What Does "Cloven Tongues" Mean in the Bible?
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What Does “Cloven Tongues” Mean in the Bible?

You open your Bible to Acts 2 and read about the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. They were all gathered together in one place when suddenly a sound like a mighty rushing wind filled the house where they were staying. What came next astonished them even more – “there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:3 NKJV). You may have heard this described as cloven tongues of fire. But what exactly does this mean?

Key Takeaways:

  • Cloven tongues refers to the tongues of fire that separated and rested on each of the apostles on the day of Pentecost.
  • It signifies the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the believers to empower them for ministry.
  • The cloven tongues enabled the apostles to speak in foreign languages they did not know before.
  • Speaking in tongues is a gift of the Spirit that continues today.
  • All believers can ask for and receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a pivotal moment in the life of the early church. As you read through the account, you realize the cloven tongues signified something new and important was happening. The Holy Spirit was being poured out on believers in a powerful way, providing supernatural abilities and boldness to spread the gospel. To understand the full meaning of cloven tongues, let’s explore the context, imagery, and impact of this defining moment.

The Context of Pentecost

Pentecost was an established Jewish festival also known as the Feast of Weeks. It took place 50 days after Passover and celebrated the wheat harvest and the giving of the law to Moses at Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:22, Deuteronomy 16:10). Pentecost marked the conclusion of the Passover season.

At this set time, Jesus’ disciples were gathered together in Jerusalem in obedience to His command that they wait for “the Promise of the Father” that they would “be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5). Jesus had already appeared to them resurrected from the dead. Now they were waiting for the gift of the Holy Spirit He had promised.

Little did they know that the day of Pentecost would usher in a new epoch for God’s people. The Old Covenant given through Moses pointed to this climactic moment. Now the New Covenant would be established through the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus. The law written on tablets of stone was giving way to the law written on human hearts by the Spirit (Jeremiah 31:33, Hebrews 8:8-12).

You can imagine the excitement and anticipation in that upper room as the disciples waited and prayed. They knew something amazing was about to happen that would change everything. The feast of old was becoming new.

The Imagery of Cloven Tongues

The disciples heard an ominous sound like a mighty wind whipping through the house. Luke’s original Greek uses the word “pneuma” meaning spirit, wind, or breath. Suddenly, small flames – like tongues of fire – began to appear over each person. These tongues then separated into smaller flames that rested on each one.

This was no ordinary fire. Its source wasn’t wood or oil, but the breath of God! The tongues had split miraculously over each individual believer, showing the personal impartation of the Spirit’s power.

The imagery of wind and fire harkens back to the presence of God displayed numerous times in the Old Testament. For example:

  • God appeared to Moses through the burning bush that was not consumed (Exodus 3:2).
  • God led the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Exodus 13:21).
  • Elijah called down fire from heaven upon his water-drenched sacrifice, proving the Lord’s supremacy over Baal (1 Kings 18:38).
  • Ezekiel saw the Spirit of the Lord in the middle of the divine chariot as a great cloud with swirling fire and brightness (Ezekiel 1:4).
  • God promised through Joel that He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh in the last days like flames of fire (Joel 2:28-29).

The tongues of fire at Pentecost announced the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. This was a new revelatory moment for God’s people like what came upon Moses at the burning bush. But instead of one leader, now all the Lord’s followers would prophesy by His Spirit (Numbers 11:29).

The fire represented the purifying presence and power of God at work in believers’ lives. John the Baptist said the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). Believers are called to “fan into flame” their spiritual gifts (2 Timothy 1:6). And God Himself is described as a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).

At Pentecost, the disciples visibly experienced the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The split tongues of fire showed the Spirit now resided within each follower of Christ, not just on select leaders. God’s power was multiplied exponentially to equip all believers for service.

The Impact at Pentecost

The Spirit’s fiery descent dramatically emboldened and empowered the early church. The disciples spilled out into the streets speaking in languages they didn’t know before. Jews from all over the world were astounded to hear God’s wonderful works proclaimed in their own tongues (Acts 2:5-12).

Peter stood and gave a bold sermon explaining the meaning of the Spirit’s outpouring. He fulfilled Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would teach the disciples what to say in the moment (Luke 12:12). Peter’s preaching cut to the heart of the crowd. About 3,000 people believed and were baptized, adding them to the church (Acts 2:14-41).

This fearful band of believers was transformed into a mighty force for spreading the gospel. The cloven tongues enabled them to bridge linguistic and cultural barriers to declare God’s glory. The international community represented in Jerusalem heard the good news in their heart languages as the Spirit prophesied through His willing vessels.

Speaking in Tongues Continues Today

The account of Pentecost is often considered the origin of the gift of tongues in the New Testament church. However, tongues as a manifestation of the Spirit was not new. The Old Testament records ecstatic speech by the prophets when the Spirit came upon them. In 1 Samuel 10, Saul began prophesying with other prophets when the Spirit rushed on him.

Speaking in tongues transcends normal human speech. It allows the Spirit to speak mysteries through us directly to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). Every believer can ask for and receive the gift of tongues along with the baptism of the Spirit. This is your heavenly prayer language.

Paul encourages all believers to pursue spiritual gifts like tongues, while also reminding us to use tongues appropriately and in order during church meetings (1 Corinthians 14:1-40). The gifts of the Spirit are available today just as they were in the early church. As you walk by the Spirit and yield yourself fully to Him, you too can experience the miracle of speaking supernaturally in tongues.

You Can Ask for the Baptism of the Spirit

Just as the tongues of fire imparted power to each individual at Pentecost, you too can receive that same Spirit baptism today. Jesus promised rivers of living water would flow from the heart of all who believe in Him (John 7:38). Drink deeply of the Spirit’s presence. He wants to fill you to overflowing until you are drenched in the power and fire from above!

The cloven tongues rested upon ordinary people like you and me. When the Holy Spirit comes in power, He enables us to do extraordinary things for God’s glory. You don’t need to wait for another Pentecost. The promise is for you and your children (Acts 2:39).

Open your heart today to receive fresh fire. Let the consuming presence of the Lord refine you and ignite a passion for Him. Fan into flame every gift He’s given you. Then step out in boldness to declare His goodness in ways you didn’t think were possible. Cloven tongues of fire still fall on yielded vessels. Simply ask and believe to be filled to overflowing with the Spirit’s power. Expect new tongues to speak mysteries and praises back to the One who gave you breath. There is no limit to what God can do through Spirit-filled believers who surrender fully to Him. The wind of the Spirit is blowing even now. Align your sails to catch the gusts of His power!

Pastor Duke Taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.