How to Read the Bible Like a Seminary Professor

A Practical and Entertaining Exploration of the World's Most Famous Book


By Mark Yarbrough

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Many people admire and even revere the Bible, but they simply do not understand what they read, much less how to study Scripture. Yet they wish they could. In this insightful and alternately amusing guide, Professor Mark Yarbrough shows how easy and gratifying it is to unlock the hidden truths of God’s Word and to discover a world where reading the Bible doesn’t just satisfy our curiosity, but changes our life.

To do this, the reader will step into the seminary classroom and observe the practical principles-the tricks of the trade-for becoming a more effective student of the Bible. But Yarbrough has made sure that his writing style and general approach will be appealing to both academic students and those involved in lay-level Bible study.

Real life is whacky and in-your-face. Studying Scripture should be too.


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"Shelley, I have a question for you…"

OK. Here's a frequent occurrence in Bible studies everywhere. You've likely been there. You may have been the leader.

After the opening prayer, the study leader, Bill, says, "We are going to pick up where we left off last week. I believe we almost made it to the end of chapter 5. Let's wrap up this chapter and then we'll be ready for the start of chapter 6. We only have two verses today. Look at Romans 5:20–21 and let's read it before we talk about it":

The law was brought so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Then Bill says, "Shelley, what does that mean to you?"


Have you been in a study like this? Have you led one in this way? If you haven't, you're one of the few, because what I just described occurs all too frequently in churches of every Christian denomination.

And we are in trouble. Giant, gargantuan trouble. In recent years, this method of "study" has crept into the classrooms of the Christian church and diluted our once-strong orthodoxy. It has led us down a path of spiritual relativity—where the Bible means whatever you think it means—and disconnects interpretation from the authority of the biblical text. Instead, the focus of Bible study becomes the "experience" of the reader.

Listen to it again: "Shelley, what does that mean to you?"

Bill's question sounds so inviting and harmless. It is a personal question. It asks for a response from an individual based upon his or her understanding and conviction. On the surface it sounds like a skillful question. But what is it really communicating? Does this approach to Bible study encourage counterproductive reasoning?

Here are some of the responses I encounter when discussing Bible interpretation:

• Meaning registers differently based upon the unique circumstances of the hearer, right? Interpretations do vary, don't they?

• The reality of the text, especially the biblical text, will mean something different to each one of us because we are all different, right?

• God has created us with differing perspectives and convictions; so we will think differently about the text, won't we?

You may have guessed by now that I'm not at all comfortable with these responses or with this Bible study scene in general. In fact, I am deeply troubled by what I perceive as a dangerous trend.

Perhaps you're wondering, "What's the big deal with asking what something means to someone?" Here's why this issue is so critical: If the biblical text can mean whatever we want it to mean… then the text has no meaning at all. If the message of Scripture can mean anything to anyone simply based upon his or her subjective experience, there is no meaning to discover or interpret. Reading the Bible becomes no different than looking for shapes in the clouds. One person's imagination is no less valid than another's.

How many times have you sat through a Bible study in which everyone put forward an opinion on a particular text, sipped coffee, nibbled doughnuts, and then returned home just as poorly informed as when they arrived? Bible study? Hardly.

In a what-does-this-mean-to-you kind of discussion, each person's interpretation is relative to his or her life experience. At best, the Bible study is a social club; at worst, it's a breeding ground for heresy. Someone's localized perspective is presented as gospel truth, and unsuspecting learners embrace doctrinal error as the meaning of the text.

Understanding how to interpret Scripture is critical. The process is foundational to the Christian faith; it is the bedrock of all that we believe as Christ followers, and it upholds everything we do in response to those beliefs. Bible interpretation begins by acknowledging the biblical text as the written expression of an authority, and that we must submit to this authority. In other words, we are subject to the text, not the other way around. Imagine you were to pick up a history book and read the line "Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky, and became the sixteenth president of the United States." It's unlikely you asked yourself the question, "What does this mean to me?"

Interpretation isn't open to subjective experience. Our experiences don't change the information presented by the author. Interpretation is the process of understanding what an author has stated. In this respect, we read the Bible the same way we read other books. Our opinions do not shape the meaning of the text; the text tells us how we are to think and behave. That's how seminary professors approach it.

