Just to clarify for a moment, I think a better way of asking the question is "what is the significance of the aorist in 15:12?" Of course you are taking the question in that way but it could be misinterpreted to suggest that we think it should have been a different tense than the aorist. The Holy Spirit inspired His word and He carried John along to breath out the aorist tense in this passage. This is not even an issue of Textual criticism as there aren't any variants for this verse (at least according to the two apparatuses I have).
So what is the significance of the aorist tense in this passage?
Here are just a few points that might help to understand the significance of the aorist tense in this verse:
- This comes in the midst of the upper room discourse. The last night before he goes to the cross. It is the last night when they are all together until after the resurrection.
- As such, the purpose of much of the Upper Room discourse is to reassure and to prepare the disciples for what is to come next, not just the cross, but life after the cross.
- One thing that would be very reassuring to the disciples is the fact that Jesus had shown His love to the disciples already and at the same time He was in the context reminding them that He would still love them. Kostenberger points not just to 15:13 as an illustration of His love for them. He points to 15:13-16 as a continuing illustration of the love that Jesus had/has for the disciples.
- I would not limit the past aspect of His love for them to just 13:1-20 either. Certainly in the context of the gospels you can see how He links His love for them to His choosing them (15:16) which at the very least it goes back to the initial selection of them as the apostles. One can even argue that it goes back to His choosing them before the foundation of the earth but contextually I think it best to keep it within the confines of the gospel. He loved them the whole three years He was with them. When they quarreled with each other over who was greatest, He still loved them. when they failed to understand that it was necessary that He die, He still rebuked Peter but He still loved Him. After the resurrection He restores Peter in one of the most moving scenes in the New Testament (John 21:15-19). In that passage I have always taken Peter to have thought he was no longer going to be used by God because of his three betrayals so he went back to what he knew -- fishing. When they failed to understand what He told them he didn't rebuke them He would further clarify with them what was the significance of what He meant. All these point to His love for them from the moment He chose them. For three years He had shown them love for the Father and He had shown them His never ending love for them as well.
- John 15:13 is not limiting His love for them to only the work of the cross. He is saying that it is the ultimate expression of His love, just as calling them friends and choosing them were lesser expressions of His love for them.
- If Jesus had used the present tense the disciples might have missed the significance of everything that had happened over the whole three years. If it had been in the perfect tense then it would have missed the aspect of His continuing love for them or His love as a completed fact. That can't be the case because He still had to go to the cross. The aorist here points to what had already been accomplished and yet leaves room for the continuing love for the disciples.
Maybe more than you were looking for in this case but I hope this helps to clarify the significance of the aorist tense.