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

9 thoughts on “Bible Q&A – Did the Apostles Expect Christ to Return During Their Lifetime?”

  1. Mr. Cobb, how would you explain that relative to the Revelation, written around 95 AD, Matthew was written some 20 – 30 years earlier, meaning that the events of 70 AD would already have happened and Revelation would, therefore, be looking back on the events and not forward? This would render the present tenses mute because they would be past events rather than present or future events.

    1. Revelation was written in the 60s AD, and Matthew around 40-45 AD. For Revelation’s date, see this outline. For the date of Matthew, see the unanimous opinion of early church writers that Matthew was the first gospel account written, many stating it was a mere ten years after the resurrection of Jesus.

  2. I don’t think that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD could by any stretch be called the return of Jesus Christ.

    1. I appreciate your comment. Jesus said that the destruction of Jerusalem would be “the coming of the Son of man” in Matthew 24. As I stated at the end of the article, there is more than one “coming” of Jesus in Scripture. One was imminent (otherwise the apostles weren’t inspired, and Jesus was mistaken), and one was at some unknown point in the future (Acts 17:31ff speaks of this coming and judging the whole world).

  3. Where does Matthew 25 fit into that (sheep and goats)? Is that a local judgement? And how do we know that there are two types of Jesus coming in the NT? How can we separate the two? And weren’t the apostles expecting the resurrection of the dead to happen because of the urgency (1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4:16, Romans 8)?

    1. Matthew 25 says “all nations” were gathered for that judgment and separated into two groups, the sheep and the goats. Thus it was not a local judgment.

      Paul told a group of Gentiles that there was a day coming in which God would judge the world by His Son, Jesus (Acts 17:31ff). If this was a local judgment, it cannot be the same as what is described in Matthew 24. That judgment was specifically upon the Jewish nation. Paul, however, described a judgment on “the world,” and used that as motivation to get a group of Gentile pagans to repent and obey the gospel. How strange must it be to understand it as, “Hey you pagan Gentiles. You’d better repent, because God is going to destroy the Jews–that group you don’t like anyway.”

      Thanks for the questions.

  4. Yes the apostles believed he would return in their lifetime because none of them understood the Prophecies. It’s not the first time God’s people missed the message. The entire Bible is a reference to God’s people messing up.

    Every character in the tanakah and the new testament (other than the messiah) screwed up, everyone of them. That the entire point of the book. When man fails, God succeeds, and when God succeeds man is blessed.

    The apostles missed the 7000 year 7 day prophecy. The same way this site misses it. God hides it and reveals it to whom he chooses.

    Yes the apostles misunderstood and made mistakes. None of that diminishes the Bible. Thr scriptures are the tanakh. The new testament are testimonies of men. The NT never claims to be the word of God. The word of God are the words from his mouth.

    1. Paul seemed to think his writings were from God.

      If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.(1 Corinthians 14:37)

      Peter agreed, calling them “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3.

      If Jesus kept His promise to give the apostles the Holy Spirit, who would guide them into “ALL truth,” and they received the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, and spoke and wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit–then what they wrote is the Word of God.

      What is it about the New Testament (and Jesus in particular) that you have such a problem with? Why are you intent on rejecting the One who died to save you? Why are you opposed to His hand-picked messengers?

      And why do you think men who were (1) given the Holy Spirit, and (2) guided into all truth somehow missed part of the truth? Are you calling Jesus a liar when He said ALL truth? Because you are claiming they didn’t have ALL truth. You claim they missed a “7000 year 7 day prophecy.”

      The reason they missed it is because it doesn’t exist.

  5. You are right. It is important to see that there are more appearances of Jesus further along in Revelation eg 14, 16, and then 19 where he kills a lot of people that do not have to overlap with the second coming. The second coming , and the rapture happened whatever they looked like. No oral tradition was passed onto the pre Nicene writers though as they thought it was future

    Revelation 1-12 happened first century. Zech 14 MT of Olives splitting into two then closing back up just like the red sea did happened first century with the second coming possibly when the remnant Israelite Christians were fleeing Jerusalem (flight to Pella).

    This is where preterists get it wrong- they think Revelation 13-22 happened first century AD when it did not. Revelation 13 is about modern 1948 country Israel, and the star of David is the mark of the beast. The synagogue of satan will issue it. We are not there yet obviously but that is next to happen. Most of Revelation is in chronological order also. 12 is a bit out of order but the rest is in order. Preterists have to re arrange entire chapters. From when the mark is issued to the great white throne judgement / new Jerusalem will be less than 100 years in my theory. 1000 year reign for Christians beheaded for not getting the mark will be spiritual in “heaven”, and is just 24 hours on earth (2 Peter 3 8).

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