"What Would Jesus Say to... Series 3" part 5
What Would Jesus Say to... Billy Graham?
by Greg Hanson

For over 60 years, he has been one of the most respected, most admired, and most beloved people on the planet. He has spoken before more people than anyone else in history, he has personally met with, counseled and befriended twelve Presidents of the Unites States, the queen, the pope, Martin Luther King, Jr., several prime ministers, and many other world leaders. Even today at the age of 92 he remains a worldwide celebrity. I’m talking, of course, about Billy Graham.

Way back in 1918 near the end of the First World War, William Franklin Graham, Jr. was born in Charlotte, North Carolina as the son of a dairy farmer. At the age of 16, he attended a local revival service, listened to the speaker Mordecai Ham, and chose then and there to devote his life to Jesus.

However, when he attempted to join a local youth group, he was turned down because he was considered to be “too worldly.” “Too worldly.” An interesting observation, considering he has since traveled to more than 185 countries and territories and spoken to over 215 million people around the world. And if you include his television and radio appearances, he has spoken to more than 2.2 billion people. [Wikipedia]

And what has he said to these 2.2 billion people? Well, his message has been the love of Jesus Christ. He has devoted his life to telling people about Jesus and inviting them to come to know him personally. And something like 3 million people have responded during his services or missions or crusades to publicly signal that they were accepting Jesus into their lives and pledging to live for him. [www.christianityonline.com/christianhistory/2000/001/1.12.html]

His popularity first began to spread in 1945 when he became associated as a traveling speaker with an evangelistic movement called Youth for Christ. From 1949 through 1952, he held a series of Crusades in places like L.A., Boston, Washington. In fact, the one in L.A. was scheduled to last for three weeks but became so popular that it ended up lasting twelve. In 1950, he formed the Billy Graham Association and started broadcasting “The Hour of Decision” radio program that still runs today. And in 1956, he launched a new magazine called Christianity Today, which is still published today in print and online.

All of those things resulted in Graham having a national presence. But perhaps the main reasons he shot to stardom were the incredibly successful months-long revivals he held in London, England in 1954 and in New York City in 1957, his nationally broadcast television programs that started in 1957, and his public friendship with then-president Dwight Eisenhower.

Prior to that New York crusade in Madison Square Garden in 1957, Billy Graham took some criticism for meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. and inviting him to lead the arena in prayer. At a time when social equality was practically nonexistent and racial tensions were high, this signaled to everyone that Graham supported civil rights and believed that the idea of a Christian racist was an oxymoron. Along with that, he steadfastly refused to visit South Africa until he was assured the audience would not be segregated.

Along the way, he has knocked down doors in favor of the spread of the message of Jesus around the world. He was the first Christian to preach publicly behind the Iron Curtain post-World War II as well as preaching in other potentially hostile locations. Beginning in 1978, he began preaching in virtually every Soviet country and visited 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 showed up for 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 in North America.

He has also received a number of honors, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, the two highest honors that can be given in the U.S. to a civilian by these two branches of government. He’s become known as God’s ambassador, the pastor to presidents, and America’s pastor, which is evidence by the fact that whenever the U.S. faced a national or international crisis, it always turns to Billy. He has prayed at presidential inaugurations, led the service after the Oklahoma City bombing, and again after the attack of 9/11.

Thanks to his contributions to civic and religious life internationally over the course of 60 years, he was named an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Because of the way he has provided a platform for Christian artists during his crusades, he’s the only non-musician to have been inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Michael W. Smith has been a long-time participant in Billy Graham Crusades and projects, but the singer most identified with Billy Graham is George Beverly Shea.

Just as a point of interest, George Beverly Shea is now 102 years old. He is a Canadian and was the son of the pastor of the Wesleyan church in Winchester, Ontario. My roommate in college actually became the pastor of that very same church after he graduated. As for me, I moved to South Dakota and became the pastor of the Wesleyan Church that had been pastored by the father of George McGovern who ran against Nixon in 1972.

That’s just an aside. Back to Billy Graham. According to the U.S. Postal Service, Billy is one of the few people that you can send mail to by using only the name and country, such as “Billy Graham, America.”

According to public opinion polls and surveys, he is consistently among the most admired people in the world. He has been recognized as the “Greatest Living American,” and he has appeared on the Gallup list of the top ten most admired men a total of 54 times since 1948, almost twice as many times as anyone else. [As of 2010. Ronald Reagan is second with 31 appearances. Jimmy Carter and Pope John Paul II are tied for third with 27. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallup%27s_most_admired_man_and_woman_poll]

And in a survey for Ladies’ Home Journal—yes, the Ladies’ Home Journal—Billy Graham came in second in the category for “achievements in religion.” You know who he came in second to? God.

He has quite a résumé, doesn’t he?

He’s now in his twilight years and gets around with the aid of a wheelchair or a walker. His wife of nearly 64 years, Ruth Bell Graham, died in 2007. His health problems including Parkinson’s Disease and a battle with prostate cancer combined with substantial hearing and vision loss prevent him from making many public appearances these days. His children—particularly Franklin—run the day-to-day operation of the Association. He held what was meant to be his final North American crusade in 2005 in New York. But then after Hurricane Katrina, he chose to speak again alongside Franklin at what they called the “Festival of Hope.”

