Every Advent, much of the media spotlight shines on the Virgin Mary. She is the subject of countless cover stories, it seems. And no wonder. Mary says, “From now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), a statement that is impossible to dispute.
Yet the season also gives us another, less-celebrated disciple whose faithful obedience changed the course of history—Joseph, the husband of Mary and human father of Jesus. Joseph, like his Old Testament namesake, was a dreamer—and sometimes the carpenter’s dreams led to divine interruptions.
Matthew’s Gospel tells of four dreams that Joseph had. The first occurred after he heard the shocking news that Mary, his betrothed, was “with child.”
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
We need not rehash the scandal that Mary’s pregnancy would have caused in first-century Israel. Dreams during such a turbulent, heartbreaking time would have been natural for Joseph as he tossed and turned through the night watches, considering his options. But the dream he had this night was different. In it, an angel spoke to him by name, vouching for Mary’s character and predicting the coming Savior prophesied by Isaiah.
When Joseph awoke, he knew this was no ordinary dream. While our modern-day secular hubris might tempt us to dismiss the ancients as gullible rubes who believed that every dream was a message from on high, the Scriptures note that skepticism in such matters was not unknown.
- In Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon has a troubling dream and demands that his wise men supply the interpretation. To prevent them from simply making it all up, however, the king refuses to tell them the content of his dream!
- In 1 Samuel 6, God smites the Philistines with plagues after they capture the Ark of the Covenant in battle, so their rulers soon decide to give the sacred object back to Israel. They place it on a cart pulled by two cows and remark that if the cows return the ark to Israel of their own accord, “then it is [God] who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.”
- Even Zechariah, in Luke 1, doubted Gabriel’s message that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son.
In Joseph’s case, however, there is no doubt about the genuineness of the dream or its message. When he awakes, he obeys, dropping his plan to divorce pregnant Mary quietly. He takes Mary as his wife, refrains from sexual relations with her until after the Child is born, and names the Boy “Jesus,” which means “Savior.”
What Joseph thought about this divine interruption we cannot know for sure, but it is clearly part of a larger divine plan “spoken by the prophet” hundreds of years before. God’s Word written confirms God’s Word spoken—even in a dream.
Joseph’s second dream occurs after the departure of the Magi, and it results in another divine interruption.
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
As with the first dream, an angel conveys the message, Joseph obeys, and a prophecy is fulfilled. In this case, the divine interruption to Joseph’s plans is significant—he must take his family out of the Promised Land “by night” to escape Herod’s murderous intent. It is an urgent divine relocation.
The third dream comes after Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and the death of the wicked king.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.
Like the first two, this dream includes an angel and is followed by Joseph’s seemingly immediate obedience. Unlike the first two, however, there is no formulaic phrase about Joseph’s action being the fulfillment of prophecy, likely because it serves as the second half of God’s Son being called “out of Egypt.”
Joseph’s fourth dream apparently redirects his family from the intended destination of Judea, where danger still looms, to the safer and more remote environs of Galilee.
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Following the warning (presumably by an angel), Joseph withdraws to his hometown of Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that [Jesus] would be called a Nazarene.”
(While no Old Testament prophecy spells out this location, some Bible scholars suggest Matthew, the most Jewish of the four Gospels, is summarizing or alluding to a larger theme of several Old Testament “prophets.” See, for example, G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, editors, “Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament” (Baker Academic, 2007), 11.)
Regardless of the precise meaning of the prophecies alluded to, it is clear that this fourth dream, as with the three previous, follows the same pattern: an angelic message in a dream, followed by Joseph’s obedience to the divine interruption, followed by a statement that prophecy has been fulfilled.
Of course, most of us Westerners today—unlike people in biblical times—do not expect God to speak to us in a dream, and perhaps this is just as well. Those who claim to hear God’s voice—or the voice of His angel—may be (1) telling the truth, (2) lying, or (3) suffering a delusion. However, many Christians around the world, particularly of the Pentecostal or charismatic variety, are not surprised to hear from the Almighty during the night watches. As well, many Muslims are reporting seeing the Lord Jesus in their dreams and often have the message confirmed later by missionaries who bring them the Word of God. But as with Joseph, it is vital to compare any messages received with the final and authoritative Scriptures.
Whatever one thinks of the possibility of divine revelation coming through our dreams, we need to ask ourselves a simple question: Are we ready to have God interrupt our dreams and send us on a divine detour? Perhaps you were unexpectedly relocated this last year or faced a sudden illness. Was your response like that of Joseph, reflecting an eagerness to participate in the divine plan?
Or maybe your dreams will be interrupted by an unmistakable divine interruption this year. Are you ready to be redirected or relocated, at a moment’s notice, for the advancement of the King and His kingdom?
In his own quiet way, Joseph was. No wonder the Scripture calls him “a just man.”
So put your head on your pillow and close your eyes—but be ready to be awakened. You never know what might happen when you start to dream.