The Roman empire crucified thousands of people every year. On some occasions, like after a failed slave revolt in Italy and a failed revolt in England, they crucified thousands of people at the same time. They were masters of the process by which a human being was crucified.
Crucifixion was meant to be a spectacle. Its purpose was to kill a person publically with maximum suffering and humiliation. Crucifixion was public in that it was done in front of spectators. Yet it was also public because it took so long to kill a person. It was usually a slow working execution that lasted several days, and allowed many people passing by to see it.
What viewers saw was suffering and agony as the crucified individual slowly died. They saw humiliation. Typically the Romans crucified individuals naked. Powerless, suffering and naked, the individual was exposed for all to see and observe. Under normal circumstances, only non-Roman citizens and slaves were subject to crucifixion. Crucifixion was used in the provinces of the Roman empire as a means of intimidation and control. Even after death, the bodies were left on the cross to be eaten by birds. They were a Roman billboard that said to all: Don’t mess with us.
When Jesus and the two criminals were taken out to be crucified, it looked like just another day in the Roman empire. However, around 12:00 p.m. it began to become clear that this was a crucifixion like no other. Matthew tells us, “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45). Darkness over the land in the Old Testament was associated with the “day of the Lord” (see Joel 2:2, 31; Zephaniah 1:15). This darkness began a series of signs that accompanied the death of Jesus and demonstrated the crucifixion to be an eschatological (end time) event of cosmic significance.
Around the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matthew 27:46). Then Matthew tells us of Jesus’ death:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53).
The signs that continued to accompany the crucifixion demonstrated that by staying on the cross until death, Jesus had worked an eschatological (end time) event that holds meaning for the whole creation. The splitting of the temple veil (27:51) was a sign of judgment against the temple. The earthquake (see Isaiah 24:19; 29:6; Joel 2:10) and the resurrections of the saints (see Isaiah 26:19; Dan 12:2) were eschatological signs of the Old Testament. These events accompanying the death of Jesus indicated the arrival of the last days.
Finally, Matthew reports: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54). The signs vindicated Jesus’ claims to be the Christ, the Son of God, and prompted the centurion to confess that Jesus was the Son of God. They revealed that God’s end time judgment against our sin took place in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46) quoted Psalm 22:1. It revealed the unfathomable depths of Jesus’ suffering as he drank the cup of God’s wrath against sin (see Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17; Matthew 20:22; 26:39) in our place (20:28). God’s Last Day judgment against our sin has already taken place. It occurred when Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for us. The death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday was a crucifixion like no other.