And truthfully, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make one or two more major appearances. But it’s clear that he’s near the end of life. So as we wrap up this series on what Jesus would say to some of the famous and influential people in our world, we’re going to talk today about what I think Jesus would say to Billy Graham. And I think the first thing Jesus might say is…

1.    You have lived as a man after God’s own heart.

That was a phrase used in the Bible to describe King David. This is what God had said…

Acts 13:22 (NIV)
“I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.”

I think that’s also a perfect description of Billy Graham. He is and has been a man after God’s own heart. He has consistently pursued righteousness and has strived to please God. He hasn’t always gotten it right… neither did David. But that was his goal in life. Billy’s own wife described him this way…

“He was a man in a hurry who wanted to please God more than any man I’d ever met!”
~ Ruth Bell Graham

And Billy described his own pursuit of God this way…

“Being a Christian is more than just an instantaneous conversion - it is a daily process whereby you grow to be more and more like Christ.”
~ Billy Graham

You may be familiar with the name Charles Templeton. Charles Templeton was another great evangelist that started out at the same time as Billy and they worked together for a time. But Templeton—who was also a Canadian—eventually became an agnostic. You may remember him for his work with the CBC, the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s Magazine, the CTV, with Pierre Berton, CBS, or as a candidate for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party in the 1960s. I guess he got around. Anyway, this agnostic had this to say about Billy Graham…

“There is no feigning in him: he believes what he believes with an invincible innocence. He is the only mass evangelist I would trust.”
~ Charles Templeton

Billy has devoted his life not to acquiring wealth or fame, not to developing a fan base, not to wielding power… Whatever else may have come his way, his purpose was knowing God, living for Him, and pleasing Him. He sought to follow Christ so closely that the character of Christ was formed in him.

“When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.”
~ Billy Graham

Proverbs 21:21 (NLT)
Whoever pursues righteousness and unfailing love will find life, righteousness, and honor.

Proverbs 15:9 (NLT)
The Lord detests the way of the wicked, but he loves those who pursue godliness.

What do you pursue in life? What’s most important to you? As Jesus tells us…

Matthew 6:33 (NLT)
“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”

2.    You have made mistakes, but you have handled them well.

Graham has done things and said things… some that he just regrets and others that would be considered sin. In either case, when he’s become aware of it he’s been honest about it, he’s apologized for it, and he’s made up for it if possible.

For example, he admits that there was a time in his life when he get a little too close to using his influence for political gain. Sure, he has known several presidents and has offered counsel. But sometimes it went a little farther than that. There were times he took sides and even considered throwing his own hat in the ring.

Richard Nixon—who had his obvious flaws but was also a brilliant politician—even told Graham…

“When you went into the ministry, politics lost one of its potentially greatest practitioners.”
~ Richard Nixon to Billy Graham

Of course, what Graham apparently didn’t realize at the time was that he was being used by politicians, particularly by Nixon. Politicians would cuddle up next to Graham because it made them look good to the electorate. And in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Graham began to distance himself—not from politicians, but from politics.

So in the 1980s when what we know as the “religious right” was gaining power, Billy Graham steered clear of that. He didn’t associate himself with that movement. He even warned other Christian leaders about the pitfalls of dabbling in politics and the danger of gaining political influence at the expense of spiritual impact. He even made this observation…

“I don’t think Jesus or the Apostles took sides in the political arenas of their day.”
~ Billy Graham

Another regret he has is that his family suffered because of how much he was on the road. His son Franklin even rebelled for a time. And talking about the effects of his evangelistic work on his marriage, Billy 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.’”
~ Billy Graham

Well, now Graham openly expresses his regret about the toll it took on his family. He wishes he had turned down some speaking engagements, traveled a bit less, and spent more time with family.

About a decade ago, another regret came to light. Some of the Nixon tapes were released, and on them were comments Nixon made against Jews and Graham was there agreeing with him. Billy said that he did not remember making those comments, but that he did apparently make them and so he went to some Jewish leaders and sought the forgiveness of the Jewish community. He had made mistakes, so he tried to make amends.

I mentioned earlier that King David was described as a man after God’s own heart. But David had his regrets, too. He had his sins. The most notable example was when he committed adultery, got the woman pregnant, then arranged for her husband to be killed so he wouldn’t be found out. But when he was confronted with what he had done, he did not try to deny it, justify it, or say “I’m the king; I can do whatever I want.” Instead, he expressed his deep remorse and repentance. This is what David wrote…

Psalm 51:2-3, 7, 10 (NLT)
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.

How about you? When you make mistakes, how do you handle them? Are you honest about them, are you remorseful, and do you do your best to make amends?

3.    You have kept your focus on your calling.

For more than 65 years in the public eye, Billy Graham has kept true to the message he has been called to preach: Jesus is the way to God. He has been criticized by some for taking what they would consider to be a soft stance on particular issues. Or even worse, no stance at all.