Seminary professors? Yes, I know… I'm sure an image just popped into your head. You probably see a nerdy scholar surrounded by towers of ancient-language books. He's boring and drab, except when he's rambling on about the most recent archaeological dig or theological debate. I'd like to dispel that myth. (Most of it, anyway.)

Most seminary professors are normal people who have families and hobbies just like anyone else. When it comes to the Bible, we have areas of sacred Scripture that we love more than others, just like you—and there's nothing wrong with that. Life experiences draw us to certain portions of the Bible and have molded us in unique ways. But…

When it comes to the interpretation of Scripture, a seminary professor absolutely believes that personal passions and individual proclivities must be set aside in favor of dependable rules of interpretation. And the first rule of biblical interpretation the seminary professor accepts is based upon what the Bible testifies about itself: It is the God-breathed, inerrant, inspired, authoritative Word that has been recorded and preserved for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that we will be equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17). It is God's Word, recorded through human writers as they were guided by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20–21). Consequently, the seminary professor's personal ethics must submit to the teaching of Scripture; he or she does not interpret the text to justify his or her personal opinions.

Put simply, the Bible is God's gig, not ours. He has spoken, and we are responsible for knowing what He has said. So we cannot allow our personal biases to get in the way.

Other rules of interpretation are foundational, but not theological per se. These linguistic guardrails help us understand any written document: the Bible, Homer's Iliad, Shakespeare's Hamlet, or the New York Times. These rules are based on the conviction that regardless of the literature, words have meaning and sentences have structure. Interpretation, then, is the process of understanding what the author intends for us to understand. There's nothing mystical about interpretation. As one Bible teacher said, "If the plain sense makes good sense, don't look for any other sense lest you wind up with nonsense."

Perhaps you're thinking that "rules of interpretation" will turn Bible reading into a boring exercise in decoding. Let me reassure you that this commitment to follow dependable rules of interpretation helps the reader connect with the writers of the biblical text, and ultimately with its divine Author. And there's nothing more exciting than that! Consequently, seminary professors are both enamored with and intrigued by Scripture. We long to satisfy our own inquisitiveness, keenly aware that we, too, are changed by this living Word. As my longtime mentor and teacher, the late Prof. Howard Hendricks, was fond of saying, "The Bible was not written to satisfy your curiosity—it was written to change your life."

The rules for studying Scripture will make Bible reading more exciting, not less. The rules are numerous, and some are more detailed than others. Many are engaging and enlightening, and we will talk about these in the pages ahead. For now, let's return to the question Bill put to Shelley in his Bible study: "What does this mean to you?"

No matter how well intended, the question is dangerous simply because it ignores the basic rules of interpretation we naturally follow when reading other kinds of literature. Here are some examples:

• Words have meaning, and there are boundaries to what words can mean.

• The author wrote the words in real-life context.

• The author existed at a real point in time and wrote those words for a reason.

• The original audience received those real words written by a real author in a real context, and they received those words in a particular manner.

To be sure, Shelley does have something to say. In fact, she has something to say that seminary professors and other Bible teachers need to hear. Just as there are rules to which professors subscribe, Shelley has rules of her own, and some of them are helpful. The nonformal reader approaches the biblical text in a unique manner that is definitely needed. There are at least three primary rules that guide Shelley's approach to understanding the Bible: face-value reading, experience, and passion.

Shelley approaches the text with a simple, face-value reading. And this is so refreshing! Sometimes professors get so "gooped up" with technical evaluations that they get lost in theory. But not Shelley. She sees things as they are and simply calls it like it is.

She also interprets the text through a lens of experience. This, too, can be refreshing. Shelley isn't trained to go back in time, evaluate words, spend time in the context, and assess the argument of a book. Even so, she draws conclusions from her focused evaluation. Her approach can be helpful as long as boundaries exist to steer the discussion back to the intended meaning of the original author, who was guided by God, the ultimate Author of the text.

While Shelley seeks from the text a face-value reading that is interpreted through experience, rest assured that she is passionate about connecting the text to life. As a committed Christ follower, she's begging for a reality check. Shelley appreciates academic evaluations, word studies, and detailed "classroom" explanations. She really wants to know how it works. She craves application of the text.

While our first obligation is to know what God said, Shelley reminds us that we must move beyond theory and apply it to life. She needs the text to be real. In a world that is falling apart, she's longing for stability. Biblical answers bring much-needed light to a dark culture devoid of hope. Shelley longs to grab hold of a safety cord, and she's looking to the Scriptures to provide it.

