As we read the gospel of Matthew, we notice that the atoning work of Jesus is bookended by providential dreams: five at the beginning of his life, and one at the end. The phrase κατ᾽ ὄναρ [in a dream] occurs in Matthew 1:20, 2:12, 2:13, 2:19, 2:22, and 27:19.
In the first dream, the miracle of Jesus’ birth was confirmed to Joseph. Imagine how he must have felt when his fiancée told him that she was not only pregnant—but that she was still pure and that the child was God’s. It is beyond belief!
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream [κατ᾽ ὄναρ], saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Matt 1:19-21
This first dream confirmed that Mary was being truthful, that a Savior would come, and that prophecy would be fulfilled. This dream gave Joseph the courage to do what the angel commanded, to take Mary as his wife, and to become the earthly father to the Son of God. Jesus’ arrival was announced in a dream.
In the second and third dreams, the new King was protected from the jealous wrath of an old King. When the wise men were trying to find Jesus and bring their gifts to him, Herod told them, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” But God knew that murderous intent was in his heart.
And so, after the wise men had found the child, they were
warned of God in a dream [κατ᾽ ὄναρ] that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream [κατ᾽ ὄναρ], saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.
These second and third dreams, one to the magi and the other to Joesph, protected the child so that his work of salvation would not be snuffed out before his time. The Savior of the world was himself saved from the attack of the devil. Once again, prophecy was fulfilled—so that upon his return Jehovah could say, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt 2:15). And once again, the dreams gave power to men to act. The wise men were able to avoid betraying the True King to a false one, and Joseph was able to protect the young child from a destroyer.
In the fourth and fifth dreams, the holy family could breathe a sigh of relief as they returned to their homeland, no longer in fear.
But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream [κατ᾽ ὄναρ] to Joseph in Egypt, Saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead which sought the young child’s life. And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream [κατ᾽ ὄναρ], he turned aside into the parts of Galilee: And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene.
These fourth and fifth dreams restored the Messiah to his rightful home in Israel. No longer would he be absent while his enemies seemingly had rule, but he would return. Once again prophecy was fulfilled: of all the places his family might take him, they took him to Nazareth so that he could be a Nazarene. And once again men were given the power to act. His parents once again uprooted their lives and returned to Israel; and though this return brought with it fear, the Lord God handled even this.
I believe that all five of these first dreams, while he was still a young child, anticipated the final dream—this time not to a doubting groom, or to worshiping wise men, or to a concerned father. This time the dream would not be about the Christ child, but about Jesus the adult in the last moments of his earthly life. This time, this sixth dream would not even come to a man as all the others had. This time, the final dream would come to a woman: the wife of Pontius Pilate.
As Jesus stood on trial before this Roman governor,
When [Pilate] was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream [κατ᾽ ὄναρ] because of him. (Matt 27:19)
The first five dreams were dreams of consolation—that a Savior would be born, that Mary was sincere, that the miracle child would not be snuffed out by demonic jealousy, that it was safe for him to return to Israel, that prophecy would be fulfilled and the fore-ordinance of God would not be broken. But not this last dream. This sixth dream was a nightmare.
Pilate’s wife lay asleep—just as Joseph and the magi had done before—and she began to dream. Just like all the other dreams, I am convinced that this dream was from the Lord. What she saw, I do not know, for Scripture does not say. But it vexed her. It grieved her. It caused her to suffer. Did she know that the man of whom she dreamt would soon suffer for her? This last dream too was fulfilled: Jesus went to Calvary and suffered many things, to be the Savior of the world. Pilate’s wife “suffered many things in a dream,” but Christ was about to suffer many things—things all too real.
The first three dreams anticipated this final dream. When Joseph was told in a dream that a Savior was to be born, did Joseph know that this child would one day stand before Pilate? When the magi were warned about the jealousy of Herod, could they have know that the same child would be put on trial because of the envy of the Sanhedrin? When Joseph was warned to save the child’s life, did he know that one day that child would have to give his life? The first dream anticipated the salvation Jesus would bring on the cross. The second and third dreams anticipated the death Jesus would die on the cross.
But the fourth and fifth dreams also anticipated something. The first, second, and third dreams anticipated the final dream; the fourth and fifth dreams looked beyond it. Just as Jesus had to leave Israel as a boy, so Jesus had to leave earth as a man. The first time he left Israel to avoid death; the second time he left the world after submitting to death. But just as he returned to Israel then, so he will return to earth now to gather his redeemed.
The first five dreams caused men to act, but the last dream—the dream at Jesus’ death—could not stop the inevitable. No works could be done to prevent his death. Friend let me tell you: when we stand before the Cross, we have no works which we can perform. We cannot earn our salvation by any good work of our own. We must submit to the salvation which Christ brought on the cross. If you think you can earn heaven with your good deeds, you’re just dreaming! Please my friend, hear me: your own righteousness will end as a nightmare.
And yet you can still dream. You can dream of his salvation. The work and life of Jesus was bookended by dreams. The first dream announced his birth; the last portended his death. When he returns—to the wicked it will be a nightmare, but to the righteous it will be a dream come true.
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