That is a great question, @pwiersma! As Bo has pointed out, context is vital to understanding the laws in the Bible properly. One way that you may have come across this objection phrased is saying, “I see you are wearing a wonderful cotton and polyester shirt even though Leviticus 19:19 says, ‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.’ Why aren’t you choosing to follow that law?”
One of the reasons that I think that this is really good question is that it requires us Christians to take a step back and really ask the question of “why do I follow this law and not this one?” And in asking the question, I think that we see the Gospel coming out in the answer to the question!
One of the ways that people have attempted to answer this question is to divide the Law of Moses, or the laws in the Old Testament, into three categories: the civil law, the ceremonial law, and the moral law. There are some problems with these divisions, especially in trying to separate out the so-called “moral laws,” but I think they provide a helpful framework by which to begin thinking through this question.
Under these categories, the civil law refers to the laws that dictate how the Israelite nation was to be governed, such as what constituted a crime and what the punishment was to be. Similarly, the ceremonial law were the dictates that delineated precisely how the Israelites were to worship and sacrifice to God. The purpose of the civil and ceremonial laws were, at the very least, to set the Israelite nation apart from the other nations, and this sense, they were only necessary and binding in the time until Christ.
The third category, the “moral law,” refers to those laws that are not specific to the Israelite nation, but apply to all people in all space and time; frequently, the 10 commandments fall into this description.
Now, as I mentioned, these categories quickly fall apart under closer scrutiny, especially attempting to delineate the moral laws; however, you might see how we can begin to understand why some of these laws were given. And given an understanding of why they were given, we can perhaps begin to answer the question of what the significance that particular law has for us now. And if we can answer that, perhaps we can begin to determine whether the law applies to us.
I’ve included a link at the bottom to a short article about how to view the Law of Moses, but, at the end of the article, Justin Taylor provides these four steps when looking at a particular law:
- Remind yourself that this law is not my law, that I am not legally bound by it, that it is one of the laws God issued to ancient Israel as part of his covenant with them.
- Determine the original meaning, significance, and purpose of the law.
- Determine the theological significance of the law.
- Determine the practical implications of the theological insights gained from this law for your own NT circumstances.”
To do this kind of study is time-intensive and rigorous, but, as I mentioned at the beginning, I think that in doing this type of study of the laws, we see more of the character of God, more of our sinfulness, and in that, it propels us toward the good news that Christ has fulfilled the law and we stand righteous before God by the work of Christ.
I hope these thoughts are helpful! Does that seem to be an answer in line with the trajectory of your questioners?