Billy Graham: A man for our time

Billy Graham, shown here during his Oakland, California, Crusade in 1971, preached to nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories.

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On learning of Billy Graham’s home-call, millions of us drew in our breath at that heart-stopping moment, regardless of whether we had ever met him or heard him speak. One way or another, the family of Christ around the world dropped to its knees in thankfulness that, in all of history’s long parade of honored evangelists, God had kept Billy Graham for our own time. From the mid-1940s, it was apparent that a man of blazing conviction was being raised up, whose calling it was to lead many to righteousness. And now, like the crashing fall of a giant oak tree, he’s gone.

Born in a North Carolina farmhouse on Nov. 7, 1918, William Franklin Graham Jr. was the latest in a grand procession of preachers who marched through the Bible, and from there across all of history, taking the Gospel of God to a dying world.

There have been many faithful proclaimers of this Word. It was said of D.L. Moody that he put one hand on America and the other on Britain—and lifted both countries in a heavenward direction. But not until Billy Graham was there an evangelist whose influence touched every continent—even Antarctica, where four people at an Argentine outpost came to Christ after watching a 2005 broadcast.

The World Was His Parish

Mr. Graham’s passion for preaching the Gospel brought millions to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

From Alaska to Africa, from Fiji to Japan, there is scarcely an international religious leader or head of state who has not been touched by the ministry of this man whose memory we now salute.

Billy Graham and the members of his Team set a mark that may never be equaled: that of preaching face to face to nearly 215 million people in no less than 185 countries. As far back as the 1960s, Billy had already addressed more people than any orator—secular or religious—in all of history. Add to that the millions more who were reached by radio, television, films, satellite technology and the printed page, and we can begin to understand how springing up in Billy’s wake were uncounted Christian organizations and mission agencies whose founders had first been awakened during a Billy Graham Crusade.

I have met evangelists in Africa, my birthplace, who, although they might never have met him, would hail Billy as their model and exclaim, “Billy Graham is my best friend!”

“In great weakness I would stand up to preach, and I would then sense a power coming upon me.”
—Billy Graham

We have seen thousands become inspired to grasp the torch of evangelism through the great international Congresses hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Berlin; Lausanne, Switzerland; Manila, Philippines; and the three remarkable gatherings for preaching evangelists in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. The last of these was in August 2000, and it was my privilege to preside at the closing Communion service, which drew together some 12,000 evangelists from 211 nations, eclipsing even the Olympics or the United Nations in the width of its embrace.

The Cross Was His Center

Where were you when you heard Billy Graham? Was it in Charlotte, North Carolina? Minneapolis? Dallas? Or New York’s Corona Park? Was it the Olympic Stadium in Moscow? Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya? The Maracana World Cup soccer stadium in Brazil? Or was it that vast airfield in Seoul, South Korea, where more than a million people assembled?

It was in the rain at London’s Wembley Stadium that I, as Billy’s campaign chairman, heard him preach on the text, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14, KJV). That July evening, at the climax of a month-long mission, we saw thousands of people responding to Christ, shoes in their hands as they paddled across the waterlogged turf. Billy exclaimed aloud, “This is a glorious moment!”

Where did the secret lie? Overriding all was the sense of the gravity and urgency of the mission to preach the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for the sins of a world in rebellion:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Corinthians 2:1-4, ESV).

It is the preaching of the cross in the power of the Spirit of God that explains the secret behind all true evangelism.

The Bible Was His Book

On the eve of his historic, watershed Crusade in Los Angeles in 1949, Billy had to work through doubts that had been put to him about the Bible’s truth and authority. It was at Forest Home, situated 5,000 feet up in the San Bernardino Mountains near Los Angeles, that Billy put his Bible down on a tree stump and unreservedly committed himself to the authority of the Word of God. “A major bridge had been crossed,” he later wrote.

“I am not here to give you my thoughts, but God’s thoughts.”
—Billy Graham

Billy Graham went on to teach thousands of us to fall in love with the Bible and its message. Within minutes of an inquirer walking forward at a Crusade, Billy would offer Scripture. In his first sermon of the 16-week Madison Square Garden Crusade, in May 1957, he spoke these words: “My messages each evening will be based on the Bible … I am not here to give you my thoughts, but God’s thoughts.”

Mr. Graham treasured moments at home in the mountains but felt the loneliness after his wife, Ruth, died in 2007. He found comfort in reading God’s Word and in encouraging young preachers when they visited.

The Heart Was His Target

How many times I have heard someone say, after a great stadium meeting: “The message seemed to be meant just for me. It was as though I were alone in that crowd.”

Billy would have been satisfied to touch a single soul.

The Holy Spirit touched my heart when I first heard Billy as an excited teenager at London’s Harringay Arena. I was the child of missionaries; I had already made my Christian commitment, but my faith was fitful and dormant. Billy Graham woke me up.

“For the Son of Man [Jesus Christ] has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”
—Luke 19:10, NKJV

In later years I was to see the Crusades from the vantage point of the platform itself: men, women and young people, their faces serious and intent, coming forward in response to Christ’s message … and the rest of us filled with awe. I remember at one meeting seeing George Beverly Shea weeping at the sight. He had been in the ministry for decades, and the wonder of it all still got to him. There need be no hype, gimmicks or techniques.

Preaching that is true to the Scriptures, and delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit, will glow of itself with life-transforming energy.

The Church Was His Platform

One of the outstanding characteristics of Billy Graham’s ministry was that he was a friend to the church. Nothing was attempted in any city without a credible invitation from local churches, representing a sizeable cross-spread of denominations.

A Graham Crusade was an occasion for the church to come into its own on a massive scale. In preparing for the event, prayer always came first, then training in evangelism and the fostering of “Operation Andrew,” where church members would pray for their non-Christian friends and invite them to come hear a Gospel proclamation.

Finally, Billy Graham and his Team were concerned about getting the names of inquirers into the hands of local pastors and faithful shepherds of Christ’s flock.

Christ’s Glory Was His Goal

Roads and buildings have been named after Billy; heads of state from Churchill to Gorbachev have received him; Billy and Ruth would receive the Congressional Gold Medal, and an honorary knighthood was bestowed on Billy by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. But Billy insisted that God get the glory. In accepting the honorary knighthood, he declared, “I look forward to the day when I can see Jesus face to face, and lay at His feet any honor I have ever received, because He deserves it all.”

“I look forward to the day when I can see Jesus face to face, and lay at His feet any honor I have ever received, because He deserves it all.”
—Billy Graham

Jesus Christ is the one to whom Billy Graham gave his life in obedience to proclaiming the great truths of God’s Word—the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the World. The ultimate motivation of all true evangelism is the furtherance of God’s glory. Self-promotion is out.

We have not said goodbye to the works of Billy Graham. God’s messengers live on—and even increase in stature and influence—long after their earthly departure. Their message lives on. Their example is taken up and followed. Their stories and passion for souls are recited down through the generations. This has been true of Wesley, Whitefield, Spurgeon and Moody. So it will be with Billy Graham. He will go on growing in his influence here on Earth. And his works will follow him into all eternity.

Richard Bewes, former rector of All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, is a preacher, pastor, broadcaster, hymn writer, Christian communicator and longtime friend of Billy Graham.

Are you ready to meet Christ face to face? Receive Him today.