What did Jesus mean when He said, “You must come to Him as a little child to see the Kingdom of Heaven?” This is a great question, because it demonstrates the need to consider context and symbolism. This is the context of the passage:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? 2Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, 3and 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. 4Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. (Mat 18:1-5 NKJ)
The context is the disciples asking a question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” They were not thinking of an earthly kingdom, but what establishes rank in heaven. This was not the first nor the last time they discussed rank for heaven (cf. Mark 9:34; Matt. 20:21-24; Luke 22:24).
They were walking with the Messiah and the fact that they were included in the “inner circle” tempted their flesh to think about just how high they might be elevated with rank or promotion in eternity. Jesus had declared, “”Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” (Matt. 16:28 NKJ) That would have led anyone to think the Messiah reigning over His kingdom was just around the corner.
Jesus brought the conversation down to ground floor: make sure you are in the kingdom of heaven! That is, make sure you have eternal life, because that is the first issue and some of them may not have made that decision yet. They were physically following Jesus, but they may not have all made the decision to trust Jesus as Savior. We know Peter had confessed Jesus as the Christ (Matt. 16: 16), but Judas Iscariot had and did not.
Jesus wanted the disciples to understand the issue was not greatness, but humility and thus He chose a child symbolically to represent humility. Not all children are humble, but children are characteristically trusting of their parents and those closest to them if they are in a good relationship. So Jesus declares in Matthew 18:3 that a person must be “converted and become like children.” The word for “converted” means simply “to turn,” or “to change one’s mind.” This is turning to Jesus Christ for salvation or repentance.
The second phrase “become” as little children uses a word, which means “become what you were not before.” A child is dependent on his parents for provision, protection and purpose. A person is prideful before salvation, because he has not learned to trust God. A child does not have spiritual faith, so by default, he is depending on himself, which would be pride. He is not held accountable for that pride until he reaches the point of accountability, however. Until faith at salvation, the person is trusting in himself or something from the world. At salvation, the person becomes humble like a child, in that he is trusting in Jesus rather than self, or dependent on God’s provision.
Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 18:4, when He said, “…whoever humbles himself as this little child…” The word “humble” means “to bring low,” or “to make low.” So the child is used symbolically for a person who becomes humble or dependent on the Lord. The humble attitude, or dependency on the Lord, is what continues to be the guiding standard for blessing in life and will be elevated by God for blessing and rewards in eternity.