What does it mean in Acts 10:4 when the angel of the Lord tells Cornelius that his prayers and charity to the poor went up as a “memorial offering” before God? Clearly, this is the language of acceptable sacrifice. But what is the significance of this particular kind of offering, a “memorial offering”?
This question came up because a first draft of a translation I am checking in the Arop-Sissano language in Papua New Guinea has it something like this…
“You often pray, and all the things you give to people with nothing, God has seen this and he thinks of you.”
Is that the intended significance of “memorial offering”—that God thinks of (or remembers) the person who has given the offering? Sort of.
The Greek word here is μνημόσυνον mnēmosunon ‘memorial’, something that enables someone to remember. So if the memorial goes up before God, then it makes possible sense that it functions as a memorial for God to remember something about the one who gives the memorial.
But this word was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew אזכּרה ’azkārâ, the ‘memorial portion’ of the grain offering in Leviticus 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12; 6:15; Numbers 5:26. Driver (Journal of Semitic Studies, 1 , 100) described it this way: “It is the sign whereby the worshipper is reminded or taught that the whole offering is in fact owed to God but that He is pleased to accept only a part of it as a ‘token’ while remitting the burning of the rest of it on the altar so that it may be otherwise consumed.” Thus, Driver puts the focus of the remembering on the worshipper, not on God.
Regardless of whether we think the memorial is more for prompting the worshipper or God to remember something, the particular thing that Driver identifies as the thing to be remembered may be key for understanding the significance of Acts 10:4. The “memorial offering” was only a portion of the grain offering. God was pleased to accept this small portion and allow the rest of the grain offering to be left for the priests to eat even though the whole offering was due him. In Acts 10 it soon becomes apparent that Cornelius and his household function in the story as a representative portion of the Gentiles. Just as the prayers of Cornelius and his charity to the poor arose as the “memorial portion” of an offering before God, Peter recognizes through the grace given to the one man Cornelius that God “accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.”
Thus, in drawing attention to the piety of Cornelius as the ‘memorial portion’ of a worship offering to God, the angel of God anticipates how Cornelius will function later in the episode as a representative of men from all nations who receive grace and peace from God through Jesus Christ.