It can be dangerous to discuss the spiritual gift of visions. After all they are purely subjective. There is no way for me to validate or deny someone else’s vision. I can certainly contest the Biblical nature of a vision (pointing to its alignment or disagreement with Scripture), but I can’t deny that someone had such an experience. The Bible invites us to acknowledge visions but not to elevate them to the level of supreme importance.
Within the New Testament, visions are said to be a common feature of the New Covenant age of the church. So, preaching at Pentecost Peter quotes the prophet Joel, saying:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; (Acts 2:17)
Seeing visions is to be expected in the church age, the age of the outpouring of the Spirit of God.
The Bible records a number of visions. We could look at Peter’s vision of the sheet with the unclean animals (Acts 10). Paul had eight visions recorded in the Scriptures:
- His first vision was his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-19)
- In Galatians 2:2 Paul tells us that a vision sent him up to Jerusalem
- On one of his missionary journeys he had a vision of a man from Macedonia calling to him (Acts 16:9-10)
- Later, the Lord appeared to Paul in a vision instructing him to return to Corinth (Acts 18:9-10)
- In Acts 22, Paul fell into a trance and the Lord instructed him to quickly leave Jerusalem for the Jews would not accept his testimony
- In Acts 23:11 Paul is given courage and informed that he will testify of Christ in Rome, again through a vision.
- While en route to Rome Paul also had a vision of an angel informing him that he must stand before Caesar (Acts 27:23-24)
- Finally, in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul describes a majestic vision that he is not allowed to repeat
The visions each had a specific purpose to strengthen and/or guide Paul. Visions from the Lord serve the recipient in those specific ways. So, visions are revelatory manifestations of God, given in visible form. While there are many types of revelations (audible words, internal impressions, a word of knowledge, etc.), visions emphasize the visible manifestation.
The Bible encourages us to acknowledge the existence of visions and to celebrate the special blessings they can provide.
At the same time the Bible does not want us to make more of visions than is appropriate. Visions do not, for example, prove the legitimacy of someone’s ministry. When Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 about his own vision this is exactly the point he wants to make: visions don’t validate ministry to others. Paul says it this way:
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me
Paul indicates that there is no value to the Corinthians in his “boasting” of “visions and revelations of the Lord.” In fact, he is very clear that they should judge and evaluate Paul based on what they see in him and hear from him. Paul’s point, then, is not to minimize visions entirely, but to hold them in a proper place. Visions don’t prove the validity of a ministry.
God may choose to give visions as He has done in the past. Joel’s prophecy indicates that it was to one day be a common experience among the people of God (Joel 2:28-29). Presently we see this sort of thing happening particularly among Muslims whom the Lord is bringing to faith all over the world (see this article in the Christian Post as just one example). God may use visions for any number of reasons: warning, encouragement, guidance, intimacy, communion, revealing the future, commanding, and evangelism. As with all gifts, however, visions are subject to the Scriptures. They do not hold more authority than God’s Word and are required to be interpreted, understood, and responded to according to Scriptural truth. Any vision that is contrary to Scripture is not of God. The subjectivity of this gift requires us always to be on guard against abuse and misuse. Visions are to be celebrated but not elevated to unbiblical statures.