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At the end of the missionary discourse in Matthew, Jesus refers to his disciples as "little ones":

10:42 — "And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward."

Just a little later, Jesus again appears to refer to his disciples in similar manner:

11:25 — At that time Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."

This seems to refer to the disciples since in Matthew 16:17 that Peter's understanding of the son of man is "revealed" to him "by my Father in Heaven"— a seeming echo of the prayer in 11:25.

Why in Matthew does Jesus refer to his disciples in this way as little ones or little children?

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They are little children in the kingdom (one could say, little Christs),

Matthew 18:3 and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."

Matthew 18:4 Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 19:14 But Jesus said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven"

Bonus:

Matthew 25:38-40 When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

All quotes from New King James Version (NKJV)

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The English version you quoted seems to be the NIV, which is definitely in the minority rendering. Most translations use something closer to the original, whose word-for-word order goes something like "whoever would quench one of the small ones these a cup of cold only into name of a disciple"; for example, the NASB reads "and whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink". Therefore, "little ones" and "disciples" are not necessarily the same referents.

It's possible that the NIV is simply awkward. They may have been trying to say the equivalent of "if anyone...who is my disciple", and simply gotten turned around by reading the Greek too many times. I know I've been guilty of that in my own translation work; it's easy to forget what's awkward in the target language when you're thinking in the source language.

There is no textual-criticism issue here; some source texts omit the word "only" and some add the word "water" but there's no question about the phrase "in/into a disciple's name" belonging to the text.

Now, whether the "little ones" still refers to disciples or even adults, or whether there were some children standing around that Jesus could point to, is up for grabs. There are at least 10 places in the NT where "μικρός" appears paired with "μέγας" as in "the small and the great" (especially in the plural, as in Mt 10). I rather think in context Jesus is contrasting the "great" prophets and righteous ones with the "small" ones around him.

Similarly, in Mt 11 Jesus is contrasting "young ones" (infants, or the young of animals, not "children" who can speak, see LSJ) with the philosophical and those who connect the dots.

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