Paul and Silas probably prayed to get out of prison (16:25), but the reason Luke says the prisoners heard them is that they probably also prayed for the rulers who sentenced them, the men who beat them, and the jailer (Mt.5:44cf.Rom.12:14).
They also sang praises to God (v.25), possibly Psalm 142:1-7 (cf.IChron.16:9; Ps.98:5). Under grace, we can sing psalms or hymns (Eph.5:19). But if they prayed when they were afflicted, does that mean they were merry now that they were singing (James 5:13)? Probably, because they knew they were where God wanted them to be in their lives (Acts 16:9,10) and had prayed and left their problem with the Lord. You too can be merry in afflictions if you’ll do the same! But today, God won’t send a vision to tell us where to go and what to do like He did for Paul during the transition period of Acts. We must examine our lives as adult sons and decide what is the perfect will of God for ourselves (Romans 12:2).
In the dispensation of grace, God won’t send an earthquake to get you out of prison, even if you’re wrongfully imprisoned like Paul (Acts 16:26). There’s been a dispensational change. When the jailer thought the prisoners had fled, he was going to take his life (16:27) because Roman guards were responsible for their prisoners with their lives (Acts 12: 19). That word “examined” means tortured (cf.Lu.23:13, 14), so the guard knew falling on his sword was merciful.
Paul stopped him (Acts 16:28), because it was the right thing to do (cf.Pr.24:11,12), but not because he feared God would render him according to his works if he didn’t. Paul practiced grace (IThes.5:15) because he knew the man wasn’t saved, so he assured him the prisoners hadn’t fled. When you’re tempted to let someone suffer because they wronged you, why not do what Paul did and bless them instead?
Why hadn’t they fled? They’d heard the apostles’ prayers for those who abused them, and their songs of praise, and figured any God who could make His people pray and sing like that must be the true God. And they knew the true God had likely sent that earthquake to free them because they were innocent, not guilty criminals like themselves. So they feared God would strike them dead if they tried to leave!
When the jailer “sprang” into their prison cell (Acts 16:29), that shows they were down in a dungeon, so he called for a light. Why would he tremble before a man who just saved his life? He figured Paul’s God was none too pleased that he’d incarcerated His servant, and might strike him dead.
Why’d Paul wait for the jailer to bring him out of prison after the prison’s doors and bands were loosed (v.30)? He had such respect for governmental authority, he wouldn’t leave without the jailer’s permission, even though he was wrong-fully imprisoned. God expects us to obey rulers even when they’re wrong, as long as they don’t ask us to do wrong.
Paul probably witnessed to the jailer when he was clapping his feet in the stocks, so now he asks how to be saved (v.30). That has to be answered dispensationally, for the Lord told a man to keep the ten commandments (Mt.19:16-19), then added the kingdom gospel (v.20 cf. Lu.16:16) of selling all you had and giving the proceeds to the poor. When the Jews asked Peter what to do to be saved, he added baptism (Acts 2:38). But Paul just said to just believe and be saved (16:31).
Some grace believers don’t like this verse because it says to believe “on” Christ, not “in” Him (cf.Rom.3:26), but they are the same (John 3:18). They also protest it doesn’t mention Christ’s death for our sins, but Paul covered that in verse 32. When Paul also preached the word of the Lord to the jailer’s house, that shows that when he said in verse 31, “Believe on the Lord and be saved, and thy house,” that this meant that his house could be saved if they believed too, which they did (v.33).
A video of this sermon is available on YouTube: “What To Do If You’re Wrongfully Imprisoned” Acts 16:25-32