Aren't you? Aren't we all?

The hope we seek in the pages of the Bible must be hope that comes from God, not interpretations conjured from a fertile imagination. We can't rely upon meanings we desire to find in the text—or even what we casually suppose it means. False hope is mistaken hope, and it has led many down the wrong path. The meaning of the text must derive from the text itself; only then will we grasp what God is saying to His children.

I hope to do in the coming pages what I do in my class: to lead you on a journey of how to read the Bible. We will peek into the seminary classroom together and listen in on the discussion. But I want us to gain more than academic skills. I want us to become better informed about what to do with this ancient document written by God. Why? Because the Bible—unlike any other document—contains words of life. God has spoken! As a colleague of mine often repeats, "God has spoken, and He has not stuttered."

And if ever we needed to know the truth of what the Bible says, it is today in a culture that rejects truth, denies absolutes, and ignores our transcendent God. We need to know what the Bible says and—more important—we need the personal change that it can produce.

The circle is full of people—coffee in hand—sharing what the Bible means to them. My prayer is that when we get to the end of this book, you will be equipped to discover what the author intends the text to mean. You will know the rules that guide our interpretation and can help others to see the author's meaning.

I pray my students will be able to read and interpret the Bible without my help. With some helpful instruction, a little patience, and a lot of practice, I know they can. And so can you.



Don't forget two basic things." That's all they said.

When I was twelve years old, I had an opportunity to work on an authentic, dust-infested, boot-scootin' ranch in South Central Texas. It was 3,200 acres of cow pasture in the middle of nowhere, but for this twelve-year-old boy it was a taste of heaven. Other ranch-hands-for-rent worked there from time to time. As I interacted with them, I was convinced that the Lord had called me to be a cowboy. I looked forward to the day the older cowboys would invite me to come and work cattle with them. They were eighteen. (Hey, when you are twelve, eighteen is old.) To me, they were mature. They had experience. They had stories!

The invitation finally came when I turned fourteen. They needed my help to work the cattle! They assigned me the task of "chalk boy." When the cows had been given their worming medicine, my job was to put a chalk mark on their backs to identify which cows had received their medication. They said, "Mark, we'll pick you up in the morning. Don't forget two basic things: Wear your steel-toed boots, and whatever happens, don't get stuck in the corner of the pen."

The next morning I put on my hat and my overalls—without a T-shirt. I looked so good. In my mind, I projected John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. I was tough. I was raw. I even tossed my steel-toed boots aside because they were too clunky. A "professional" cowboy like me needed no such props.

Minutes later they came, I jumped into the back of the truck, and off we went. Friends, you should have seen me work. There had never been a better chalk boy on the face of the planet. Then, without warning, chaos. To this day, I don't know what happened or even how it happened. Somehow there was a shifting in the herd, and that whole group of cows began to back up. All the other cowboys were on the other side of the pen and I was stuck—in the corner!

Suddenly I felt a hoof mashing my left foot. If you recall, I was too tough for steel-toed boots. Ouch! I did everything within the abilities of my fourteen-year-old frame to move that beast, but to no avail. I stretched out my right leg in an attempt to pull myself away—only to have the hoof of a different animal pin down my foot. I was playing Twister with Beefy the Bovine and her brother, and I was losing! I could literally feel my toes crackle and pop. (I ended up with several broken toes.) And in my moment of panic, all I could remember were those prophetic words: "Don't forget two basic things."

It was a bad moment, and it was about to get a whole lot worse. Just then, one cow began to back up. Beep. Beep. Beep. The animal's rear end pressed against my face. I was stuck with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Then, the worst thing ever happened. That cow let loose. Let me rephrase: She unloaded.

I might add that it had clearly been a green-grass day on the ranch. It was horrible. We're talking gallons of cow pucky shooting everywhere. I was wearing overalls with no shirt, so it poured down the inside of my front bib and came out the bottom of my pant legs. It made me sick—literally. In fact, I passed out. As I was falling, I hit my head against the metal pen and opened a gash in my scalp. It was ugly in every sense of the word.

When I came to, I saw six young men hovering over me, laughing their heads off. Of course, I didn't think it was very funny.

Pause the story. Have you been there?

I don't mean in the cow pen sharing my cattle tragedy. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. I mean, have you ever simply forgotten the basics? Have you ever been there?

