At first glance, this may seem to be an odd relationship through which to demonstrate love or even an appropriate designation for God and His followers, but it is one that God Himself claims. "Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven" (Colossians 4:1). It is true that the master/servant relationship is not one typically associated with love. Even within the confines of human experience, however, care and love can be exhibited in this relationship.
Slave owners throughout history have typically been known for their cruelty, but abuse was not the exclusive treatment. Particularly with house servants or personal servants, there have been many instances in which the bond between the master and servant was quite strong. There were slaves who admired their master or mistress or who doted on the children under their care, sometimes to the extent of loving them as their own. The reverse was also true. There have been children or even adults who were so devotedly attached to their slaves that they thought of them as family and were emotionally devastated to lose them. Such servants were well-treated, provided for, appreciated, and loved.
If even a human example (of something normally viewed as horrible) is capable of providing such a pleasant picture, how much more can the divine example do? Every human relationship has flaws and shortcomings, but when God presents Himself as a member in that relationship, He fills His role perfectly. God takes what humans do awkwardly and imperfectly, and He masterfully shows the ultimate demonstration of what that relationship can and should be. God elevates the quality of the interaction, thereby revealing the greatest and noblest potential.
God's role as a loving master to His servants is expressed in three ways. First, He is a Master who gives clear and purposeful direction for life. "Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God, until He is gracious to us" (Psalm 123:2). Slaves are dependent. They don't know what to do unless the master tells them. They don't know how to do it unless the master provides instruction. They don't have the materials necessary unless the master provides them. In fact, they don't even have the necessities of life unless the master makes provision for them.
Believers have this type of dependence on their Master, and He appropriately gives all that they need. When they look to their Master for guidance and provision, He lovingly directs and supplies for them. In essence, the Master provides both the purpose for life and all that is required for the outworking of that purpose.
Second, God is a Master who lovingly serves His servants. "You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (John 13:13-14). This aspect is nearly incomprehensible. If a man has servants, it is so that they can serve him. Why would a man who has servants stoop to do his own work, let alone serve those who should be serving him instead? Yet Jesus in loving humility stooped to wash the feet of His servants.
The only explanation is that Jesus had a love that transcended earthly formalities and expectations. In this particular instance, He was trying to teach an important lesson to His disciples, and His love for them led to such a strong determination to teach them that He was willing to reverse the roles and be a servant to them. A Master who sacrifices Himself and His dignity in order to bring about the greatest benefit for His servants is one whose heart overflows with love for them.
Third, God is a Master who lovingly extends to His servants a position they do no merit. "You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you" (John 15:14-15). While the picture of believers as servants of God persists throughout the rest of Scripture, this interaction between Jesus and His disciples significantly changes and, in fact, nearly abolishes the relationship.
Jesus reveals that the master/servant relationship with His disciples is not like any master/servant relationship that has ever been seen before. The revelatory distinction is that this Master gives personal insights that a master in an ordinary relationship would never give. He lets His servants in on details. He shares His plans with them. There is an intimacy and a closeness that would normally never exist in this type of relationship. Yes, believers still serve Him, but they are invited to an unbelievable friendship and familiarity with the Master who loves them.
What an amazing position to serve such a Master! What a wonder to actually be useful for Him! Such useful service is possible. "Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work" (II Timothy 2:21). The usefulness comes as the servant learns to be like the Master. "It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master" (Matthew 10:25a).
"Blessed is that slave whom his master finds so doing when he comes." Luke 12:43 (NASB)