Paul meets the Prodigal

A message preached at the Young People’s Fellowship meeting in Kilskeery, Friday 1st December by Rev Ivan Foster.

“I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds,” Philemon 1:10.

What I hope to say to you is something that I learned about a long time ago – in my second year of study as a student for the ministry. That takes me back to 1966 and to the class in the English Bible conducted by Rev John Douglas. It was his study outline of this book which gave me the basis of a message which developed and added to over the years. I first preached on this book in my first gospel mission in an old green army tent in a place called ‘Snowy Glen’ which lies north west of Carrickfergus. I was a student minister in Whiteabbey Free Presbyterian Church at the time. I preached in Larne on 19th November past and a man reminded me of that mission. It is nice to meet people who recall meetings from 50 years ago!

Now, having given due credit to Dr Douglas, I will endeavour to press upon you some precious truths from this tiny epistle which is filled with gospel gold and jewels.
We might ask why should such a small epistle and that of such a private and personal nature be included in the Bible?

God is pleased to set forth His truth in such a manner as will be easily understood by the youngest reader. This epistle deals with an incident in the home of a good man, Philemon, a Christian, a Greek and likely a convert of Paul’s. It was written from Rome where Paul was a prisoner, verse 1. It would have been written about the same time as the epistle to the Colossians because there are references to the same people with Paul at the time of writing both epistles, Phm 1:23,24 and Col 4:10,12,14 and Archippus, the minister in Colosse, is mentioned in both letters, Phm 1:2 Col 4:17. It was likely written in the year AD 60 or thereabouts.

That this incident of the runaway slave Onesimus being converted is included in the Bible reminds us that in his conversion, as in all our conversions, there is a setting forth of the great truths of God which is the central subject of the Bible generally.

The Bible is not a theological text book in which the doctrines of the gospel are set down in a systematic fashion but rather God is pleased to record some accounts of His dealings with men and women, and boys and girls, in everyday situations and thereby reveal and illustrate the grand truths of the gospel in a practical setting.

I want us to see that in this story we have:


The home of Philemon, where Onesimus lived and worked, was very like the circumstances into which many are born, especially you here in this meeting.
It was a home influenced and ruled by a good man and a good woman. Verse 1-2.

2. It was a home which Paul calls a church. The Greek word is ekklesia and means “the called out ones”. The ‘Church’ consists of those called out by the Spirit of God to faith in Christ through the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are separated from the world. Paul uses the word to describe the household of Philemon for his home had all the marks of a church assembly. It was governed and ruled by the Word of God and was kept separate from the ways and fashions of the world.

3. It was a home where the saints of God were loved and refreshed. Verses 5, 7. (Bowels – heart.)
These are the privileges that you have enjoy along with many others in our land. What a mercy to be born into such circumstances. It is something we should never forget and ever praise God for.

The Prodigal of Luke 15, brought upon his head many miseries of which he later became greatly ashamed because he FORGOT the privileges he enjoy and strove to get out from under them.


Despite being surrounded by such mercies, Onesimus considered them of no value. Instead looked out enviously upon the world and desire to escape the home of Philemon and plunge into the ways of the world around.

In order to achieve this he was ready to steal from his master Philemon. He became ‘unprofitable’, verse 11. The attention and care lavished upon him bore no fruit. He wronged Philemon and stole from him and then ran away, verse 18.


“I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds,” Philemon 1:10.
He ran away but in the mercy of God he was guided to Paul.
What brought about the meeting we don’t know except it was a wonderful example of sovereign grace of God.
How wonderfully the gospel changes our circumstances. “Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me,” Philemon 1:11.

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