Of course you have. We've all forgotten the basics. And at times we have paid a dear price for our foolishness. I want to suggest that many of us forget—or have never been provided with—the basics of how to read and study the Bible.

If you want to read the Bible like a seminary professor, you need to establish a basic method for studying our sacred text. A sound approach will keep you out of the corner and—by the grace of God—keep you from being covered in heretical hooey.

The model we will walk through in this book, and the model I teach in seminary courses, is simple: Know it, work it, and live it.

Know It

Understand the structure, story, and substance of Scripture.

Identify how the Bible is packaged and presented.

Work It

Learn the rules for studying Scripture.

See with your eyes and think with your head.

Live It

Use the instruction from Scripture for everyday life.

Embrace what the Bible says and put it into practice.

This succinct model gives a basic approach to studying Scripture, and it will provide a grid to follow as the chapters unfold. Repeat it out loud and let it stick: Know it; work it; live it.

As we discuss what we must know in the next few chapters, keep my cow story in mind, and "don't forget two basic things."

First, it is very important to understand the basic structure of the Bible. This will help get your arms around the text as a whole and give you confidence in working with it. Our English Bible is put together in a certain way, so it will help to identify how the Bible is organized. This will not only assist you in navigating through the various books, it will prevent you from feeling lost when someone says, "Turn to Habakkuk."

Second, understand the story and substance of the Bible. By that I mean it is critical to know the basic content (message) and convictions (beliefs) taught from Scripture. Obviously, I'm not talking about having a mastery of the details. I'm talking about having a framework of the Bible's overall narrative—the Bible's big picture—and the core beliefs held by those who embrace it. This big-picture perspective will help us discover what God is saying and why He is saying it.

If you're already starting to feel overwhelmed, don't worry. Be patient with yourself; we'll get there together. Like Home Depot says: "You can do it. We can help."

Let me begin with some affirmations.

I applaud you for desiring to study the Bible. If you've invested funds in the purchase of this book, you undoubtedly long to have a better approach to studying Scripture. Good for you! Maybe you're taking a class at church or reading this book on a recommendation. Great! Or maybe you're a student reading this as a required text for a course. It means you're in a degree program that has Bible study as part of the curriculum. Excellent!

In any case, you're investing in something and you're looking for a return on your investment. Just don't forget, any worthwhile investment in learning begins with the basics. And that is where we will begin. After all, if we fail to know the basic things, we could end up hobbling around on broken toes and covered in cow manure—at least theologically.

And you don't want that. It stinks.



Every once in a while, I get the itch to put together a puzzle. After years of experience in the field, I've encountered several different puzzle-building strategies. Some people simply jump in and start trying to connect pieces. I suppose there is an unbridled challenge to figuring out what pieces go with one another without the benefit of any guidance or parameters.

If that's your particular style, go get 'em! I, however, want (and need) all the help I can get. I need a plan. Especially if I'm taking on something like the infamous two-thousand-piece Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria.

I start by identifying the four corners and the straight-edge pieces. Then I organize the remaining pieces according to color schemes. After that, I "picture-gaze" as I turn the box top on its side so I can keep the "big picture" in mind. Then I get at it and whip that puzzle into shape. Ah, sweet victory!

If that's an effective strategy for putting together a puzzle, it would seem to be especially helpful for piecing together the Bible's panorama of history, gospels, letters, prophetic writings, and more. Reading the Bible like a seminary professor begins by picture-gazing the story from Genesis to Revelation.

In reality, though, most Christians—seminary students included—don't know how the Bible is organized, how its content is categorized and arranged. It's not that the average Christian Joe doesn't want to learn, he or she simply hasn't been taught. In my experience, most people have heard random Bible stories as teachers focus on a particular episode or snippet of Scripture. It's like handing someone a jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time over a period of years. After a hundred Bible lessons, the student has a pile of puzzle pieces, no box top, and no clue how to fit them together.

Now, to be fair, each individual message can and does contribute to a spiritual journey. We dare not forget that a single message of the gospel can lead to salvation as the Holy Spirit works within the heart. But generally, we hear disconnected stories that individually fail to display the Bible's panorama.

