The term “power encounter” comes from missionary anthropologist Alan Tippett. In his 1971 book, People Movements in Southern Polynesia, Tippett observed that in the South Pacific the early acceptance of the gospel usually occurred when there was an “encounter” demonstrating that the power of God is greater than that of the local pagan deity. This was usually accompanied by a desecration of the symbol(s) of the traditional deity by its priest or priestess, who then declared that he or she rejected the deity’s power, pledged allegiance to the true God, and vowed to depend on God alone for protection and spiritual power.
At such a moment, the priest or priestess would eat the totem animal (e.g., a sacred turtle) and claim Jesus’ protection. Seeing that the priest or priestess suffered no ill effects, the people opened themselves to the gospel.1 These confrontations, along with those classic biblical power encounters (e.g., Moses vs. Pharaoh, Ex. 7-12, and Elijah vs. the prophets of Baal, 1 Ki. 18) formed Tippett’s view of power encounter.
According to this view, Jesus’ entire ministry was a massive power confrontation between God and the enemy. The ministry of the apostles and the church in succeeding generations is seen as the continuing exercise of the “authority and power over all demons and all diseases” given by Jesus to his followers (Lk. 9:1). Contemporary stories about such encounters come from China, Argentina, Europe, the Muslim world, and nearly everywhere else where the church is growing rapidly.
I believe Jesus expects power demonstrations to be as crucial to our ministries as they were to his (Lk. 9:1, 2). However, any approach that advocates power encounter without giving adequate attention to the other two encounters—commitment and truth—is not biblically balanced.
Typically, Jesus started by teaching, followed by a power demonstration, then a return to teaching, at least for the disciples (e.g., Lk. 4:31ff.; 5:1ff., 17ff.; 6:6ff., 17ff., etc.). Appeals for commitment to the Father or to himself appear both implicitly and explicitly throughout his teaching.
His appeal for commitment to at least the first five apostles (Peter, Andrew, James, John—Lk. 5:1-11—and Levi—Lk. 5:27-28) occurred after significant power demonstrations. Once his followers had successfully negotiated their commitment encounter, their subsequent growth was primarily a matter of learning and practicing more truth.
First century Jews, like most people today, were very concerned about spiritual power. Paul said they sought power signs (1 Cor. 1:22). Jesus’ usual practice of healing and deliverance from demons soon after entering a new area (e.g., Lk. 4:33-35, 39; 5:13-13; 6:6-10, 18-19, etc.) may be seen as his way of approaching them at the point of their concern. When he sent out his followers to the surrounding towns to prepare the way for him, he commanded them to use the same approach (Lk. 9:1-6; 10:1-9).
Jesus’ reluctance to do miraculous works merely to satisfy those who wanted him to prove himself (Mt. 12:38-42; 16:1-4) would, however, seem to indicate his power demonstrations were intended to point to something beyond the mere demonstration of God’s power. I believe that he had at least two more important goals. First, Jesus sought to demonstrate God’s nature by showing his love. As he said to Philip, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). He freely healed, delivered, and blessed those who came to him and did not retract what he had given, even if they did not return to thank him (Lk. 17:11-19). He used God’s power to demonstrate his love.
Second, Jesus sought to lead people into the most important encounter, the commitment encounter. This is clear from his challenge to the Pharisees when they demanded a miracle, that the people of Nineveh who repented would accuse the people of Jesus’ day who did not do likewise (Mt. 12:41). Experiencing God’s power may be both pleasant and impressive, but only a commitment to God through Christ really saves.