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Then tongues

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like fire

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[that were] dividing

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appeared to them and sat

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upon each one of them.


Then tongue-shaped symbols of divine illumination that related to each individual, appeared to them and settled comfortably on each of them for considerable time, not like a flash that was quickly gone.



It seems that the flames of fire took the shape of tongues because the apostles would soon use their physical tongues to proclaim the message of Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit. The times in the Old Testament when God appeared as fire, it was never described as taking the shape of a tongue or tongue, but here He was preparing them for what would come momentarily.


Fire was consistently used as a symbol of either purification or punishment. Purification is the only option that makes sense here.


This is a present participle which seems to imply that the flame came as one source from heaven and then divided to rest upon each person.


Once again a form of the word “sit” is used. There may be a double meaning here – just as they were sitting and also dwelling in God’s “house,” the Holy Spirit came to sit (rest) upon them as well as to dwell within them. Both meanings apply in each verse.


The Jews relied heavily on patterns. The Bible is full of examples of the patterns connected to speaking in tongues. These patterns give tongues credence and illuminate us about its proper use. The Urim and the Thummim are a key part of those patterns.

The text of Acts 2:3 uses the phrase “tongues like fire,” which creates the picture in our minds of “flames” that look like tongues. The idea of flames and fire were both symbolic. The word “fire” had a symbolic meaning which was consistently used in Scripture for purification or punishment. However, it appears that the word and idea of “flame” had a different symbolic meaning – that of “light, illumination or revelation.” The text mentions both, one directly and one indirectly. The direct use of “fire” means that someone needs to be purified before he can be illuminated by God’s truth.  Before the disciples (now called apostles) could serve God properly, they had to be purified.

But the tongue-shaped flames of fire would have reminded the Jews of the time when the angel of God appeared to Moses in “a flame of fire” (Ex 3:2) from the midst of a bush, but the bush was not consumed. On Pentecost, the flames of fire “sat upon each of them” but they were not consumed by the flame, nor were they burned by it.

Those who knew the Old Testament well (and many of them did) would have remembered Is 5:24, where the connection between flames and tongues is obvious: my paraphrase says: “As tongues of fire lick up the stubble and as flames of fire cause dry grass to disintegrate…”

The mental picture of flames would further remind many Jews of the Urim and the Thummim that the Hight Priest would use to discern the will of God. The connection was that the Hebrew name Urim means “flame, light, clarity, enlightenment, revealing,” and the Hebrew name Thummim means “finish, completion, fulfillment.”

One of the key Old Testament verses about the Urim and Thummim is Exodus 28:30; here is my paraphrase: Then you shall place the flame of light and the end result in the High Priest’s pouch which he uses to make decisions in order to hang over the heart of THE ENLIGHTENED TEACHER when he goes before THE ETERNAL AND PERSONAL GOD. In this way THE ENLIGHTENED TEACHER shall carry near his heart the conclusions for the people that NEVER LET GO OF GOD; they will remain close to his heart as he serves THE ETERNAL AND PERSONAL GOD.

Under the Former Covenant, the High Priest carried the names of the twelve sons of Israel/twelve tribes, on his ephod, meaning he carried them on and in his heart. He was to be concerned for each of them. Their spiritual condition was partially his responsibility. In that era, people brought their burning questions to the High Priest and he carried them to God by use of the Urim and Thummim. When he received the answer (the revelation) from God he would carry God’s decision back to the person with the question, and, according to this verse, he would continue to carry God’s answer over his heart by continuing to carry the Urim and Thummim in a pouch next to his chest. It was a good answer; it was worth hanging on to, remembering and celebrating. In this way the High Priest was one of the points where God brought together His heart and the heart of His people.

Under the New Covenant, there would be some new things that would bring together God’s heart and the heart of all people. Tongues would be one of those things.

The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek about 200 plus years before Jesus by 70 Jewish scholars; it has been called the Septuagint because of the number 70. The name Septuagint is usually written with the abbreviation LXX, the Roman numeral for 70. In the LXX, Exodus 28:30 is translated using a word for Urim that means “to make plane (by words), declare, manifest, give understanding, to point out, show, or signify.” They chose to render Thummim with the Greek word meaning “moral truth, reality, certainty, truth appertaining to God and the duties of man, a mode of life in harmony with divine truth, integrity of character.”

