Bible Q&A – Did the Apostles Expect Christ to Return During Their Lifetime?

Question: A man I was talking with told me that the Bible isn’t true because it shows the Apostles thought Jesus’ return would be during their lifetime. And that, since Jesus didn’t come back when they expected it (and still hasn’t), they obviously didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. Can you help me?–C.F. from Indiana.

Thank you for asking such a great question. Believe it or not, this is actually a common attack against the Bible. Unfortunately, though, many people who try to defend the Bible answer this attack in ways that are actually self-defeating. By that, I mean many of the answers that Christians give to this attack are actually in favor of the attacker!

Let me give you some examples. These are not quotes, but paraphrases of what some Christians have said in the past to answer this attack.

  • When they said that the coming of Jesus was “at hand” (that is, very close), the Apostles were just saying that we should live like Christ could come in our lifetimes.

Do you see that on one hand, these Christians acknowledge that the Bible says the coming of Christ was indeed “very close,” but then on the other hand, they deny what they just admitted.

  • The Apostles expected the coming of Jesus to be during their lifetime, but they were just humans and didn’t know everything. But that doesn’t affect the reliability of the Scriptures.

The problem with this argument is that by saying the apostles were mistaken, or just expressing their opinion on when Jesus would return, it calls the rest of the New Testament letters into question. After all, if a plain, direct statement such as “the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:8) was just an opinion, how many other things are actually just opinion? It undermines the credibility of the entire New Testament.

What is just as unfortunate is that these arguments are used in Bible classes to “explain” (or better stated, “explain away”) these statements about the coming of Christ.

Let’s look at two things which will answer the question.

The First Thing.

the New Testament writers absolutely stated (by inspiration) that Jesus would return during the first century. There is no sense in denying these clear Bible statements:

  • “Therefore, YOU [first century Christians] be patient unto the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7).
  • “The coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:9).
  • “The end of all things is at hand” (I Peter 4:7).
  • “Enoch also, the seventh from Adam, prophesied of THESE [first century false teachers], saying ‘Behold the Lord is coming with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all, and convince all that are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds which they have ungodly committed, and of all their hard speeches which ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’ These [first century false teachers] are [present tense] murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaks great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage” (Jude 14-16).
  • “…Things which must shortly come to pass. …the time is at hand. …Behold He [Jesus] is coming [present tense] with clouds” (Revelation 1:1, 3, 7).

The New Testament writers believed Jesus would return very soon after they wrote. But this wasn’t just their guess or their opinion. This was an inspired message from the Holy Spirit! It was God Himself giving this message to the first-century Christians.

The Second Thing:

These statements of the imminent coming of Jesus Christ–the coming that the New Testament writers expected to come in the first century–weren’t about Jesus Christ coming at the end of time to destroy the universe. They were in regards to a different “coming” of Jesus Christ.

In Matthew 24, Jesus Christ talks about the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. He says that it will be the worst destruction to ever befall a nation in history. In fact He says there’s never going to be any national destruction worse than what would happen to Judah and Jerusalem (Matthew 24:21). Jesus also gives them a time-frame so they would know when to expect it: “this generation shall not pass until all these things be fulfilled” (Matthew 24:34). This destruction, prophesied by Jesus, would come during the lifetime of some of those who were listening to Him.

You might ask Why is that important? It’s because of this: Jesus describes this destruction, this judgment on the Jewish nation, as “the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:27, 30).

This destruction, this coming of Jesus Christ in judgment on Jerusalem, happened in AD 70–and it is this coming of Jesus that the apostles spoke about as being imminent. This took place during the lifetime of some of Jesus’ original disciples.

The apostles knew what they were talking about, and they were right when they said that Jesus’ coming [in judgment on Jerusalem] was “at hand.”

When we understand that there’s more than one “coming” of Jesus Christ mentioned in the Bible (one of them imminent, the other one not imminent), this once-confusing “problem” disappears.

-Bradley Cobb

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