Question & Answer
J. Alec Motyer

Dr. J. Alec Motyer

You Can Understand the Old Testament!

A noted Old Testament scholar, Dr. J. Alec Motyer was formerly principal of Trinity College and Vice-Principal of Clifton Theological College in Bristol, England. Also a veteran pastor, he was most recently Vicar of Christ Church, Westbourne in Bournemouth, England. Now retired, he devotes himself to writing and preaching. He is the Old Testament editor for the New Bible Commentary, one of the best one-volume evangelical Bible commentaries available. He is also Old Testament editor of InterVarsity Press's commentary series, The Bible Speaks Today, and author of the volumes on Amos, Philippians, and James in that series. More recently he has written A Scenic Route Through the Old Testament, Look to the Rock, and commentaries on Zephaniah and Haggai in Baker's The Minor Prophets (Vol.2).


Q.     Your life-long passion has been to encourage people to read and understand the Old Testament. Why do Christians avoid it?

A.     Some time ago I stood beside the Pyramids of Gizeh and looked out into the barren, trackless Egyptian desert. Somewhere out there an oasis awaits the traveler, but only after hours, even days, of weary toil. Many people feel the same way about the Old Testament. Not only is it a large book, but it also seems remote from our modern needs and ways, pretty profitless and hard to find our way about. The oases are definitely there - think of the wonderful stories about Samson, Samuel, and David; Handel's Messiah has even made parts of the Old Testament singable. But, one might say, the occasional oasis still does not change the desolation of the desert, does it?

But the Old Testament is not a desolate desert at all! It is actually a rather spectacular countryside. In A Scenic Route Through the Old Testament, I try to take people on an enjoyable walk from one scenic viewpoint to another. Much of the Old Testament consists of history books, so we need to thread our way through the stories to meet the people and discover what they are saying to us. It is also the "Law." The word should not scare us, for it really means "teaching" -- God's authoritative, loving, down-to-earth instruction about what is true and how to live. Prophecy, religion, worship, and wisdom are also all there, but above all and through it all there is the revelation of God.

Scenery speaks to us. Whether it is beautiful or awesome, tranquil or turbulent, it says something about its Creator. Just so, we find that our scenic route through the Old Testament constantly addresses us, just as it did to our Lord Jesus Christ. For Him, the Old Testament was the Word of God and every aspect of it bore witness to Him. So it is for us: this ancient Word of God leaps across the centuries to tell us about Jesus and how we are to live for Him.

Q.     Do some people feel that the Old Testament is not as important as the New?

A.     Yes. The ordinary church member often says, "Why should we bother with the Old Testament when we've got the New? Even seminary students deciding upon further study frequently choose the New Testament over the Old. That's why it's nice to see an enthusiastic emphasis on Hebrew at RTS. How are we ever going to know what the Bible really says if we don't study the original languages? We need to return to a central emphasis on the Bible and biblical languages in our seminary curricula. In England, seminaries place a tremendous emphasis on the vocational side of ministry -- preparing people for pastoral work, evangelism, ministering to the bereaved. That's good, but if they don't know their way around the Bible, how can they really accomplish anything lasting for God?

Q.    How valuable is biblical research to the church?

A.     It's essential. People expect their pastors to handle the Word of God correctly each Sunday. If he is not studying constantly, he's likely to run dry. A pastor's Bible study is the foundation of his preaching. I've devoted my life to providing background material, especially in the Old Testament, not only for the average Christian but also for pastors to do quality research.

Much biblical research is going on now, but mostly from a liberal point of view. What we need are more books written with a reverent acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God. I'm glad to see more conservative research than there once was; more people coming out of seminary want to do research.

Q.     What is the most important lesson you have learned from your biblical research?

A.     How reliable God is. He is to be trusted and can be trusted. I learned this from my study of Scripture, not from life experiences, because they may or may not prove true. I've learned to see the greatness of God in His Word and to rely on His greatness to get me through difficult situations in life. Even the strongest Christians are apt to face trouble with the question, "Why?" instead of an affirmation of trust.

Q.     Can you assess the spiritual climate in the United States and England?

A.     The Columbine High School tragedy, among other things, shows that we are experiencing a breakdown of humanity, one of the most frightful situations that could occur. People can no longer be relied upon to be human, a condition that is a byproduct of losing touch with Christ. The clearly marked lines of public morality and opinion are eroding and disappearing. We call it postmodernism-that's just another way of saying that everyone does what's right in his own eyes. Broadly speaking, this is what happens when there is no knowledge of God in the land. Narrowly speaking, it is where the Christian message of Christ is not known.

Being nice people is not enough; knowing the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ is what creates values. We're expecting people to have Christian values without Christian commitment. Up to a point that works, but then the spiritual heritage from the past wears thin, and with nothing left to support the values, they crumble.

In England some people live on their emotions, saying "The Lord said this to me" or "The preacher said this." They're not reading their Bibles to see what's true. A friend of mine went into a church carrying his Bible and the man at the door said, "You've no need to bring that in here. God speaks to us directly."

Even ordinary Christians aren't reading their Bibles very often. Christianity is a "religion of the Book" in a non-book world. The educational system in England has not been producing readers, and the television culture has been producing lookers. I believe the desire to read is waning fast. Christians don't bring their Bibles to church, once a universal sign of evangelical believers. Christians don't seem determined to read their Bibles every day. They get stopped in their tracks by difficult passages. Satan is a very active adversary of Bible reading. What people must realize to thwart the evil one is that good sources abound to help them understand the Bible, not least the Old Testament.

Good Resources on the Old Testament

RTS Bookstore
  • A Commentary on the Book of Exodus 1-18: A Clear and Present Danger by Dr. John Currid (Evangelical Press).
  • Such A Great Salvation (Judges), Looking on the Heart (I Samuel), Out of Every Adversity (II Samuel) by Dr. Ralph Davis (Christian Focus).
  • New Bible Commentary edited by J.A. Motyer and others (InterVarsity/USA).
  • The Bible Speaks Today Old Testament Commentary Series edited by J.A. Motyer (InterVarsity/USA).
  • A Scenic Route Through the Old Testament by J.A. Motyer (InterVarsity/United Kingdom).
  • The Prophecy of Isaiah (InterVarsity/USA) and Isaiah (Tyndale) by J.A. Motyer
  • Look to the Rock by J.A. Motyer (InterVarsity/United Kingdom) 1 and 2 Chronicles: A Mentor Commentary by Dr. Richard Pratt (Christian Focus).
  • He Gave Us Stories by Dr. Richard Pratt ( Presbyterian and Reformed).
  • God Delivers by Dr. Derek Thomas (Evangelical Press).
  • Old Testament Theology: The Making of the Kingdom of God by Bruce Waltke with Charles Yu (Zondervan).
  • Interpreting the Prophetic Word: An Introduction to the Prophetic Literature of the Old Testament by Willem VanGemeren (Zondervan).



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