top of page

Philemon: Formed By The Cross

Updated: Oct 16, 2022


Paul, formed by his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), had a very different view of our world. He realized what it meant to live in God's kingdom. When he wrote to the Ephesians, Paul recorded:

Ephesians 6:12 (NKJV) "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places."

In the first century and today, there are powers opposed to the kingdom of God. We have systems of oppression and injustice that see and treat others as less than image-bearers as they were created.

In our study of Philemon, we have asked, "Can the gospel work in the real world?" How does it look when the gospel of Christ is applied to our everyday lives? Concluding our thoughts on Philemon, we will consider Paul's view of cross-shaped reconciliation.

In the final sections of Philemon (17-25), Paul encourages Philemon to obedience and sends his final greetings. However, the image of the cross and the cross-shaped reconciliation we see in Paul's words is where I would like us to focus our attention.


A few sentences in Paul's letter express his understanding of the cross and reconciliation as it draws a picture for us.

Philemon 12 (NKJV) “I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart”

Philemon 17–18 (NKJV) “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.”

Paul asks that Philemon receive Onesimus back as if he were receiving Paul himself. But, even more, than receiving Onesimus back, Paul places everything Onesimus owes on himself. Paul, in this letter, does not mention the cross. But what Paul does is apply the cross in the lives of others.


We live in a fallen and broken world. Since sin entered God's good creation (ref. Gen. 3), things in our world are not as they were created to be. Immediately after the account of the fall, we next read of the first murder recorded in the Scriptures. Cain kills his brother Abel (Gen. 4). Following this account is Lamech, who brags about killing and takes multiple wives for himself. The effects and consequences of sin are seen immediately in the Biblical narrative. Image-bearers who once enjoyed a fellowship and partnership with God in the garden move further east of Eden and away from God. The story of the Scripture begins to unfold as God plans to restore and reconcile all that was lost.

Jesus came to this earth by the will of the Father to reconcile and restore all that was lost. In His words to Zacchaeus, Jesus said, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." (Luke 19:9-10). Restoration and reconciliation would come in the form of a cross. Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, recorded:

Colossians 2:13–15 (NKJV) “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”

What Paul saw in the cross of Christ was the forgiveness of debt that we all owed. On the cross, Jesus was placed between God and creation. Yet, as He hung on the Cross, Jesus bridged this gap. Jesus reconciled broken humanity to themselves on the cross with outstretched arms. Forgiveness and reconciliation came through Jesus in the form of a cross.


Paul knew a cross-shaped reconciliation. He had seen it and had experienced it in his own life. The power of God was displayed through His Son, Jesus, in the form of a cross. The transforming gospel of Christ was not just theoretical. It was to be a gospel applied in the real world and everyday people's lives. Paul lived his life shaped by the cross of Jesus, and we see this image displayed in his words to Philemon. Paul did not know the wrong Onesimus had committed or the debt he may have owed Philemon. But he knew the debt he owed and the wrong he had committed against Christ, a debt Jesus took on Himself and paid in full. Notice Paul's words to Philemon:

Philemon 18–19 (NKJV) “But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides.”

Paul assumes the entire debt owed by Onesimus, just as Christ had accepted the debt owed by Paul. Paul knew Jesus was placed between heaven and earth on the cross. So He bridged the gap between the broken and lost to the Father. Being reconciled in Christ, we are received as His sons and daughters:

John 1:12–13 (NKJV) “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

With arms outstretched, Paul seeks to reconcile the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

Philemon 17 (NKJV) “If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me.”

Paul is seeking to restore a partnership and fellowship that was broken. A fellowship and partnership restored by Christ and experienced in Paul's life. The pattern of the cross has been established in Paul's life. A pattern he desires to form in the lives of Philemon and Onesimus. It's the pattern of the gospel in the real world.


N. T. Wright, in his commentary on Philemon, expresses the following:

"On the cross, Jesus hung with arms outstretched between heaven and earth, making a bridge upwards and downwards between God and the human race, and from side to side between all the warring factions of earth. And Paul has grasped the truth that so many have missed: his achievement of reconciliation is put into effect when his people follow the same pattern. When people allow the cross to shape their own lives, the love of God is set free to change and heal in ways we cannot at the moment even imagine.”1

What does the gospel look like in the real world? It looks like Christians following the pattern of the cross. In our lives, the pattern of the cross should form us. Partnering with God as His image-bearers, reconciliation should shape us.

Some may ask, "Is the gospel effective and applicable in our world today?" When the pattern of the cross is applied to and lived through the lives of Christians, the power of God fulfilled in His Son Jesus is displayed. A transforming power that is still effective in our lives and the world today.


Reflect on Paul's letter to Philemon. How has the pattern of the cross formed the life of the apostle Paul?

What areas of my life or relationships in my life need to be shaped by the cross?


end notes:

Unless otherwise noted; Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Wright, N.T. Paul For Everyone, The Prison Letters. E-book ed., Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Pg. 317-318

download (article and handout):

lesson slides:

series images:

additional resources:

BibleProject Philemon (video): Overview Philemon


bottom of page