The phrase “tongues of fire” is taken from Acts 2:3 which describes the events that occurred when the Holy Spirit was poured upon the believers on the day of Pentecost. Several important questions arise from this phrase —what is the meaning of tongues of fire? What does “divided tongues” mean? What exactly did these disciples see? And finally, what lessons are we to learn from this?
After His resurrection and before His ascension, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit was going to be given to His disciples
For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence…..But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:5-8 KJV).
This promise was gloriously fulfilled on the day of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit descended upon the believers causing a commotion in the entire city of Jerusalem.
And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:2-3 KJV)
The coming of the Holy Spirit had two physical manifestations: sight and sound! The believers heard a sound and they physically saw “something” on each other. We will be focused on what they saw with their natural eyes in this article.
Cloven tongues like as of fire
It will be helpful to review the NIV translation of Acts 2:3 at this time
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. (Acts 2:3 NIV)
First, I want you to note that the disciples physically saw something. It was not some dreaming or mystical seeing with spiritual eyes. They saw something physical. But what did they see? The scriptures describe clearly what they saw as “cloven tongues like as of fire” ( KJV) or as the NIV puts it “what seems to be tongues of fire that separated and came and rest on each of them”. In essence, they saw something that looked like fire and that was divided in some sort. It was not fire but looked like fire. This is prophetic language. They saw something and the best thing they knew that resembled it was fire. In fact, it might certainly be what God wanted them to picture—fire, because it had a deep spiritual connotation to what was going on.
It is not the first time the Holy Spirit is associated with fire. In fact, fire is one of the Emblems of the Holy Spirit used in scripture. In fact from the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, John the Baptist said
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: (Matt. 3:11 KJV)
They saw something that looked like fire. That was a message by itself that God was communicating to them about the operation of the Holy Spirit—like fire. The fire was not physical, literal fire. It was spiritual, figurative fire which is the symbolic meaning of what they saw physically. So what does this fire stand for in this verse? E.W Bullinger in the Companion Bible notes for Matt 3:11 gives us an important insight regarding the use of fire as symbolic of the operation of the Holy Spirit. He notes that Matthew is using the figure of speech called Hendiadys when he said “He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire”. He defines Hendiadys in his Appendix (No. 6) as “two words use, but one thing meant”. The “and” therefore in this phrase does not call for a separate thing. He was not talking about two distinct entities when he said “the Holy Ghost and with fire”. He was referring to one thing, using two words. This is so enlightening. He was describing the operation of the Holy Spirit as fire.
What does fire represent in scripture?
Fire in scripture is used to symbolize many things. If you look up in a resource such as R.A Torrey’s textbook, he lists 17 symbolic meanings of fire in the scriptures. Do all of these meanings apply to this scripture? Certainly not! This is where context becomes crucial. What does the Lord want to communicate to us through the figure of fire in this verse in reference to the work of the Holy Spirit?
Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Matt. 3:12 KJV)
Fire purifies. It consumes the chaff. When the Holy Ghost came upon the Apostles, these men had a spiritual, heavenly purification. They were thoroughly washed with soap from heaven. They were purified. Prophet Malachi says it so well
But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap: (Mal. 3:2 KJV)
This divine purification or heavenly bath occurs at salvation for every single believer. Fire purifies and consumes away every chaff and remnants of the old man and prepares the vessel for the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit in that believer. This is part of our salvation experience
Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; (Tit. 3:5 KJV)
Fire in our bones!
I think there is more to the fire in this verse than just purification work at salvation and ongoing sanctification that follows. A second symbolic meaning is also glaring in the text. The zeal, passion, boldness and spiritual fervor that came upon these disciples could not be hidden for one second. Have you ever been so full of the Holy Spirit that is seems as though “fire is burning in your bones”? The fire is not a consuming or a destructive fire. The Prophet of Jeremiah also felt this way,
Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay. (Jer. 20:9 KJV)
The Word of the Lord was burning in his bones like fire. Have you met a believer on fire for God? Is it hard to come by? There are few things more glorious than watching a life on fire for God. On the contrary, there are few things more sorrowful than watching a life without fire for God or worst, still trying to lead a group of believers without fire for God.
We need fire. We cannot fabricate or fake this fire. If there is oil, the fire will burn spontaneously and freely. If there is no oil, there will be no fire and there will be no light. You do not get fire by chasing it. You get it by simply filling your vessel with oil. If there is oil, you will burn. Oil comes primarily from the Word and quality time in prayer with the Spirit. There are no shortcuts.
What about the cloven or divided tongues of fire
There is another word in Acts 2:3 below that poses a lot of difficulties. It is what the KJV translates as “cloven”.
And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:3 KJV)
The Greek word translated cloven could mean “divide”, “separate” or “distribute”. They saw something that looked like fire, but that fire had some form of distribution amongst the disciples. The NET Bible translators are right in stating that the precise meaning of this word “is difficult to determine”. The cloven tongues could mean “tongues as of fire dividing up one to each person,” but it is also possible that the individual tongues of fire were divided (“And divided tongues as of fire appeared”) “(NET Bible notes).
Whatever the exact meaning of this word is, the most important part is that every single believer in that gathering had the tongue of fire resting upon them. Even though you might be part of a large congregation, the Holy Spirit’s fire is resting upon you individually as it does collectively.
Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Ac 2:3). Biblical Studies Press.
Torrey, R. A. (1897). The New Topical Text Book: A Scripture Text Book for the Use of Ministers, Teachers, and All Christian Workers (New, revised and enlarged edition, p. 93). Chicago; New York; Toronto: Fleming H. Revell.
Companion Bible by E.W Bullinger :Free Online version.
Quotations designated (NIV) are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984,2011 by International Bible Society, . All rights reserved worldwide.