In this chapter, Matthew provides us with the infancy account of Jesus, how, several years after the birth of Jesus, the "wise men" came to worship the new King and how the holy family--Jesus, Mary, and Joseph--fled to Egypt for fear of King Herod and then settled in Galilee following the tyrant's death.
Joseph, like his Old Testament namesake, several times hears from God in dreams.
In this chapter, dreams play an important part in five verses.
First, a dream from God plays a part in the story of the wise men, who had initially told Herod about their quest to follow a star, which they saw as an announcement of the birth of the King promised in Old Testament, thinking that Herod would be as overjoyed by the birth as they apparently were. (He wasn't.) After seeing the child and presenting him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, verse 12 says:
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.We don't know how many wise men traveled in this party. (Or how many servants came with them.) Traditionally, we've said that there were three, but that's only because of the three gifts they left for the baby King at the house in which He and His family were then living in Bethlehem.
But verse 12 makes me wish that Matthew had told us how many wise men there were and if only one of them had the dream or if more than one did. Of course, it's ultimately not important. But I wonder, were they all convinced by the dream of one person or, at breakfast the day after seeing Jesus, did several of them compare notes, then call a meeting of the entire group, and decide that multiple dreams were too much of a coincidence?
We'll never know this side of heaven, of course. But the decision to flee Herod is interesting in that the earlier part of chapter 2 seems to show the wise men to be blind to how Herod's murderous jealousy was aroused by their quest to find the new King. In fact, Herod seems to see the wise men's naiveté and credulity in his instructions to the wise men, telling them duplicitously: "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage" (verse 8).
The dream mentioned in verse 12 changed the wise men's minds about Herod.
Joseph often relied on dreams to get direction from God. And we see that exemplified several times in Matthew 2:
Now after they [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." (verse 13)
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." (verses 19-20)
"But when he [Joseph] heard that Archelaus [an heir of Herod, who was at least as murderous as his father had been] was ruling over Judea [where Bethlehem is located] of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. (verse 22)I believe God uses all sorts of methods to communicate with us. And though it's only happened to me, and not to warn me, but to reassure me, I believe that God can and does still communicate with believers today through dreams.
I think that those who are gifted in the area of dreams--like the Joseph in the Old Testament and the Joseph of Matthew 2--hear from God through dreams more frequently than happens with other believers who don't possess this gift.
That's the way spiritual gifts work. Romans 12:1-2, for example, identifies giving as a spiritual gift. This doesn't mean that other believers are exempted from giving; it means that those with this gift are to do so with greater generosity and are able to do so with greater facility. Just the same, some believers may be gifted with a dream once in their lifetimes, while others, as part of their spiritual gifts, receive dreams from God all the time. Joseph was a dreamer.
The wise men weren't even believers, though one can surmise that at least some of them became believers after their trip to Bethlehem. They were superstitious astrologers and God somehow used their superstitions to lead them to His Son. But, in this chapter thick with dreams from God, the wise men too, are warned by God in a dream.
A few observations about the dreams of Matthew 2:
First, all of the dreams in this chapter are designed to protect the child. The child, Jesus, has a particular role to play in salvation history. But God in the flesh needed protection until He was able, on God's time to fulfill that role.
Second, the dreams come unbidden, so far as we know. Neither the wise men nor Joseph ask God for dreams. In fact, except for the dream in verse 22, the dreams come to the wise men and Joseph when they themselves seem not to have expected that danger was looming. They had no idea that they needed to receive the warnings that come to them in these dreams.So, I wondered, what about us, when can we know that a dream is from God and not just something we ate the night before? A few thoughts, not to be taken as definitive truth from God, but only observations based on Scripture. (As always, I could be wrong.)
- First, a dream from God will never tell you to destroy, only to protect or preserve and so, pursue God's plans in history. The dreams received by Joseph and the wise men were designed to protect the child.
- Second, a dream from God will always conform to the revealed purposes of God, as seen in His Word, the Bible. This is of central importance. When the wise men set off from the East--possibly Persia--to follow the star, they did so with some awareness of the Old Testament prophecy of a King who would set the world right. Joseph, as a pious Jew, knew these prophecies well. So, when the dreams came to these men, they knew that their directives were designed to make the revealed will of God come to being through this baby King. He must be preserved until the time came for Him to do His ministry.
- Third, dreams from God come unbidden. God is sovereign. If God sends you a dream, it almost certainly won't be because you wanted it. The dreams in Matthew 2 roused the men to action in order to further the purposes of God, not the desires of the dreamers.
- Fourth, when dreams from God call believers to action, it will likely bring them inconvenience or danger or ever worse. Dreams from God will often, it seems, tell us to do things we hadn't even thought of doing or wouldn't, if we were asked in advance, want to do. There's no self-aggrandizing in dreams from God. The wise men were forced to go back to their homes by a less direct route in order to avoid telling Herod where they had found the child. That was inconvenient. Joseph had to pull up stakes and go to places he'd had no intention of going, all to protect a child that was genetically, neither his nor Mary's.
Just a few thoughts. Thank You, God, for Your Word. Amen