Elijah, one of the most well known of all the Hebrew prophets, did not die a physical death. Rather, God took him directly to heaven via a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1–14). That event, plus Elijah’s notoriety and miracles such as his calling down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:20–40), led to much speculation. By the first century AD, many Jews believed Elijah would intervene in times of desperate need, descending from heaven to give supernatural assistance.
Given such a belief, we find it unsurprising that some of the bystanders who watched Jesus hang on the cross believed He was crying out for Elijah’s help (Mark 15:35–36). Probably, they misheard Jesus’ cry of “Eloi, Eloi” as “Elijah, Elijah,” or simply thought He was trying to speak the prophet’s name as He suffered there. In any case, we know that Jesus was not crying for Elijah but was crying out as He bore the wrath of God against the sin of His people.
In many respects, the crucifixion of Jesus was not unlike the crucifixion of others in the ancient world. The same processes of scourging and hanging on the cross were followed in every crucifixion. Mark reports two unusual aspects to Christ’s crucifixion, however. (Matt. 27:51–54 reports a third, an earthquake.) First, darkness fell over the land, signifying Jesus’ dying under the divine curse, as we have seen (v. 33). Second, we read in Mark 15:37–38 that the “curtain of the temple” was torn in two. Mark does not tell us whether this was the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place or the curtain that separated the Court of the Women from the Court of Israel. No one could go past the former curtain into the Holy of Holies except the high priest, and then only once a year (Lev. 16). Only Jewish men could pass through the latter curtain into the Court of Israel; the women were excluded. There are good arguments for either possibility, but no matter which curtain was torn, the message is clear: Jesus’ death opens up access for people that was not possible for them before. Hebrews 10:19–22 makes it clear that this access is into the heavenly throne room.
Apart from divine revelation, the darkness, the tearing of the temple curtain, and the earthquake that occurred when Jesus died could all be interpreted as mere coincidences. Most observers likely thought it was just another crucifixion. Yet, one man knew better. The centurion received insight into the death of our Lord, realizing by the manner of His death that He was the Son of God (Mark 15:39).