For nearly 70 years, Billy Graham was one of the most respected, most admired, and most beloved people on the planet. He spoke before more people than anyone else in history, he personally counselled and befriended twelve Presidents of the Unites States, and he regularly met with the Queen, the Pope, and other world leaders. Today, as news of his passing at the age of 99 spreads, the world mourns its loss.
William Franklin Graham, Jr. was born near the end of the First World War in 1918 in Charlotte, North Carolina. As the son of a dairy farmer, he attended a local revival service at the age of 16 and chose then and there to devote his life to Jesus. In the decades to follow, he would travel to more than 185 countries and territories, speaking to over 215 million people in person and reaching a total audience of more than 2.2 billion through the use of media. The focus of his message? An invitation to experience the transforming love and grace of Jesus Christ.
Graham’s popularity first began to spread in 1945 when he became associated with an evangelistic movement called Youth for Christ as a traveling speaker. Then, from 1949 through 1952, he was propelled onto the world stage though a series of Crusades. In 1950, he formed the Billy Graham Association and started broadcasting “The Hour of Decision” radio program that continued to run until 2015. He also launched a magazine called Christianity Today in 1956, which is still published today, both in print and online.
Prior to his 1957 New York Crusade in Madison Square Garden, Billy Graham took criticism for meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and inviting him to lead the arena in prayer. At a time when racial tensions were high and social equality was practically nonexistent, this invitation signalled that Graham supported civil rights and believed that the idea of a Christian racist was an oxymoron. In addition, he steadfastly refused to visit South Africa until he was assured the audience would not be segregated.
Along the way, he knocked down doors in favour of spreading the message of Jesus around the world. Never adverse to speaking in potentially hostile environments, he was the first Christian to preach publicly behind the Iron Curtain post-World War II. Beginning in 1978, he began preaching in virtually every Soviet country, visiting Moscow as early as 1982. He went on to hold several crusades in places like Budapest in 1989, Moscow and North Korea in 1992, and Beijing in 1993.
When he spoke in Seoul, more than one million people attended a single service. And when he spoke in New York’s Central Park, an estimated 250,000 people showed up, making it the largest event ever held in North America. More significantly, an estimated 3 million people have responded during his crusades by stepping forward publicly and personally accepting the message of Jesus.
During his lifetime, Graham received a number of honours, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the two highest honours that can be given in the U.S. to a civilian by these two branches of government. He also became known by several unofficial titles, such as God’s ambassador, the pastor to presidents, and America’s pastor, which was evidence by the fact that, whenever the U.S. faced a national or international crisis, it regularly turned to Billy. He prayed at presidential inaugurations, spoke at the memorial service after the Oklahoma City bombing, and led the service at Washington National Cathedral after the attacks of 9/11.
In public opinion polls and surveys, he consistently ranked among the most admired people in the world, appeared on the Gallup list of the top ten most admired men a total of 54 times. And in a survey for Ladies’ Home Journal (yes, Ladies’ Home Journal), he came in second in the category for “achievements in religion.” Who came in first? God.
So today, as Graham enters into eternity and receives his reward, what words might Jesus say to him? Though purely speculative, here are six possible comments Graham might hear from his Lord.
1. You have lived as a man after My own heart.
In the Bible, that is how God described King David when He said, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22, NIV). In contemplating what Jesus might say to Billy Graham, this appears to be an apt description for Billy, too. As Billy’s wife, Ruth Bell Graham, once said, “He was a man in a hurry who wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met!”
Billy devoted his life, not to acquiring wealth or fame, developing a fan base, or wielding power, but to knowing God, living for Him, and pleasing Him. He sought to follow Christ so closely that the character of Christ was formed in him. He understood that, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.”
What do you pursue in life? What’s most important to you? Are you living as someone after God’s own heart, or are you enamoured by other pursuits? As Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33, NLT).
2. You made mistakes, but you handled them well.
Graham had regrets, but was honest about them. When he sinned, he sought forgiveness. He apologized for mistakes, and whenever possible, made up for his wrongdoings.