For example, while Billy Graham opposes abortion, he has not become a spokesperson against it. He has also avoided making it a practice to bash other religions. He sticks to the message that Jesus is the one and only way without muddying the waters with other messages. And I think we can all learn something from that. Take a look at this video…

[VIDEO – Billy Graham denies Jesus – the real answer (edited down, without the text at beginning and end) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VWv1jiWC4b0]

Do you see how focused his message has been throughout the decades? Jesus is the way. And as long as he could freely proclaim that message, he would go anywhere to do it.

“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?”
~ Billy Graham (In 1957, in response to fundamentalist opposition to his Crusade in Madison Square Garden)

“My one purpose in life is to help people find a personal relationship with God, which I believe comes through knowing Christ.”
~ Billy Graham

Expressed a different way, he simple message has been…

“You're born. You suffer. You die. Fortunately, there's a loophole.”
~ Billy Graham

When he turned 80 and was facing the tolls of age and Parkinson’s Disease, he declared…

“I’ll preach until there is no more breath left in my body. I was called by God, and until God tells me to retire, I cannot. Whatever strength I have, whatever time God lets me have, is going to be dedicated to doing the work of an evangelist, as long as I live.”
~ Billy Graham

Billy has been true to his calling. And when he could have become distracted by other good causes, he has kept his focus. What is your calling? Are you faithful to it? Will you someday hear what I’m convinced Billy Graham is going to hear…

Matthew 25:21 (NIV)
“Well done, good and faithful servant! … Come and share your master’s happiness!”

I think something else Jesus might tell Billy Graham is…

4.    Your greatest accomplishment for the gospel has been in individuals, not crowds.

Let me explain. We know of Billy Graham because of the incredible popularity he has achieved and the number of people who have come out to hear him. If he were just a country pastor in the back woods of North Carolina, I doubt we would have ever heard of him. So we tend to think he’s important because of the crowds. And to an extent, that’s true. He has had a major impact on the Christian church, on our society, and on the world. In one survey I saw, he was ranked number four behind Adolph Hitler as the most influential person of the 20th century.

But the real significance of Billy Graham is not the number of people who have filled stadiums or the number of votes he gets on surveys, but the changes that have happened in individual hearts and lives. Here’s Billy talking about this in his own words…

[VIDEO – Billy Graham – God and the color of a Man’s Skin (1965) – clip from about 20 minutes in, when Billy talks about how Jesus’ greatest sermon was to Nicodemus, etc. Finish after he tells the audience that each one of them can have an impact on an individual life by telling them about Jesus. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-9048758879956725704#]

5.    You have been a faithful servant.

Look at what Jesus said about being a servant…

Matthew 23:11-12 (NLT)
The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Time and time again, people who meet with Billy Graham and who listen to him comment about his deep humility, sincerity, and authenticity. There are no airs about him… no ego, no conceit, no arrogance, no self-importance. Even after all of his accomplishments, he has stayed humble. He has stayed real. He has stayed faithful.

Just last month, Glen Beck traveled to North Carolina to meet with Billy Graham face to face. On his twitter posts, he said of the experience…

“He is a powerful spirit and he never breaks eye contact. Best part was his humility & love of family.”
~ Glen Beck

At 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.”
~ Harold Bloom, Time Magazine (Time 00 heroes, www.time.com/time/time100/heroes/profile/graham01.html)

And John Stott—one of the foremost theologians in the world today—spoke about attending the London Crusade in 1954 in Harringay Arena and his impressions about Billy Graham…

“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.”
~ John Stott (Anglican priest and author, in 1986)

Billy Graham has been a faithful servant. The spotlight and the opportunities that have come his way have not detracted him from that. As one of the songs often sung by George Beverly Shea at Billy Graham Crusades has declared…

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.

6.    You will leave a legacy.

Billy Graham will someday be gone from this earth. He will die and he will go to be with the Saviour he has spent his life serving. But even though his presence will be gone, his influence will live on. He will be leaving behind a legacy.

He’s been like a modern day apostle. He’s taken the message of Jesus to places that were closed to anyone else. In an era when other high-profile evangelists were falling, his integrity was never in question. He has authored 28 books… most of them best-sellers. He has been on the cutting edge of technology. As early as the 1950s he made use of the radio and television to proclaim the message of Jesus, he used video during his Crusades long before most churches even considered it, he started a couple magazines, published a syndicated column in the newspaper, and moved to the Internet early on. His organization has produced 130 movies through World Wide Pictures. And I remember in 1995 when he took advantage of satellite technology to simultaneously reach 185 countries via 3000 downlinks.

All of that has had an impact. But perhaps his greatest legacy will be the many evangelists that have been impacted by him. In 1983, Billy Graham organized the Amsterdam Conference for evangelists around the world. A couple thousand attended that event. Another conference was held in 1986, with 10,000 in attendance. Another 10,000 attended Amsterdam 2000. Leading William Martin to write…

“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.’”
~ William Martin (www.christianityonline.com/christianhistory/2000/001/1.12.html)

At Amsterdam 2000, Billy Graham was too ill to attend. But this what he said in his prepared closing comments…

“…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.”
~ Billy Graham, closing comments at Amsterdam 2000

What a legacy. What fire are you lighting?


Copyright © 2011 Greg Hanson