If your Bible knowledge is like a pile of random puzzle fragments, don't be embarrassed. You simply haven't had anyone show you the box top. The Bible is an epic story told in sixty-six individual yet interconnected books written by more than forty authors. The story spans over fifteen hundred years. Because the scale of the biblical story is so huge, it's possible to miss the big picture. Tracking who said what, when, and why can be a challenge.

Years ago, I read a story that's almost credible enough to be true:

A young seminary graduate was seeking to pastor his first church. One pulpit committee requested an interview. As the student and the committee gathered together, the chairman began the questioning: "Young man, do you know your Bible?" The young man replied, "Yes, sir. I know the Bible from front to back." Another asked, "Do you know the stories and parables?" The candidate answered, "Oh yes! I know all the stories and parables." Another committee member said, "Tell us one of the parables of Jesus—let's say the parable of the Good Samaritan." And so he did. It went like this:

"There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, who went down to Jericho by night and he fell upon stony ground. And the thorns rose up and choked him nearly half to death. He said, 'What shall I do?' Then he said, 'I shall arise and go to my Father's house.' And he arose, and climbed up into a sycamore tree. The next day Solomon and his wife Gomorrah came by, and they carried him down to the ark for Moses to take care of him. And as he was going through the eastern gate into the ark, he caught his hair in a limb and he hung there for forty days and forty nights.

"And afterward, he hungered and the ravens came and fed him. The next day the three wise men came and carried him down to Nineveh. And when he got down there, he found Delilah sitting on the wall. He cried out, 'Chunk her down, boys.' And they said, 'How many times shall we chunk her down, unto seven times?' And he said, 'Nay, but unto seventy times seven.' So they chunked her down, 490 times. Then she burst asunder in their midst, and they picked up twelve baskets of her fragments. And they asked him, 'Lord, in the resurrection, whose wife will she be?' "

The pulpit committee chairman said, "Folks, I think we ought to call him. I know he's young, but he sure knows his Bible."1

If your understanding of the biblical story line runs together like this hodgepodge of unconnected accounts, let me help you. Let's look at the panorama of Scripture from a thirty-thousand-foot view.

Start by memorizing the following numbers in the order listed:

5-12-5-5-12; 4-1-21-1

These numbers outline the books as recorded in our Protestant English Bibles; and knowing the general order is extremely helpful in remembering the biblical message. We'll cover the message of the Bible in the next chapter. For now, understand that there are two major sections in the Christian Bible: the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Each Testament is made up of individual books. The Old Testament consists of thirty-nine books, which are represented by the first number sequence: 5-12-5-5-12. In just a few moments, I'll explain how the sequence applies. The New Testament contains twenty-seven books that correspond to the second sequence: 4-1-21-1. Together, of course, there are sixty-six books.

While the Bible has sixty-six books in two sections, it tells one unified story. The Bible delivers an intricately woven account of the creation and corruption of humanity, the provision of redemption through Jesus Christ, and a promised day of reclamation when God's glory will be manifested to all.

Now let's examine all the pieces and how they interconnect.

THE OLD TESTAMENT (5-12-5-5-12)

The Old Testament's thirty-nine books are categorized by five groups:

Pentateuch History Poetry Major Prophets Minor Prophets
5 books 12 books 5 books 5 books 12 books

Pentateuch (5-12-5-5-12)

The first five (5) books of the Old Testament—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—form the "Pentateuch," a term derived from the Greek words penta (five) and teuchos


On Sale
Mar 3, 2015
Page Count
304 pages

Mark Yarbrough

About the Author

Mark M. Yarbrough serves as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Academic Dean, and as a professor in the Bible Exposition at Dallas Theological Seminary — as well as part of the pastoral teaching team at Centerpoint Church in Mesquite, Texas. A native Texan, Mark is a graduate of Dallas Christian College (DCC) and Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). Prior to joining the faculty and administration of DTS in 2001, he served in several ministries. For ten years he served at a church in southeast Dallas as youth and preaching pastor.

After graduating from DTS, he spent several years at DCC, serving in the Bible department and part of the presidential leadership team. After transitioning to DTS and upon the completion of his Ph.D., he was appointed as Vice President for Communications. That role included an active engagement with the local and national media. Mark is a regular conference speaker and also travels internationally to teach, preach, and consult on theological education. He has been married to Jennifer, his high school sweetheart, for more than twenty years. They reside just east of Downtown Dallas in Forney, Texas and have four children: Kayla, Jacob, Kayci, and Joseph.

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