A New Heart and a New Tongue
Understanding the significance of cloven tongues of fire
Robert Wurtz II
“Then there appeared to them cloven tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.” (Acts 2:3)
When God got ready to teach Peter that the Gentiles have been cleansed of their ceremonial uncleanness he used the illustration of unclean animals. That is to say, especially animals that did not have cloven hooves (Lev. 11:3-8). All through the centuries, God taught the people the difference between clean and unclean. Bulls, goats, and sheep were clean. Swine were unclean. Dogs were unclean. Some Jews consider swine so repulsive that they won’t even call them by their proper name but say “davar acher” meaning “other thing.”
These symbols were often transferred to Samaritan’s (half-Jews) and non-Jews as a reminder that they, like unclean animals, were unclean too (Matthew 7:6). In other words, they were unfit for the service of God or to be partakers of Holy things.
(Peter) saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” (Acts 10:11-15)
In the twenty-first century, it is impossible for us to understand how entrenched Peter’s attitude towards unclean things was. Not just him, but all Jews and non-Jews shared this view. Peter told God, no. Consider that. Nevertheless, God told Peter, What God has cleansed you must not call common. Keep that clear in your mind. When God cleanses something, it is no longer unclean.
An Old Testament Miracle
In Daniel chapter four God transformed Nebuchadnezzar inwardly from an unclean man (proud non-Jew) to a clean animal (Heb. <Tor.> meaning a bull or an ox). In an insightful way, God gave Nebuchadnezzar a clean heart; the heart of ceremonially clean animal that was used in His priestly service. For seven years Nebuchadnezzar’s heart made his mind and lifestyle like that of cattle.
Whenever Nebuchadnezzar sinned against the Lord, he did so with his tongue by declaring all the pride of his heart. It defiled him before God. This was not understood correctly at the time and today is not well understood. Although God used pictures of things like touching dead bodies or clean or unclean animals, true defilement has nothing to do with that. The laws and teachings were an analogy of true defilement.
When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, “Hear Me, everyone, and understand: There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. So He said to them, “Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” And He said, “What comes out of a man, that defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:14-23).
I have quoted this passage at length to demonstrate the reality of defilement. The mouth or more specifically the tongue is the defiling agent of every person. It communicates what is in the heart. These are two things, a foul heart, and a vicious tongue. The tongue is merely the instrument of the heart but plays an essential role in defiling a person before God. Keep this clear. Man needs a new heart and a new tongue if he or she is ever to be clean before God and shed the label of unclean, swine, or dog.
New Hearts and New Tongues
Ezekiel 11 and 36 specifically foretell of God giving a new heart. Jeremiah 31 follows this line. Jesus informs us in Mark 16 that people will speak with new tongues (Mark 16:17 Majority Text). This is good news when we consider that by our words we shall either be justified or condemned (Matthew 12:37). New as in “new” tongues is the Greek kainos, and it means qualitatively new. In other words, “new” regarding quality, not quantity. Simple “new” in Greek is neos as distinct from kainos. A simple new “neos” patch on an old garment will shrink and tear the garment when washed. A kainos new patch is both new and pre-shrunk for the purpose. If I might suggest this, the promised new tongues are tailored to fit the new heart. Together a new heart and a new tongue are essential to a new creature.
Nebuchadnezzar suffered for seven years with the heart of a clean beast. This event helped Nebuchadnezzar get himself a new heart (Ezekiel 18:31). When his mind returned, he also had a new tongue. Where before he spoke proudly now he humbly glorified God. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks. Our tongue is a great heart monitor. When we start talking, everyone gets a printout of our inward condition — clean or unclean.
Conscious of Unclean Lips
Also keep in mind that when Isaiah was in the presence of the Lord in Isaiah 6, he was keenly aware that he was a man of unclean lips. In other words, he had been saying things with his mouth that had defiled him before God. Paul takes up the universality of this problem in Romans: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN TOMB; WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY HAVE PRACTICED DECEIT”; “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Romans 3:13-14). This is a combined quote from Psalm 5:9, 10:7, and 140:3. If God is ever going to change mankind, he will have to deal with both the heart and the tongue.
Notice in Isaiah 6 how the angel came and touched Isaiah’s lips with a fiery coal from off the altar and his iniquity was purged. Keep this fact in mind when we arrive at Acts 2. It is instructive to see the place where the fire was applied. It was not his hand, and it was not his legs, it was not his chest, it was not anything else. It was his mouth.
God Fulfills His Promise
In Acts chapter 2, the atmosphere of the great event at Pentecost is the priesthood. It is Temple, and it is Priesthood, it is Fire, it is about ceremonial cleanness. When cloven tongues like us a fire appeared over the head of the people, it was God’s way of saying that they are now clean. In the figure of the cloven hoof, the cloven tongue spoke of acceptance with God for sacrifice and service. The inward defiling fountain of the heart has been replaced, and the tongue is consequently qualitatively new.
Jesus said they who believe would speak with new tongues. Again, this truth is essential because the tongue is depicted throughout the scriptures as being the means by which a rebellious and unrepentant heart expresses itself. The cloven tongue of fire represented a tongue burning with the love of God and no longer a source of defilement. The things that come forth from the mouth will now bless and not curse. No more poison of asps under the lips, but words of edification for man and praise for God.
These great truths bring us to the house of Cornelius and the story of the sheet of unclean animals that Peter saw in the beginning. Peter understood this vision to mean that God was no respect or of persons. The illustration of unclean animals will be essential to him making sense of what he is about to experience. Keep in mind that to this point in history non-Jews were swine and dogs.
In Acts 11 Peter is rehearsing these events and emphasizes the point, “But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common’” (Acts 11:9). This happened three times. Peter then stated, “At that very moment, three men stood before the house where I was, having been sent to me from Caesarea. Then the Spirit told me to go with them, doubting nothing. Moreover, these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house (Acts 11:11-12).
Peter listened to Cornelius, a non-Jew, tell him of how God has spoken to him. Then as Peter states, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:15-17)
Cloven = Clean
The Greek word here for “as” that Peter used for how the Spirit fell is hosper and it means “Wholly as, just as, and exactly like.” In the NT, it is used only in comparisons. This means clearly and without any argument that cloven tongues like fire set upon the Gentiles when the Holy Spirit fell upon them, too — just as it did us in the beginning. Now the whole sheet vision of unclean beasts makes sense. It is a graphic picture that hearkened back to the very beginnings in Leviticus and Deuteronomy when an uncloven hoof was unclean and cloven was clean. God had given the believing Gentiles new hearts and new tongues just as he gave the Jews. He used identical signs signifying equality in the scope of the transformation. He made Jews and non-Jews fit to be living sacrifices holy and acceptable unto Him (Romans 12:1f).