Thus, any part of the New Testament that uses the ideas expressed by the Hebrew words Urim and Thummim, or the Greek words used in the LXX to translate Urim and Thummim, may have been referring to those things the High Priest carried in his ephod. Context must guide us in knowing if such a connection fits the passage. I believe that the connection is intentional in any passage about speaking in tongues which refers to some aspect of the Urim and Thummim.

The process started with a burning question for which a person could find no answer. The person with this problem would go the High Priest, who would do something with the Urim and the Thummim while asking God for the answer and God would reveal the answer. Scripture does not tell us clearly what the Urim and Thummim were, but many people think they were gemstones. Whatever they were, we do not know exactly how they were used in the process of acquiring an answer from God.

The tabernacle was intended to reveal God’s character, especially His holiness as it relates to sin and atonement. In the Tabernacle we see man’s questions about sin, atonement, and forgiveness (this can be called the question that preceded the Urim), we see God’s manifestation of Himself (Urim, light, clarification), and we see things we need to do correctly in order to draw closer to Him (Thummim, completion, prophecy).

We can also refer to the burning question as an unspeakable burden. But I will expand on this in conjunction with I Corinthians 14:2.


A scroll found among the Dead Sea Scrolls entitled “the Tongues of Fire” makes a connection between Acts chapter 2 and the Urim and Thummim, although in this case, God is speaking through the objects called Urim and Thimmim, not through the priest’s voicebox. My point here is that others have also seen a connection between Acts chapter 2 and the Urim and Thummim.

Here is the most crucial part of what the website has to say about it:

“The revelation of God’s word is accompanied by tongues of fire in both Exodus and the Book of Acts …”

“The Essenes of Qumran copied and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls and various other Jewish texts. These include a scroll entitled ‘The Tongues of Fire.’ The surviving parts of the scroll tell of ‘how tongues of fire would descend on the High Priest and speak through the Urim and Thurim and the stones on the breastplate of the High Priest.’”

Go to the following website for more information.


Mystery is a key biblical concept. In the Bible, the term “mystery” means an important spiritual truth that starts out in a veiled condition, something that is waiting to be revealed.

Often it is revealed to each of us as we obey. If something is called a mystery in the Bible, it is God’s intent to reveal it and make it clear, but we don’t know when He will do so. A biblical mystery is not something we can figure out if we try hard enough; it always requires a revelation from God.

Many things start out hidden, veiled, confused, and then God brings clarity; this is one of the primary ways God works. A good example is creation itself. Creation started with chaos, it was unclear, mysterious. First God created matter, primarily in the form of water. The creation narrative does not tell us how God did this (we can assume He spoke it into being like most other things), it simply starts with the presence of lots of water and with the Holy Spirit “moving softly and with care over the face of the waters.” At first the water was chaotic, unorganized. The first step in organizing matter was to say, “let there be light.” Illumination (Urim) is the first step toward bringing clarity to creation which started out chaotic and confused. During the next six days God brought about order which revealed an obvious design with the purpose of glorifying the Creator.

God often conceives something in obscurity and lack of clarity (the burning question that precedes Urim), later it is birthed in clarity or light (Urim), then it grows into effective fullness (completion, prophecy, Thummim).


The apostles and other followers of Jesus had been given the task of being witnesses of the death and resurrection of Jesus to everyone, near and far (Acts 1:8). But ever since Jesus had left them and returned to heaven, they had been wondering how they would accomplish this. They felt alone and afraid. Now they found themselves in the midst of a crowd of Jews or converts to Judaism from all over the known world. These people needed to know about Jesus who died for them and whom God raised from the dead. But how would they convince all these people that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah?

When one is walking in a relationship with God, it is expected that the burning question will be followed by God’s light (Urim – illumination, understanding) which in turn will be followed by a call to action (Thummim – completion, moral truth). However, we do not know how or when God will provide those responses to our burning question. It requires faith, trust and patience for us to remain faithful as we wait for God’s answer. On the day of Pentecost, God provided the answer to their question in a most unusual, most unexpected way, but a way that was as effective as we would expect God to be.


  • What are some of my burning questions? Name them or write them down.
  • Do my burning questions have to do with me, or with others?
  • Do I have a burden to see people turn to faith in Jesus?