Billy Graham passed away February 21st, 2018 at the age of 99. His impact reverberates everywhere. The numbers are simply astounding: 215 million people make up his total audience with more than 3 million becoming born again Christians in his seven decades of ministry. His 400 crusades were given all over the world, in more than 80 countries. Taking into account the simulcasts and other rallies, that number climbs to more than 185 countries and territories.
But here’s the real punch of the story: he never tried to be anything but faithful. “I am not going to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds or read the Bible many times,” he said. “I’m going to Heaven just like the thief on the cross who said in that last moment: ‘Lord, remember me.'”
Billy Graham: The Man Who Changed AmericaSomeday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God. - Billy Graham Click To Tweet
He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and grew up on his family’s dairy farm. It was in Charlotte, at a revival meeting with evangelist Mordecai Ham, that Billy decided to give his life to the Lord. He was 16 years old and his ambitions were changing. Through a series of providential events, he started college in South Carolina before moving to Florida to begin preaching. I remember growing up in Tampa and passing by the exact corner (my Mom would name it emphatically) where he started telling people about Jesus on the streets. After Florida, he moved to Illinois and graduated from Wheaton College, and, more importantly, met and married Ruth Bell. (Ruth died in 2007. They were married 64 years.)
When you read Billy Graham’s biography Just As I Am, it’s amazing to account for the next movements in his life. It involved a start in radio and the beginning of revival meetings that he’d call crusades, hearkening to the idea that Jesus’ message is on the move to bring salvation. In 1949, when Billy was only 30, Christ took the reigns in even more extraordinary ways. He had done crusades in several locations for 2 years, attracting several thousand people each night, but Los Angeles would be different. The Los Angeles crusade was scheduled to take place during a three-week period, but because of prayer, because of God’s working, and because of the growing amount of press coverage, the crusade expanded to eight weeks and reached more than 350,000 people. After Los Angeles, this growth happened time and time again throughout the years. In 1973, for example, he spoke to an estimated 3.2 million people in Seoul, South Korea, with more than 75,000 people deciding to make a decision to follow Christ.
There is so much more. He truly became America’s pastor, ministering to presidents from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. He met with all types of people, from C.S. Lewis to Mother Teresa to Bono. He bailed Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail and he opened his stage to racial and denominational integration. He had one objective: that Christ be preached. “God proved his love on the Cross,” he said, “When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’”
His refrain was “The Bible says…” He used it nearly every sentence. He understood the truth that his words didn’t hold any power. Rather, it was the Word of God that brought people to the altar of salvation, that saw into the depths of each heart and brought life. “God created man in His own image with a hunger for eternity,” he said. “Man is thirsty for life.”
I remember going to several Billy Graham crusades and prepping for them at church. It was an experience of God’s mighty work, not simply due to the numbers involved, but knowing that God was touching people through this simple preacher with the simple message of the Gospel. I’ll never forget those crusade nights. They refocused me, broke me down, made me see outside of my silly wants into the want of God: drawing all people to himself.
So why Billy Graham? What can we learn from this farming boy from North Carolina? Here’s a start.
- He let Scripture change him. So often we use Scripture to as a device to excuse and not something that we really let change us each day, every hour.
- He used Scripture as the two-edged sword, like Hebrews 4:12 states.
- He lived a life of integrity, not to be self-righteous, but in an effort to be faithful.
- He didn’t care about celebrity. Over and over again he makes it clear in Just As I Am that his friends were not the rich and famous, though most people only saw pictures of him with people of influence.
- He was humble. The crowds and lights didn’t change him from being a sinner saved by the grace of God, just like you and me. That simple story is true, but so often abandoned with any ounce of fame.
- He was guarded. My pastor tells the story of meeting Billy in a small gathering for dinner. A few minutes into the meeting, Billy looked at his watch and said he had to duck out for a minute to call Ruth. When he was on the road, every night at the same time, he’d call Ruth, to check in, stay accountable, and keep their relationship alive.
- He knew what he was not. He knew he didn’t have a seminary degree and wished he stayed in school a bit longer to learn more, and that helped him know his limits and stay focused on the calling Jesus had on his life. It wasn’t apologetics like Ravi Zacharias. It was to preach the good news.
- He kept his friends and sought accountability. One amazing point about Billy Graham is his long friendship with both George Beverly Shea (1909-2013) and Cliff Barrows (1923-2016) whom he worked with from the very beginning of his career to the end.
- He pushed old boundaries. He was broad in the denominations represented on stage, not because he accepted a view of God that was anything other than Truth of Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father, but he knew the Gospel was bigger and stronger than any protection he might put around it. Like the evangelist Charles Finney years earlier, he also opened the stage to people of all races.
- He knew his Bible. It wasn’t simply a sermon prep that made him familiar with Scripture. He lived it every day. He devoted time in the Word and that daily relationship with God clearly came across in his delivery.
- He wasn’t afraid. As God grew his ministry, he kept taking risks out of the clear pursuit of reaching people with the Gospel, whether it was print, video, radio, television or an expansion into ministries like Samaritan’s Purse.
- He organized with the expectation of God to work. For example, for each crusade, there was a two-year advancement team to pray and build church partnerships that helped pave the way.
With the death of someone so iconic to our faith as Billy Graham, we are asked to reflect on our own walk with Christ. Are we letting Scripture change us? Are we using God’s Word to change people… and on down the list above. We are all so grateful for Billy Graham’s ministry because like a church steeple, he was a pointer to God. You forgot about him. He knew he wasn’t important, like the dry bones from Ezekiel. The important part is Jesus and that’s what Billy Graham’s life reflects.
Top Billy Graham Quotes
- “God proved his love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’”
- “I am not a great preacher, and I don’t claim to be a great preacher. I’ve heard great preaching many times and wished I was one of these great preachers. I’m an ordinary preacher, just communicating the Gospel in the best way I know how.”
- “I am convinced the greatest act of love we can ever perform for people is to tell them about God’s love for them in Christ.”
- “During all my years as an evangelist, my message has always been the Gospel of Christ. It is not a Western religion, nor is it a message of one culture or political system. … It is a message of life and hope for all the world.”
- “Yes, it has been a privilege to know some of the great men and women of the latter part of this century. However, most of my time has been spent with people who will never be in the public eye and yet who are just as important to God as a queen or a president.”
- “The real story of the crusades is not in the great choirs, the thousands in attendance, nor the hundreds of inquirers who are counseled. The real story is in the changes that have taken place in the hearts and lives of people.”
- “God is a God of love, a God of mercy. He has the hairs of your head numbered…. He wants to come into your life and give you a new hope.”
- “We have confused liberty with license – and we are paying the awful price. We are a society poised on the brink of self-destruction.”
- “The Bible says there will be only one question on that day – what did you do with Jesus? You don’t go to hell for drinking liquor, you don’t go to hell for using profanity – you go to hell for rejecting Christ!”
- “I’m looking forward to death. I’ll be very happy to get out of this body and into the new world that’s been prepared. It’ll be a feeling of tremendous joy and relief and rest. The Bible says I have not seen nor heard, nor has there entered the mind of man, what God has in store for us in the future life.”
- “Do I fear death? No. I look forward to death, with great anticipation. I am looking forward to seeing God face to face. And that could happen any day.”
- “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”