J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016)

Renowned Old Testament pastor-scholar J. Alec Motyer has passed away at the age of 91

While I believe I have read and used all of Dr. Motyer’s published works over the course of my life, three of his books were transformative to my ministry in particular. In my early days as a preacher his commentary on Amos, sub-titled “The Day of the Lion,” was a huge help to me as I struggled for the first time to expound the minor prophets.


Renowned Old Testament pastor-scholar J. Alec Motyer has passed away at the age of 91.

Born John Alexander Motyer (pronounced maw-TEAR [as in the “tear” of “teardrop”] in Dublin, he graduated with a BD (1949) and MA (1951) from Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Ireland, and did further studies at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.

He was ordained in the Church of England in 1947 as a deacon, and then in 1948 as a priest, serving as a curate in Penn Fields, Wolverhampton (1947-1950), and at Holy Trinity Church in Bristol (1950-1954). In Bristol, he also served as Tutor, and then Vice Principal, of Clifton College (1950-1965).

From there, he became Vicar of St Luke’s, West Hampstead (1965-1970), but returned to Bristol as Deputy Principal of Tyndale Hall (1970-1971), and then became the Principal of the reconstituted Trinity College (1971-1981).

His final decade of active parish ministry was as the Minister at Westbourne (Bournemouth) (1981-1989).

A biographical sketch summarizes some of his publication and influence:

Few men of his generation have taught so many Anglican ordinands while also having parish experience and academic distinction; of a clearly Reformed stamp, for more than 40 years he has also been an occasional speaker at the Keswick Convention and some of its overseas equivalents. The author of an early ‘Tyndale monograph’ on Exod 6, The Revelation of the Divine Name (1959), a ‘Hodder Christian paperback’ After Death(1965), and a major commentary on Isaiah (1993), he has also contributed to Bible and Theological Dictionaries and written on Amos, James, Philippians, Zephaniah and Haggai, Psalms, Exodus, (‘A scenic route through the OT’ and ‘The days of our pilgrimage’), on the OT in general (Discovering the Old Testament) and (with his son Stephen) on Thessalonians.

Tim Keller explains the influence on his own approach to the Bible, becoming one of his “fathers in ministry”:

Approximately 40 years ago, during the summer between my undergraduate college years and seminary, I was working and living with my parents in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. One evening I drove over the mountains down into a long valley in the midst of the Laurel Highlands and came eventually to the Ligonier Valley Study Center, just outside the little Western Pennsylvania hamlet of Stahlstown, where R. C. Sproul was hosting at his regular weekly Question and Answer session a British Old Testament scholar, J. Alec Motyer. As a still fairly new Christian, I found the Old Testament to be a confusing and off-putting part of the Bible.

I will always remember his answer to a question about the relationship of Old Testament Israel to the church (I can’t remember if R. C. posed it to him or someone from the audience). After saying something about the discontinuities, he insisted that we were all one people of God. Then he asked us to imagine how the Israelites under Moses would have given their “testimony” to someone who asked for it. They would have said something like this:

We were in a foreign land, in bondage, under the sentence of death. But our mediator—the one who stands between us and God—came to us with the promise of deliverance. We trusted in the promises of God, took shelter under the blood of the lamb, and he led us out. Now we are on the way to the Promised Land. We are not there yet, of course, but we have the law to guide us, and through blood sacrifice we also have his presence in our midst. So he will stay with us until we get to our true country, our everlasting home.

Then Dr. Motyer concluded: “Now think about it. A Christian today could say the same thing, almost word for word.”

My young self was thunderstruck. I had held the vague, unexamined impression that in the Old Testament people were saved through obeying a host of detailed laws but that today we were freely forgiven and accepted by faith. This little thought experiment showed me, in a stroke, not only that the Israelites had been saved by grace and that God’s salvation had been by costly atonement and grace all along, but also that the pursuit of holiness, pilgrimage, obedience, and deep community should characterize Christians as well.

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