One rainy evening, the greatest theologian of the 20th century stood inside a stadium and witnessed something incredible. Karl Barth attended one of the Billy Graham’s Evangelistic Crusades. The two men viewed the world differently and interpreted the Bible differently, but he saw people who experienced the preaching of Billy Graham and were transformed by the way he preached the Word of God.
This past week, his family announced that Billy Graham, God’s clarion in the second part of the 20th century, went to be with the Lord at the age of 99. The man who grew on a dairy farm and wanted to be a baseball star went to an evangelistic crusade held by Mordecai Ham because he had a car and could drive his friends there. His life was changed that night. Graham changed the direction of his life and became the greatest evangelist of the 20th century.
In a conversation that Jesus Christ had with the disciples, He tells them that they will do greater things because he goes to the Father. Church historians confidently assess that, if there is one person who has fulfilled this verse, it was Billy Graham. Statistically no one has preached the gospel to more people during a lifetime than Billy Graham. No one has presented the gospel to more people in government than Billy Graham; if he had a meeting with senators or presidents or a queen, he always took the opportunity to present the claims of Christ. No one used evolving technology better than Billy Graham who used the printed page, stadiums, television, and the Internet to tell people about Christ.
Once he died, the accolades poured in and so did the criticisms. He was criticized for missed opportunities in politics, for not pushing for specific issues, for spending more time on the crusades than with his family, and for not accepting and utilizing enough scholarly work. In the midst of these criticisms, it is always good to remember that Billy Graham had a primary focus: to preach the gospel in order to make the Lord Jesus Christ known. Everything else was secondary. He was not a politician, a theologian, a diplomat, or even a church pastor. He was a simple evangelist proclaiming the gospel so that people would understand and make a decision for Christ.
Over the six centuries that he preached the gospel, millions of people came to the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. They were academics, jurists, politicians, engineers, office workers, and trade professionals. They came to Christ because the message was clear, and God used that simple message to bring people into His Kingdom.
I had the opportunity during my life time to attend several crusades in Chicago and Newark and hear him speak at international forums such as the Baptist World Alliance Conference in Los Angeles and Toronto. I also worked with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade for their crusade in Romania during the communist regime. It was during those long negotiations that I saw the complexity of the crusade, as well as the wisdom of the texts that Billy Graham chose for each crusade. The majority of Romanians are Eastern Orthodox, with a great reverence for Mary the Mother of Jesus. So Graham used the biblical text about the wedding at Canna of Galilee when Mary says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.” He followed that by asking the question, “What do you think Jesus is telling us to do?” It was a simple message, it connected well with the audience, and it brought hundreds of people forward because they wanted to do what Jesus wanted them to do.
God will raise other people to preach the gospel and the unsearchable riches of God. But those of us who lived in the 20th century witnessed a great evangelist who lived for the glory of God and faithfully preached the gospel faithfully at every opportunity. Farewell, beloved brother!