When people hear of “cloven tongues,” they almost immediately think of Acts 2:3. As the Holy Spirit filled the 120 disciples in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost, “there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them” (KJV). Other translations refer to “divided tongues as of fire” (ESV) or “tongues as of fire distributing themselves” (NASB).
The word cloven means “divided” or “separated.” The picture is of something like a large fire appearing in the room then dividing into “tongues” that rested momentarily upon each person in the room. Luke is careful to say that this was not actual fire, only “what seemed to be . . . fire” (Acts 2:3). The dividing of the “fire” into small, tongue-shaped flames signifies several things: John the Baptist’s prophecy of Jesus’ baptizing people “with the Holy Spirit and fire” was possibly being fulfilled (see Matthew 3:11), there is one Spirit who gives many gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:11), there was a great variety of languages that the disciples were being enabled to speak (see Acts 2:6–11), and the disciples were being granted “fiery” eloquence to preach the gospel to all nations (see Acts 4:13).
Before His ascension, Jesus had told His disciples not to leave Jerusalem but to stay there and “wait for the gift my Father promised. . . . In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4–5). The gift of God came with an audible sign—the sound like a “rushing mighty wind” (Acts 2:2, KJV)—and with a visible sign—the “cloven tongues like as of fire” (verse 3, KJV). The Lord was true to His word, and the followers of Christ were changed forever. The presence of God Himself had come to indwell us, and the world was turned upside down (Acts 17:6).