For example, Graham admitted that there was a time when he got a little too close to using his influence for political gain. Sure, he offered counsel to several presidents but sometimes it went farther than that. On occasion, he took sides politically and even considered throwing his own hat into the ring. For a time, politicians like Richard Nixon would cuddle up next to Graham as a means of looking good to the electorate. In the wake of Watergate, however, Graham began to distance himself from politics (though not from politicians). So in the 1980s when the “religious right” was gaining power, Billy Graham steered clear and warned other Christian leaders about the pitfalls of gaining political influence at the expense of spiritual impact.
He also regretted how his frequent travelling negatively impacted his family. His son Franklin famously rebelled for a time, and it exacted a toll on his relationship with his wife, too. Referring to the effects of his evangelistic work on his marriage, Billy once said, “They asked her [Ruth Bell Graham], did she ever think about divorce and she said, ‘No, I’ve never thought of divorce in all these 35 years of marriage, but,’ she said, ‘I did think of murder a few times.’”
When the audio from some of the Nixon tapes were released, they contained disparaging comments made by Nixon against Jews, and Graham’s voice was heard agreeing with Nixon. Graham said that he did not remember making those comments, but admitted that he did apparently make them. Upon this revelation, he went directly to some Jewish leaders to seek the forgiveness of the Jewish community. He had made mistakes, so he tried to make amends.
King David was a man after God’s own heart, but he also committed sins of his own. Most notably, when he committed adultery, got the woman pregnant, then arranged for the woman’s husband to be killed. When David was confronted with what he had done, however, he did not try to deny it, justify it, or sweep it under the rug. Instead, he expressed his deep remorse and repentance. “Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night… Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow… Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 51:2-3, 7, 10, NLT).
When you make mistakes, how do you handle them? Are you honest about it? Are you remorseful, and do you do your best to make amends?
3. You have kept your focus on your calling.
Billy Graham remained true to the message that Jesus is the way to God the Father. Because of this singular focus, he often faced criticized for taking a soft stance on particular issues. Or worse, no stance at all. While he opposes abortion, for instance, he did not become a spokesperson against it. Likewise, while clearly pointing the way to Jesus, he avoided bashing other religions.
He refused to abdicate his calling by becoming distracted by other (even worthwhile) things. Though he did not dismiss the importance of other callings, he remained true to the one given to him. “My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which I believe comes through knowing Christ.” When he could have become distracted by other good causes, he remained faithful to one God gave him.
His message remained focused throughout his decades of ministry, and as long as he could freely declare that Jesus is the way, he would go anywhere to proclaim it. In response to fundamentalist opposition to his 1957 Crusade in Madison Square Garden, Graham said, “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody, to preach the gospel of Christ, if there are no strings attached to my message… The one badge of Christian discipleship is not orthodoxy but love. Christians are not limited to any church. The only question is: are you committed to Christ?”
[Check out “THE CROSS“, a video released by Billy Graham in 2013 on his 95th birthday.]
Another evangelist, the Apostle Paul, displayed the same unswerving singleminded devotion toward his calling. Though he could have directed his time and energies in other ways, he relentlessly proclaimed the message of Jesus to new audiences, taking the Gospel beyond the confines of the Jewish community. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return” (2 Timothy 4:7-8, NLT).
What is the message God has given you to proclaim, whether through your words or your life? Are you focused on fulfilling your calling, or are you being distracted by other things?
4. Your greatest accomplishment has been in individuals, not crowds.
The real significance of Billy Graham’s ministry was not the number of people who filled stadiums or the number of votes he got on popularity surveys, but the changes that happened in individual hearts and lives. Though he regularly spoke to the multitudes, he recognized the impact he (and others) could have on one person.
When speaking to a large crowd in Honolulu in 1965, Graham explained, “I have had the privilege of preaching to great crowds all over the world… But I believe that some of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had have been with one person. You see, I think one of the greatest sermons Jesus ever preached He preached to Nicodemus, just one man. One of the greatest sermons Paul ever preached, he preached to a governor, Felix. So you can talk to one person, and it may be more important than this great crowd here tonight.”
The Apostle Paul had good reason to boast. He had been a prominent man in society, exercising power and demanding respect. Yet he came to realize that his status in society was worthless when compared with being used by God to transform lives. As he told the church in Philippi, “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8, NIV).
