationism vs. cessationism (differing viewpoints on whether or not God still gives certain spiritual gifts, such as healings and speaking in tongues) and the work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps he intended his question for that professor.
As this student clarified, however, it became evident that this issue, for him, had everything to do with preaching. By virtually equating the voice of God with the testimony of the Scriptures, I had (in his mind) completely excluded another entire category of divine revelation. If we should only preach the Bible, then what do we do when God reveals Himself through dreams and visions?
The Teacher Learns a Lesson
By phrasing the question in this way and in this context, my student taught me more than I taught him that day. After all, I knew that the issue of dreams and visions extended much broader than this particular discussion. I had listened to and read myriads of testimonies from colleagues serving in hard and unreached parts of the world, places where God was revealing Himself to people who had never met a Christian, seen a church, or read a Bible. According to these reports, God was revealing Himself to people through dreams and visions.
At this point in the discussion, there tends to be some seat-shifting, and it isn’t long before the age-old dispute about the continuation of certain gifts of the Spirit is back on the table. So I knew this discussion had far-reaching implications. And yet, when my student posed his question in the context of biblical preaching, it helped me see it in a new light.
I don’t want to minimize the debate over which spiritual gifts are still viable today and how this issue relates to biblical mission; that is certainly a discussion worth having. But my student’s question led me to focus on what I believe is a more important one, namely, what is our primary mission to the world?
The goal of Christians should be for all peoples to, as Paul puts it, “be saved” (Rom 10:13). But Paul is clear in this passage that the only way anyone can “be saved” is by hearing the “word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). And, interestingly, when Paul reaches this conclusion he already has a strategy for how people must hear. In a tone bordering on anxious, Paul exclaims that the only way people can hear the word of Christ is if someone preaches it. So, Paul the Apostle, no stranger to the discussion of miraculous gifts (see 1 Cor 12-14), says proclamation of the word of Christ by people is the strategy for evangelism. And he doesn’t provide a contingency plan.
The Final Word
Is this to say Paul would have discounted any reports of dreams, visions, prophecies, or other manifestations as false? Again, that’s a discussion for another venue. But suffice it to say that Paul’s chief priority was that people hear, believe, and be transformed by the verbal proclamation of the word of Christ. As the author of Hebrews tells us,
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2a).
Jesus came as God’s final Word to the world. He taught and revealed many things, but then at the Last Supper (in response to a question about revelation), Jesus told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would come to “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26), as well as to “guide you into all truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak . . . he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13-14).
It only makes sense, then, that when the early church was formed, the first order of business for these believers (who also received the Holy Spirit, by the way) after repentance, baptism, and church membership, was devotion to the apostle’s teachings (Acts 2:42). And for those congregations who weren’t privileged to have apostles on site, Peter makes clear that the inspired writings of the apostles should be regarded as authoritative, elevating them to the level of the “other scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16)!
Small wonder that as the early church sought to clarify the canon of Scripture (the books that are recognized as inspired and are therefore included in the Bible), the primary qualification for a written document was apostolic authorship or oversight. The church fathers wanted to ensure that the message Christ (via the Holy Spirit) gave His apostles would be the same message passed on to His church throughout every generation. By preserving these teachings in written form, the apostles could guard against what Paul apparently saw as the real danger—that false teachers or even “an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you” (Gal 1:8).
Missing the Point
As I worked through these verses with my students, what became clearer to me (and hopefully to them) was that our approach to questions about dreams and visions is often lopsided. We hear sensational stories about God speaking to individuals through visions and, because we long to hear God speak, we lean in closer and covet such revelation. But what we often fail to see is that such dreams and visions, even if we concede their legitimacy, have never been the point.
Jesus never intended His body to be taught, rebuked, corrected, or trained by individual visions. Such a strategy would surely have been susceptible to being hijacked by any demon with a new deception to launch. Instead, Jesus taught His apostles (both in person and by the Spirit) who then passed on their teachings through the written word, which we now have in the Bible. This is how we can know we are hearing the word of Christ. Not because an angel told us so, but because Jesus Himself did! As the great hymn writer John Newton once said, “The appearance of an angel from heaven could add nothing to the certainty of the declarations he has already put into our hands.”
So as we engage the mission of Christ, particularly in the hard and unreached places, we should certainly celebrate if the Father were to choose to draw people toward faith in the Word by some miraculous means. But if we celebrate such fleeting revelations, how much more should we be awestruck that Christ has handed down His teachings to His church in a written form that will never pass away, even though heaven and earth will (Matthew 5:18)? We should be cultivating within ourselves and within those to whom we minister an insatiable eagerness to hear the word of Christ, not primarily from a mystical figure in a dream, but from a preacher who is sent to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
Regardless of our denominational background or our traditions, we should encourage people to have confidence in the authority of God’s Word. We can be sure that if a missionary, apostle, preacher, or even an angel from heaven, were to stand before us with a word of revelation, then, according to Scripture, that person would say nothing other than what Christ has already given us in His Word, the Bible.