What standard do you use to measure your success? Is it the rewards and accolades you can receive from others, or is it the individual lives God impacts through you?
5. You have been a humble, faithful servant.
Time and time again, people who met with Billy Graham commented on his deep humility, sincerity, and authenticity. There was no pretence about him—no ego, no conceit, no arrogance, no self-importance. Despite all his accomplishments, he remained a humble and faithful servant throughout his years.
John Stott, a leading theologian of the past century, spoke about attending the London Crusade in 1954 in Harringay Arena. Stott described Graham, saying, “What is most captivating about Billy is his sincerity. There isn’t an iota of hypocrisy in the man. He is real. I sat in Harringay night after night asking over and over, ‘What is the reason [for his success]?’ I finally decided that this was the first time most of these people had heard a transparently honest evangelist who was speaking from his heart and who meant and believed what he was saying. There is something captivating about that.”
This quality persisted throughout his ministry years. Toward the end of the 20th century, Time magazine looked back at the heroes of the previous hundred years. Writing about Billy Graham, Harold Bloom wrote, “There have been no scandals, financial or sexual, to darken Graham’s mission. His sincerity, transparent and convincing, cannot be denied.”
Even in his twilight years, Graham’s humility and faithfulness were evident to all who interacted with him. Following a 2011 trip to visit Graham in North Carolina, talk-show host Glen Beck noted the impact of Graham’s humility. Posting on Twitter, Beck said, “He is a powerful spirit and he never breaks eye contact. Best part was his humility & love of family.”
Throughout the decades, Graham exuded humility and faithfulness to the cause of Christ. He was a true servant who took to heart the words of Jesus, “The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12, NLT).
Despite the spotlight and the opportunities that came his way, Graham remained a humble, faithful servant. One of the songs often performed at Billy Graham Crusades expressed his heart:
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand.
I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.
Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
What do you seek in life? Are you looking for prestige, or are you content to be recognized as a servant of God? When you enter into eternity, will you be welcomed with the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23, NLT)?
6. You have left a legacy.
Graham was a modern day apostle, taking the message of Jesus to places that were closed to anyone else. In addition to his public appearances, Graham also made use of other forms of media to spread the message of Jesus. He authored 33 books, most of them best-sellers. He was on the cutting edge of technology, too, embracing the use of radio and television as early as the 1950s. His organization has produced more than 130 movies (through World Wide Pictures). He made use of video during his Crusades long before most churches even considered it, he started a couple magazines, he published a syndicated column in the newspaper, and he was an early adopter of the Internet for spreading the Gospel. In 1995, he took advantage of satellite technology to simultaneously reach 185 countries via 3000 downlinks.
All of this had an impact, but perhaps his greatest legacy will be the many evangelists inspired by him. In 1983, Billy Graham organized the Amsterdam Conference with a couple thousand evangelists from around the world in attendance. Another conference was held in 1986, with 10,000 attending. Another 10,000 attended Amsterdam 2000.
Recognizing the impact Graham was having through these events, William Martin—senior fellow for religion and public policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute—wrote, “It is plausible that the answer to the oft-asked question, ‘Who will be the next Billy Graham?’ is no single man or woman, but this mighty army of anonymous individuals whose spirits have been thrilled by Billy Graham’s example, their hands and minds prepared with his organization’s assistance, and their hearts set on fire by his ringing exhortation at the Amsterdam meetings: ‘Do the work of an evangelist.’”
Though too ill to attend Amsterdam 2000, the conference concluded with closing comments prepared by Graham himself: “Let us light a fire. Let us light a fire that will banish moral and spiritual blight wherever we go. Let us light a fire that will guide men and women into tomorrow – and eternity. Let us light a fire that will roll back the poisons of racism, poverty and injustice. Let us light a fire of renewed faith in the Scriptures as the Word of God, and in worship and evangelism as the priority of the Church. Let us light a fire of commitment to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth, using every resource at our command, and with every ounce of our strength. Let’s light a fire in this generation that, by God’s grace, will never be put out.”
What a legacy Billy Graham has left behind. He has gone to be with the Saviour who he spent his life serving, but even though Billy’s presence is no longer with us, his influence lives on.
What fire are you lighting? How are you investing in future generations?